Much hay has been made about the new season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, called Coven, for having a largely female cast. And for good reason! Not only is the cast predominantly women (the season is about witches in New Orleans), but it's a who's who of wonderful, interesting actresses. There is of course AHS staple Jessica Lange, joined in various capacities by Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Taissa Farmiga, Gabourey Sidibe, Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, and Robin Bartlett, among others. That's quite a lineup! And promises a fascinatingly gynocentric season, one presumably about intra-gender social dynamics and politics and all that interesting stuff. But judging from last night's premiere episode, I'm worried that we might be in for something less-than, something decidedly Murphy-ian in its deceptive shallowness.
Coven's thematic premise seems to be that witchcraft, possessed innately by these women (the show so far focuses on a school for "gifted" girls and the older women in its orbit), is representative of some broader, more general female power. And that persecution of witches is simply specified misogyny. We've seen witchcraft as female empowerment in plenty of diverse fare over the years. The Witches of Eastwick featured modern '80s women who used their mystical wiles to overcome a bad man (the baddest, even). The Craft was a dark look at high school cliques and peer pressure that turned the mad power of youth into magic. Buffy the Vampire Slayer used witchcraft as a way to explore one character's self-actualization, both social and sexual. ("Doing spells" sometimes became the jokey euphemism for lesbian sex.) And of course we've myriad texts and, y'know, actual history to tell us that witch hysteria often had more to do with womanhood than it did black magic.
So this is well-trod, perhaps even slightly overused, allegorical territory for Murphy to explore. But he then fleshes out the story, grafts tissue onto the bones of this premise, with tools that are far too blunt. Our ostensible lead here is Taissa Farmiga's character, a sullen but sweet teenage girl who is still shell-shocked after accidentally killing her boyfriend. She didn't hit him with her car or anything; they were having sex for the first time and suddenly he began convulsing and blood started pouring out of his face and he was dead. You see, her particular witch power is, as far as we know now, that her vagina kills any boy or man who dares enter it.
So it's an even more supernatural version of vagina dentata, I guess. That's a complicated myth that was perhaps most recently put on film in Mitchell Lichtenstein's comedy-horror film Teeth. Like Murphy, Lichtenstein is a gay man, and I find it hard not to read some degree of fear of female genitalia into their interest in this particular trope. Which pretty quickly quashes the whole female empowerment angle. Farmiga's character uses her deadly power to get revenge on a rapist frat guy at the end of the episode, but I'm just not sure that's as "take back the night" a moment as Murphy thinks it is.
Oftentimes Murphy's women are either avenging angels, like Farmiga grimly climbing atop that hospital bed, or delightfully insane kooks and villains. Anyone in the middle is a scold or a sap, and easily dismissed, narratively and otherwise. Murphy had no idea what to do with first season star Connie Britton, who plays natural women so well, so he just saddled her with your usual cheating husband and Rosemary's Baby pregnancy terror and turned his focus to the more interesting, more nightmarish Jessica Lange.
Oof, Jessica Lange. I get that Ryan Murphy (and we'd have to assume the show's co-creator Brad Falchuk) likes a dramatic, bitchy, f--ked lady of a certain age, I mean who doesn't. But it's gotten to be a bit redundant, now three seasons in. In Coven, Lange plays an über witch (or something) who spends her first couple of scenes smoking cigarettes and blowing lines while fretting about her aging face. It's fun! Jessica Lange is good at doing this kind of thing, all regal but messy. But it's also repetitive, and brings about the acridly familiar sense that Ryan Murphy prefers his women messes, that he repeatedly punishes them just because he likes to dance in the wreckage. That sort of fabulous train wreck character is a staple of camp (and, y'know, Tennessee Williams plays), which Murphy loves, and is of course big in broader gay male culture. But please, give a gal a break once in a while, huh?
In an odd way, the brutal, muddled, borderline unwatchable second season of AHS, a kitchen sink look at a 1960s asylum complete with aliens and demonic possession, was ultimately its most humane. Everyone was horribly debased throughout the season, but at least in the end Sarah Paulson's falsely institutionalized reporter got some justice and Lange's repressed, brainwashed nun found some small bit of peace and clarity. At least there was some victory in the end, a couple of women's lives back on some sort of track. I don't get the sense from this new season that anything is going to end terribly well for anyone. But even if things do wrap up nicely for even a few of these harridans and doe-eyed demonesses, will it matter? Won't some damage already have been done?
There's always been something prurient and ugly about this show, purposefully of course. It was the school shooting and the abortion subplot in season one, it was the sexual abuse in season two. But the first episode of this new season suggests that that ugliness is far more internalized, imbued in each woman instead of in the broader world. Look at the cast of major players. There's the old woman who literally drains the life out of men. (And there's Kathy Bates as a Nawlins Countess Báthory, smearing herself in people's blood to look young.) There's the sexy, but innocent, girl whose private parts sure are trouble. The girl with Down syndrome who has an almost cruelly ironic gift. The overweight girl whose body means nothing. (Gabourey Sidibe's character can stab herself and feel nothing, while the object of her ire writhes in pain. "I"m a human voodoo doll," she says.) For a woman-centric season, the show seems to have a pretty dim, or at least narrow, view of women. I'm not saying they must be treated kindly or delicately, far from it. But there's nothing thoughtful in this endless parade of Women With Issues, either comically wicked or grimly sexualized. I know that Murphy is looking to explore and upend stereotypes and womanly taboo. But his somewhat reckless methods often end up accidentally reinforcing instead of rebutting or satirizing. At least I hope it's accidental. The other possibility being that Murphy really does think that stories are best when the older women are sad, scary creeps, when younger women are dangerous little sex sirens, and when women with disabilities or highly noticeable physical imperfections are best employed as spooky sideshows.
Murphy isn't terribly good to his men, of course, but they are at least bound by fewer creaky conventions. I'm glad that AHS has a whole season to explore its many women characters, I just hope that it finds its way toward something less obvious and retrograde. I don't want to see another episode where a sexually forward young woman gets punished with a gang rape, even if she does get her murderous revenge a scene later. I get that Murphy likes to play with old tropes, invert them and alter them and sew them together like a Frankenstein monster. But he's not yet doing enough to alter or comment or tweak. Despite all the theatrics swirling aorund them, Murphy tends to keep his women's narratives strangely simple. And this show should, in all its lugubrious excess, tell anything but simple stories.