Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story is breaking many rules of television with Coven, but now that we've almost finished the season, it's clear that not all rules are meant to be broken.
One of the wonderful things about contemporary television is the way in which it entrusts viewers to come to a conclusion on their own when it comes to meaning, intention, and the nature of a contentious protagonist. Much like the most well-respected novels, the greatest examples of television's golden age are subtle series — and not necessarily just dramas — that beg a deeper connection and more acute level of attention. In a way, the emerging new normal is breaking with the rules of traditional television and opting for a more complex view of TV's conceivable narratives.
Now, great television deals out characters whose nature isn't always clear: anti-heroes like Breaking Bad's Walter White. We were entrusted to come to the conclusion by Breaking Bad's end that he wasn't really a sweet, old chemistry teacher forced into a corner by cancer, but a power-hungry man plagued by an innate drive to conquer. (Some folks failed to get there, but that's the rub with demanding television.) Throughout that series, we're given the clues and asked to piece them together ourselves in a seemingly collaborative manner. In the end, we're forced to make our own determinations about Walt with the help of a meticulously constructed deck of evidence from which to cull our ideas.
AHS: Coven, on the other hand, clearly purports to give us the keys to the kingdom with the hopes we find our way to the right tower, but its bread crumbs are rather soggy. The witchy series comes at us from all sides, disorienting us and removing the ground beneath our feet before showering us in a deluge of information and character clues. We're left there, hanging as if suspended above a spinning room, and expected to make determinations about the characters. It's reckless and brutal, but rather than leaving us breathless and desperate to see what happens when the room stops spinning, the pause of forward motion only reveals an incomprehensible mess at our feet.
And at the center of that mess is the series' matriarch and confounding protagonist, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Goode is selfish, power-hunger, and obsessed with youth. She's cutthroat and has already killed two young women in her coven with her bare hands by the penultimate episode, with plans to finish off the rest of them in a brutal bloodbath. Clearly, she's the series' main villain, right? Wrong.
As with any Ryan Murphy series, the story can't be that simple — and for his dramas, complication is the draw. So we met other potential villains: the order of men who hunt witches, Marie LaVeau who sends a witch hunter after the coven, and Madame LaLaurie whose racist massacres are the stuff of terrifying legend in New Orleans. We meet Emma Roberts' Madison, who starts off as a spoiled brat with super powers and quickly becomes a vile creature willing to lead her fellow witch Misty Day to her grave — literally — if it means getting one step closer to supreme power. Even Nan, who was a pillar of goodness, eventually becomes petty and nasty when faced with the option to take power.
The layers begin to peel back and we see that LaVeau was forced into her violent ways thanks to the damage done by seeing over a hundred years of injustice. We find LaLaurie inching towards repentance before slipping right back into her racist, violent roots. Madison attempts to murder Misty, yet she's back in the gang as if nothing happened. All the while, Fiona swaps back and forth between coven savior — like when she and LaVeau take down the witch hunters — and being the enemy of its existence — like any time Myrtle has anything to say about it.
The problem is not that we can't keep up with all the twists and turns the series makes each episode, it's that the series itself clearly can't decide which side of the fence it's on, particularly when it comes to Fiona. The writers have such high regard for Fiona — likely thanks to the magnificent Lange — that it seems difficult for them to let her be the villain she clearly is. So they complicate her character in unnecessary ways, piling on rubble where substance should be.
In the series penultimate episode, "Go To Hell," this confusion can be seen through the eyes of the coven's young witches who look upon Fiona's portrait in the hall and declare her wise and beautiful. Cordelia corrects them, declaring that Fiona was a horrible supreme witch who wasted her powers on irresponsibility and selfishness. And sure, the series is attempting to finally take a stand on Fiona through Cordelia, but that's after waffling haphazardly through the other 11 episodes of the series. It's difficult to trust that declaration.
Unlike series that have clearly cut out paths for their characters to walk like a tightrope, Fiona was careening back and forth with picturesque, but non deliberate motions in AHS' spinning room. It feels almost accidental that she wound up on the villain side when the carousel stopped.
All this isn't meant to say that AHS didn't give a good ol' college try to the idea of breaking the rules of television, it's just that it takes great skill and knowledge to break rules and create something incredible. AHS tried, but it simply isn't up to the task.
Images: FX (2)