Be Careful What You Wish For – That’s the Lesson I Just Learned from Coven

WTF is American Horror Story: Coven?

American Horror Story is an anthology series airing on FX – meaning, each season is a completely different story starring the same set of actors. The third season, Coven, was the one that really caught my attention, because people couldn’t stop talking about it – whether what they said was good or bad. It’s about a coven of witches in contemporary Louisiana, and features outstanding performances from a cast made up almost entirely of women.

Basically, two groups of witches are at war with each other and themselves and some witch hunters from the outside, and they all want to kill each other in the most appalling ways, and Stevie Nicks is there, and also the show’s about racism.

The most important thing to understand before you watch it is that it’s really fucking gross.

I hadn’t seen any other season of American Horror Story before I watched Coven, so I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for, but it’s so, so gory, and so, so gross – like, way more gross than scary. I can’t emphasize this enough.

On top of being gross, though, it’s also really dark. Like, apparently not as dark as some of the other seasons, based on the complaints I’ve read, but really, really dark. If you like witches because they’re fun and empowering, this is not about that. Like, up until the last ten minutes, it is not about that. This is about people who are just a hair more selfish and brutal than the villains on Game of Thrones.

The first time I almost stopped watching was during the first ten minutes.

There’s some set-up I need to put in place to explain why.

The three pillars of the Coven story are characters played by Jessica Lange, Angela Basset, and Kathy Bates. Jessica Lange and Angela Basset are both playing witches who lead opposing factions, mostly split along racial lines. Kathy Bates’ character, though, is not a witch. Kathy Bates’ character is Madam LaLaurie, a slave owner from 1830 who’s cursed with eternal life by voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Basset) and buried alive until Jessica Lange’s character, Fiona, digs her up.

Why is she cursed and buried alive? Because she’s the worst human being who ever lived. This is proven to us multiple times, but never more than in the first ten minutes, where we see that she has a secret torture attic where she drags unlucky slaves (and sometimes family members) so that she can torture them in ways so horrible that I don’t even want to type them out. On top of being gross, this is also deeply disquieting and hard to watch for reasons that have nothing to do with horror movie scares and everything to do with history and the terror of man’s unfathomable inhumanity to man. It’s really sombre, awful stuff and not necessarily what you’d expect from a show that’s supposed to be about witches.

The second time I almost stopped watching was half way through the season.

I kept watching after the start of episode one, because I still wanted to find out what this show was like after reading so much about it. We keep flashing back to Madam LaLaurie being an unimaginable, stomach-churning sadist at random moments, but most of the action takes place in the present and is about other things that aren’t as hard to watch.

However, the second time I almost stopped watching was at the end of episode seven, and, once again, it was because of something that happened with that character.

Having combed through internet reviews again, it doesn’t surprise me that LaLaurie is the most divisive character and that, as the show was airing, people were writing articles about how troubling it was and how her story line pushed all kinds of buttons, sometimes in the wrong way, and sometimes for seemingly no purpose. I felt really conflicted and unhappy about the character from the moment she showed up, but it reached a point in episode seven where I honestly had trouble sleeping afterward – again, not in a fun, spooky way. In a way where I was really upset and unsettled.

See, after LaLaurie gets out of her coffin, she takes on a weird role in the show – she becomes comic relief occasionally interspersed with horrific flashbacks to what a monster she was when she had power. In the present day, where she has no power and can’t hurt anyone, she’s mostly a fish out of water who says hilarious things. She forms an awkward friendship with the only black witch in Fiona’s coven, Queenie, and – again, because she has no power – even her racist remarks seem stupidly and harmlessly antiquated. For example, there’s a joke where she bursts into tears upon learning that a black man is president, and bemoans the fate of the nation. You almost want to like her, because she’s so pitiful and because she seems, at times, to be learning the error of her ways.

In episode seven, Marie Laveau offers Queenie a deal whereby Queenie is supposed to hand LaLaurie over so that she can be tortured some more, rather than hanging out at Fiona’s place in (relative) peace. Queenie betrays LaLaurie’s trust and takes her to Laveau where a terrified LaLaurie cries, “You don’t know what she’ll do to me!” before Laveau throws her, sobbing, into a cage. Then, they cut out her liver and grind it into a paste, just like she used to do to her slaves.

