By Alec Stern, Senior Arts Editor
Published February 4, 2014
“American Horror Story” has been able to accomplish extraordinary things in its short, three-year history. Ryan Murphy’s horror series has never failed to be a truly original, truly absurd, addictive delight — all the while rejuvenating the tried and true anthology genre. In its third season, “Coven” continued to showcase the series’ signature, powerhouse actors with intriguing material — a truly bewitching saga. And while its conclusion, appropriately titled “The Seven Wonders,” never quite matched the high standard it set for itself throughout the season, “Coven” ’s reputation will nonetheless remain a solid one.
American Horror Story: Coven
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Breaking with tradition, “Coven” ’s grand finale was undeniably low-stakes compared to the endings of “Asylum” and “Murder House.” With Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates, “Misery”) and Marie Laveau’s (Angela Basset, “ER”) converging storylines wrapped, the finale was able to explore something very uncharacteristic of “American Horror Story:” a focused, singular narrative.
By mid-episode, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson, “12 Years a Slave”) was named the next Supreme — and in one of her first moves as leader, she confesses her witchcraft on television in an effort to reach out to witches all over the country (one of the episode’s multiple callbacks to “Asylum” ’s ending).
Despite Paulson’s consistently fantastic performance, this was undoubtedly the weakest link of not only the finale, but the entire season. Besides being such an obvious, haplessly put together gay rights allegory — witches are born witches — Cordelia’s lackadaisical confession was completely random, as if the world would suddenly accept witches and not fear and torture them as had been done throughout their history. While thoughtless, it’s also unsurprising, given “Coven” ’s utter disregard for consequences. Many of its cliffhangers existed merely for the gratuitous shock of it all — no death, no twist, no small detail ever stuck. And for what’s been a great story, it’s unfortunate that a major part of the finale highlighted one of “Coven” ’s biggest flaws.
For the entire season, “Coven” flirted with the line between fun and profundity — embracing supernatural threesomes while also touching upon race, rights and relationships with the keen, surprising perceptiveness “American Horror Story” has oftentimes presented. But where was any of that during most of “Coven” ’s finale? For almost the entirety of its running time, “The Seven Wonders” was forced to catapult its B-plot (who is the next Supreme?) from its intriguing, lingering position as a secondary mystery to the forefront — and in turn, a tepid, hollow series of tests ensued, culminating in Cordelia’s uneventful and quick crowning.
Just as disappointment began to creep in, and it seemed sure “The Seven Wonders” would put a middling, unsatisfying cap on “Coven” … enter Jessica Lange.
It’s as if each part of the episode (pre-Lange and post-Lange) was a completely different entity — a worrisome fact given Lange’s promise to leave the series after the upcoming, currently untitled, fourth season. When all else is failing, leave it to Lange to bring substance, emotion, thrill and authority — the true Supreme of “American Horror Story.”
Whereas the first half of “The Seven Wonders” dragged on, running around in the same circles the series had for twelve episodes, the confrontation between Fiona and Cordelia slowed things down, allowing for substance and depth to be restored. Cordelia may have brought to light one of “Coven” ’s most egregious missteps, but by the end of the episode, Fiona had done just the opposite. Her demise was heartbreaking, and the realization of deep regret over the failed relationship with her daughter solidified the true story behind “Coven” — not one about witches, but one about family, about finding your pack.
And in the end, Fiona’s Hell is not being forced to drink Mai Tais on a cabin porch, as the Axeman fries up some catfish (his own personal Heaven). Hell is living with her realization for eternity … and being powerless to change it.
As “Coven” came to a close, there was a refreshing open-endedness not seen before in “American Horror Story” — the only of the three iterations that could have organically continued into a second season. Perhaps that’s what Ryan Murphy meant when he described “Coven” as lighter than its predecessors. In the final minutes, Cordelia’s Academy is whole again, marked by a resilience, strength and excitement not best represented by “The Seven Wonders,” but representative of yet another successful, psychotic year of “American Horror Story.”