*Discussion of two rape scenes follows. If the topic is upsetting for you, I urge you not to read.
I haven’t watched American Horror Story since its first season back when there was ghost in a rubber suit impregnating the mother of his girlfriend and my valiant attempt at watching Asylum. That being said, I have a weakness for witches – and Angela Bassett – so despite my reservations, I tuned in for the premiere episode and it was surprisingly fun. It wa lighter in tone than preceding seasons, though it didn’t shy away from gore, the torture and murder of slaves and included two rape scenes. Though the premiere was mostly positive, the show could get better or worse very quickly.
Coven opens in 1834 with Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), sadist and racist who takes perverse pleasure in mutilating and torturing her slaves (this was a real woman, too, FYI). When her daughter is caught having a sexual relationship with a black man, LaLaurie adds him to the group of men she’s already torturing, who are all in various states of disfigurement and agony and places the head of a bull over his own to create her own personal Minotaur.
Lalaurie’s torture of her slaves seems as though it’ll be a large factor going forward, setting the stage for the interactions between the witches and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett). I was more interested in seeing LaLaurie in the past, especially if it meant she’d remain a villain, but LaLaurie ends up in modern-day New Orleans after being found bound and gagged, buried in her courtyard where she’s been ever since she “died”.
Judging by the promo for next week, it looks as if Marie may end up being an antagonist, which I’m not really looking forward to. With LaLaurie up and about again, I see no reason anyone should relate to her and want her around or why anyone would choose to present a sadist and racist as a protagonist in favor of the black voodoo priestess and former slave who’s more than entitled to wanting to ruin that woman. None of this is set in stone, however so I’ll be watching next week with my fingers crossed that it doesn’t go that way.
In the present day, we meet Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) who kills her boyfriend as they’re having sex and is told by her mother that this is a “genetic affliction” which is apparently synonymous with being a witch. She’s quickly packed off to the boarding school in New Orleans, escorted by Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) whose accent was spectacularly impossible to understand and disappeared from the rest of the episode. As expected Zoe ended up in some Romeo and Juliet type situation with Kyle (Evan Peters), and here’s to hoping this one will be more satisfying and less icky than the romance they acted in Murder House. But judging by Zoe and Madison’s (Emma Roberts) mission to build a perfect boyfriend with Kyle’s remains, it’s probably going to walk a fine line.
So far all the characters are interesting but none more so than the young students. Clairvoyant Nan and “human voodoo doll” Queenie (Jamie Brewer and Gabourey Sidibe) were my favorites, but neither got the attention they deserved. Instead Zoe and Madison received the bulk of the screen time this time around as they attended a frat party where Madison was raped. Very seldom are rape storylines done well on television, and rape is too often used as a method of adding depth to female characters, and it was the same with Coven.
Prior to her assault Madison was just a vapid and insensitive actress, but her rape began revealing deeper characterization. There are better ways to craft sympathetic and compelling female characters than write them to be victims of rape as if women have no depth and no character if they haven’t been violently attacked, as if women can’t find strength but through surviving horrific traumas. That ideology presents rape as being something close to positive, something that will allow victims to find a strength they didn’t possess before.
That being said rape happens, and I don’t think shows are instantly terrible for addressing it. It’s the how that’s important. Coven didn’t stray away from making it clear that Madison was raped and it was a crime, and her status as a witch allowed her some level of vindication when she flipped the bus carrying her rapists, killing all but one of them. In the rest of the season I hope the show doesn’t forget Madison’s assualt. If the show wanted to make Madison a survivor, they should be prepared to go all the way and do justice to the horrific nature of the experience and the trauma it leaves behind.
In a second rape scene, Zoe uses her power (Death by Sex) to kill Madison’s comatose rapist. I’m one-hundred percent certain this one won’t be addressed at all, due to Brad’s (that may or may not be his name) dirtbag status. The show intended to show Zoe embracing her identity as a witch and putting her power to some kind of positive use. If the show wanted to go there with Zoe, taking her character down this darker path, I could possibly get on board with it. As with most of this episode, it’s all going to hinge on how Coven is going to frame all that’s happened.
The show’s most promising aspect may be its witch mythology, though it doesn’t seem to be anything terribly original just yet. Many witches have one specific ability, but the Supreme, Fiona (Jessica Lange) often possesses many. The dwindling numbers of the witches, especially as they come under attack, made apparent by the burning of Misty Day (Lily Rabe), encourages Fiona to come and take over teaching for her daughter Cordelia (Jessica Paulson) and prepare the girls to fight instead of hiding.
How Fiona plans to do this got overshadowed by her obsession with growing older. At first I thought perhaps she was so stuck on aging because of the lack of witches and their dire situation, meaning she needs to stick around for as long as she can to fight the good fight. However, Fiona was looking for a pick-me-up prior to learning of Misty’s death, and she apparently dug up Lalaurie for the express purpose of questioning how she’s still alive and well after hundreds of years.
Coven hasn’t reached the level of ridiculous of its predecessors (yet) so the story so far is interesting enough that I’ll tune in for at least one more week in the hopes of seeing it exceed my expectations.