And my reaction to that was some combination of:

  • Maybe this show has gone too far
  • I don’t like watching people get tortured
  • She kind of deserves it after everything she did, but I still didn’t like seeing that happen
  • Was the reason I didn’t like it because I’m white and that makes me empathize with her? Am I racist? Am I forgiving her in some way for torturing her slaves because I instinctively identify with her?
  • I don’t want any of those things to be true
  • Is the show actually challenging me or is it just showing me a series of horrible things to make me upset?
  • I wish I didn’t have a carousel of all the awful things that I’ve just seen playing in my head
  • Why am I even watching this if it isn’t any fun?
  • I have to believe it’s possible to not be racist and still not want to watch a racist get tortured
  • Why did they set it up this way? Why did they try to make us feel sorry for her? Do they even have a message in doing that?
  • Man, I wish she’d just stayed dead
  • Or not been in the show
  • This is so, so horrible, I don’t want to watch any more

And then I didn’t stop watching

And the whole reason I didn’t stop watching was because I know myself and I know that, in the past, I’ve bailed on something that upset me half way through only to find out that it got really lame after that and retroactively became less upsetting. So, I decided to see this through and hope it got lame.

And it did get pretty lame.

I don’t dislike the back half of the season at all, but it’s not nearly as horrifying as the front half. For me, that’s a plus.

Just as you start to feel sorry for her, and conflicted about feeling sorry for her, LaLaurie goes back to being racist and Kathy Bates dials down the vulnerability in her performance, allowing us to go back to hating LaLaurie in an uncomplicated way. They cut off her head and put it in a box, where it continues to bitch at everyone about how miserable it is, and that’s funny rather than disturbing.

After trying really hard to help LaLaurie understand that black people are human, and find some kind of redemption in her zombie life, Queenie eventually realizes that LaLaurie is never going to change and finds a way to kill her. I breathed a sigh of relief when she was dead but then, of course, we had to follow her to hell and watch her get tortured some more because: why?

I feel bad that I enjoyed the show more when it wasn’t posing a hard question – like, how should you feel when a monster suffers monstrous things? – but I did enjoy the show so much more when it was just about witches trying to kill each other in a hyper-real situation than when it was about watching people get tortured with the framework of American slavery.

I’m not prepared to say that American Horror Story did anything wrong by telling this story the way it did – I don’t feel like I was supposed to enjoy watching any of that – but… there were times when it went past what I’m willing to subject myself to for the sake of entertainment.

There’s also the stuff with Marie Laveau.

I was disappointed that Angela Basset turned out to have such a small role and that we never got to know Marie that well. She was set up to be an antagonist – until the last few episodes, where she’s briefly a friend – and that’s pretty much it. We don’t get to know the other people in her crew, either. That’s a little bit weird, given that so much of the story is about race. It feels off somehow that we spend most of our time on two white women – one of whom is racist – and very little time on the black woman who balances out the story.

Otherwise, though, I guess this was a win.

Setting aside this very ugly, complicated stuff at the beginning, the season went down pretty smooth. It was full of memorable characters – the best of which is Myrtle, played by an almost unrecognizable Frances Conroy – suspenseful plot lines, strong performances, weird musical moments, fisheye lenses, and dark humour. It definitely earned its spot among prestige television, even if it was gross and disturbing.

After everything I’d heard about Coven, there was no scenario in which I’d be happy to live my life without watching it. It’s one of those things that you sort of have to see if you care about women on television. And, in that sense, I can’t be sorry to have seen it.

That’s said, I don’t feel a burning desire to watch any of the other seasons, and there were certainly moments when I really didn’t enjoy myself. I want to say that this is a good show and an important show but also kind of a show that I don’t want to watch again and that I can’t honestly recommend to anyone else. It’s a show that leaves psychological scars, and I’m not sure that what it’s saying is profound enough to make that worthwhile.

Image: American Horror Story: Coven; FX Networks | December 4, 2015