What started as the most compelling, energetic and outlandish “American Horror Story” quickly became its most meandering, lifeless and unremarkable.
Wednesday’s finale, the season’s final chance at redemption, instead serves as an amplifier for that tune of squandered potential.
Initially presented as a return to a more focused, straightforward, approachable format after last year’s foray into the bleak, convoluted (but artistically mesmerizing) world of “Asylum,” “American Horror Story: Coven” veered dramatically off track after its stellar introductory period.
Often buoyed only by transcendent performances from Jessica Lange (as Fiona) and Angela Bassett (as Marie Laveau), “Coven” never seemed willing to settle on a particular narrative, theme or message for the season. It never provided a reason to justify its existence.
Stories related to Zoe’s (Taissa Farmiga) integration into the coven, rivalries between the witches, the challenges of handling growing (and weakening) powers, the feud between between the witches and witch hunters and the feud between the Fiona’s Coven and Laveau’s Voodoo cult, all of which could have helped viewers connect with the characters while fueling intriguing, season-long narratives, were dismissed as trivialities.
Instead of creating meaningful conflict, the writers focused on a series of nuisances and inconveniences throughout the season. Often handled over the course of an episode or two, these nuisances did nothing to create stakes, engage viewers and develop characters.
At best, these hollow plot points wasted time while distracting focus from elements of actual importance. At worst, they devalued the narrative and actively damaged the connection between the show’s atmosphere and audience.
If there was one consistent, meaningful focus throughout the season, it was the fall of Fiona, the Coven’s Supreme. Deathly afraid of aging–and of losing her aura of superiority–Fiona’s simultaneous quest to maintain her intelligence, strength, powers and energy while preventing the ascent of the coven’s younger members absolutely warranted significant attention. Enhanced by Lange’s superb performance, it was the kind of narrative that could provide the human element needed to help the show’s “horror” resonate.
Unfortunately, it never flirted with the zenith of its potential. Lange committed herself to the arc, but because the show ultimately preferred describing her struggle to showcasing it, it never became emotionally meaningful enough to drive an entire “AHS” season. Save for some visible signs of aging, we never saw any compelling reason to believe she was rapidly falling from grace. Save for very generic assertions of ego, we never saw any compelling reason Fiona would care about losing control of the coven. And save for the novelty of being the supreme, we never saw any compelling reason the younger witches would be motivated to rise to the throne.
That latter-most reality reveals why “The Seven Wonders,” Wednesday’s season finale, was doomed to failure.
With Fiona seemingly out of the picture, attention turns to identifying the next Supreme. And because Fiona is unable to pass the torch, the interested witches–Misty, Queenie, Madison and Zoe–must compete in a battle of The Seven Wonders to determine who is most deserving.
While the “Coven” finale is not being unfaithful to the context of the season by focusing on this question, it is absolutely being unfaithful to the concept of entertaining television. Content simply to talk about the notion of the supreme, the previous twelve episodes did little to explain why the position is worth the trouble, let alone why each of the “contestants” are individually motivated to reign over the Coven.
Why, then, should the viewer care about the competition? Why should the viewer believe the characters will be relentless in pursuit of supreme hood? Why should the viewer care about Myrtle Snow’s pontification about who truly deserves to rule the coven?
If sufficiently answering those questions is difficult from a theoretical perspective, it becomes absolutely impossible from a practical one. Already sandbagged by the “Seven Wonders” concept, which creates the most mechanical, listless scenes ever offered by “American Horror Story,” the competition is undermined by poor execution. Proving she is not, in fact, relentless in her pursuit of leadership, one character quits after her first encounter with adversity. Another becomes a cheerleader for another witch after quietly exiting the competition. A third witch, meanwhile, needs motivation just to envision herself as the supreme.
Following in the footsteps of the twelve preceding episodes, the “Coven” finale simply cannot establish meaning around the quest to rule the coven.
The only real attempt it does make, interestingly enough, comes after the new Supreme has already been crowned. Once she assumes the throne, she initiates a series of policies that greatly transform the way the coven functions in society.
Marred by a tacky, shoehorned parallel to the gay rights debate, the proposed new vision for the coven is reasonable enough in principle. It, unfortunately, has absolutely nothing to do with the show’s tone or narrative. Solving a problem that barely factored into the back half of the season, it presents nothing in the way of a payoff. It does nothing to retroactively inject meaning and substance into the season’s list of weightless plotlines.
If there is a payoff that might satisfy viewers, it is a late, intimate conversation between two key characters. The actresses are riveting, and the emotion is palpable, but all the scene really does is highlight the wasted potential. This scene–a real, human moment fueled by real, human feelings–is what “AHS: Coven” should have been. Instead of imposing a conflict of the week on a shallow cast of characters, “Coven” should have rooted the horror of its world in the humanity of its characters.
The best moments of “AHS: Murder House” and “AHS: Asylum” were fueled by that narrative strategy. Early excitement for “AHS: Coven” developed over the humanity that existed in the early episodes.
As the season progressed, however, “Coven” not only downplayed that element but became unable to capture humanity for more than a fleeting second. The aforementioned scene, while excellent, is instantly trivialized by a silly, tone-deaf follow-up that subjects viewers to two of the show’s worst characters without any notable reward.
Most troubling about “The Seven Wonders” is its failure to capture even the most superficial essence of the “American Horror Story” franchise. “AHS” is not always a beacon of resonant emotion and riveting storytelling, but it is usually a reliable source of weird, wacky and altogether creepy developments and aesthetics.
This episode is disappointingly tame in that regard. Not even the opening “training montage,” which features Stevie Nicks singing “Seven Wonders,” delivers a sufficient dose of the absurd.
Insofar as the “Coven” concept helped “AHS” recover the buzz and viewership it lost during last season’s creatively superior but far less accessible “Asylum,” one would be foolish to write the third season off as an abject failure.
But given the fact that it did bring an unprecedented level of exposure to the franchise, the season’s failure to create compelling characters or tell a meaningful story is all the more tragic.
“The Seven Wonders,” the final episode of “AHS: Coven,” airs at 10PM ET on FX.