TV Review: American Horror Story: Coven

Wednesday 12 November 2014 by

American Horror Story, Coven, TV, Horror

For anyone not familiar with it, American Horror Story is an anthology in which each series tells a different story with completely different characters, settings and themes. So while Coven is the third series you don’t need to have seen series 1 or 2 before viewing it. This is a review of the entire season so I will do my best to avoid spoilers. I will also try to minimise comparisons with the other seasons as each one is its own piece intended to be different and explore varying aspects of the horror genre and social commentary.

Coven is set in modern day New Orleans and tells the story of the last remaining descendants of the Salem witches who reside in a boarding school under the guidance of headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) and her mother Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), who also happens to be the coven’s Supreme (lead witch). The bulk of the story involves the young witches exploring their burgeoning powers trying to determine who is destined to be the next supreme while Fiona tries desperately to retain that power, and an ongoing rivalry with local Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett).

As well as the overriding supernatural element of the series, there are also several real life horrors involved and, as with all good horror, elements of sadness and tragedy. An element that I feel really aids in your involvement and empathy for the characters and their plight. This is something that American Horror Story always does very well. Something Coven doesn’t succeed in quite as well as Murder House, Asylum and Freak Show is the conveyance of its overall theme of oppression. Due to all the in-fighting going on it ends up feeling a little lost in the mix, but while it certainly would have added an extra, interesting dimension to the story its loss does not cause the series to falter.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Coven, while it lacks a little depth the frivolity is all part of the fun and I’d say I found this season the most enjoyable to watch. Frances Conroy’s character is fabulously over the top and there’s a great witch and chainsaw vs. zombie scene that screams Evil Dead and I’m sure will put a big grin on any horror fan’s face.

In previous seasons Jessica Lange has been the stand out star, stealing the show in every episode, but in Coven she is matched fabulously by Bassett and Bates – if you thought Bates’ character in Misery was a piece of work, buckle yourself in! This, more so than previous seasons, is a definite ensemble piece with no one lead character to guide you or root for. The main bulk of character development is reserved for the older characters rather than the young witches, which is a slight shame but there’s only so much you can do in 13 episodes. Gabourey Sidibe gives a well-rounded performance and Emma Roberts impressed me for the first time with her portrayal of a bitchy former child star.

I think what I enjoyed most about the series is that it blends together different styles and themes of horror, as well as storytelling in general, without straying from its chosen sub-genre. There’s a lot going on here thematically; mortality, betrayal, morality, rivalry, identity, revenge, grief and loss. Horror wise there’s lots for fans of the genre to enjoy; chills, scares, a dash of gore and most hauntingly the horrors that people will commit against others. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the rivalry between the voodoo tribe and the coven, the ways in which their branches of power are similar and the ways they believe the other to be inferior. One of the young witches has the power of being a human voodoo doll which adds an interesting element.

With so much going on it may feel to all over the place for some, with many ideas being raised yet not fully explored. This did not overly bother me personally, the writers had their story to tell – the search for the Supreme – and did so, so I can’t really fault them for that. It’s just unfortunate that some things in early episodes feel a little rushed in order to get to the main story. I would have liked some more exploration of characters’ backstories to give them more depth and feel the series could have benefitted from being a bit longer than its standard 13 episodes but never mind. The story here is finding out who the next Supreme is, and it’s fun trying to work out who it may be and who’s trying to fool whom. It may not be perfect television but in all honesty I watch American Horror Story for over the top thrills, chills and entertainment and this season really delivers on that.

It’s not as scary as Murder House or as overtly horrifying as Asylum but it is certainly chilling – Lance Reddick (Fringe) as Papa Legba definitely had me scared and I found myself having to remind myself that it’s just that guy from Fringe. The fact that Kathy Bates’ character is loosely based on a real person gives it a true unnerving feel. If you’re hoping for young witches learning and exploring their powers (an element I was expecting) you won’t really find it and would be better off watching The Craft for that. It wasn’t quite as chilling as promos and the opening credits suggest – it was definitely dark but not in the creepy style that these suggested – however it is thoroughly entertaining and a solid addition to the sub-genre.

One of the main flaws for me with this season was that Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) felt a little underdeveloped, it felt in the opening episode that she was going to be the character to root for but she never really took off. She did become stronger as the series progressed but never quite felt fully rounded. I felt I was watching a watered down version of her character from Murder House, I don’t think it helped that she was styled in a very similar way and was also conducting a relationship with a troubled boy hidden from the world, again played by Evan Peters. It felt a little too much of a re-tread of series 1, but while this felt unfortunate it did not get in the way of my overall enjoyment of the series.

Despite a few flaws, Coven is thoroughly enjoyable with thrills and chills, a nice touch of humour, fantastic set pieces, some great ‘witch chic’ including some oh so fabulous hats and – mild spoiler alert – Stevie Nicks singing live!

Spoiler Alert/Fair Warning: The opening episode does contain a couple of rape scenes. They are more implied than graphic with the scene fading in and out of black and showing just faces. While the DVD and Blu-Ray may warn of this, I am aware that Netflix did not contain any warnings in the series description so keep this in mind if you are of a nervous disposition. Once it’s over, that’s it, there are no flashbacks.

American Horror Story: Coven is out now on DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Prime & Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. Certificate 18.

Nerissa is a writer, mummy and rather proud geek living in the countryside. In between playtime, cuddles and fun times she loves to read, knit, bake and write Young Adult and children’s fiction.

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