Warning: This recap contains major character and storyline spoilers for the "Bitchcraft" episode of "American Horror Story: Coven." Proceed with caution.
Ryan Murphy has never shied away from characters who sadistically torture and dismember others under the pretense of their own deluded mission in the "American Horror Story" franchise. And the miniseries' current incarnation, "Coven" — which premiered Wednesday night with the episode "Bitchcraft" — is no different. But unlike Dr. Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) of "Murder House" and Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) of "Asylum," 1830s slave-owning socialite extraordinaire Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) does not have a medical degree hanging on the wall. What she does have is an uppermost floor where abject horrors occur, and unlike Montgomery's and Arden's, her mission has nothing to do with the clinical arts. It has only to do with vanity and her atrocious, twisted enjoyment in watching others suffer under the brunt of her power complex.
Sounds horrifying, huh? Let's just say that it lives up to the show's title. In fact, the premiere's opening sequence in the LaLaurie mansion is on par with some of the most graphic scenes from "Asylum." Making matters worse, Madame LaLaurie was a real person whose real-life crimes rank as some of the most savage in U.S. history. She was, in fact, a serial killer who tortured and killed black slaves in the highest level of her home. While some of the horrors we saw in the premiere's intro have never been substantiated (the man whose lips and eyes were stitched up, for example), the lore does exist for many of these victims.
What has been confirmed is that she did keep slaves bound and collared in her upstairs chamber, where they were starved and whipped.
Another "Coven" character based in nonfiction: voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett). Laveau was a free woman of color, and while she practiced voodoo, she was actually a devout Catholic. Story has it that she was stunningly beautiful (talk about smart casting!); she was able to intimidate whomever she pleased, including law enforcement; and that she advised world leaders. And, like one would expect from the voodoo queen, tales have her supervising blood-soaked ceremonies and dancing with snakes. As far as her character goes, we're itching to see more!
Thankfully for those who are squeamish but enjoy the FX drama, the rest of the episode was fairly tame, compared to past installments. And once we were transported to the present day (the first five minutes in the LaLaurie home were a flashback), the vibe was surprisingly current — witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) even drops Facebook and Twitter references — with a lightness "AHS" devotees have not seen before. And the dreamy backdrop of New Orleans infused a welcome romanticism and elegance. But let's not get too carried away with the beauty; "Bitchcraft" was a wild ride packed with thrills, chills, and kills.
Here are the moments that tripped the needle on our "Coven" terror meter:
Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) believed that she was an average all-American young woman, but when she decides the time is right to lose her virginity to her boyfriend and his head essentially explodes, her world is flipped inside out. It turns out that she's a descendant of a long line of witches (it skipped her mom's generation), and she's shipped off to Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a New Orleans boarding school devoted to protecting the country's few remaining young witches.
When she arrives at the school, three masked individuals chase a very scared Zoe before throwing a bag over her head, pinning her to a table, and threatening her with a sword. Luckily, she was just being pranked by her fellow witch schoolmates. But those freaky black, white, and red masks and hooded robes are enough to cause anxiety in any "AHS" fan. This isn't our first encounter with a mask.
The bitchiest of witches under 50, Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) is also a well-known Hollywood starlet. And when she's drugged and assaulted by several psycho D-bag frat boys at a campus party, she gets her revenge the witchy way. As their party bus drives away, she uses her ability to manipulate objects and flips the bus in the middle of the road, killing seven of the guys — including the innocent Kyle Spencer (Evan Peters), who made a connection with Zoe at the party. They even shared a longing gaze through an ice sculpture à la Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet."
On a side note, wasn't it refreshing to finally see Evan Peters play a well-adjusted college kid? Sure, he was a frat boy, but definitely not a bro. He might have been killed, but fear not — well, fear a little. At a press screening in Los Angeles, Murphy teased that Kyle does make a return, but not exactly as you remember him. He will embody one of horror's most iconic tales.
Fiona, who holds the title of Supreme — aka the witch with "countless gifts, some say all of them" — is on a mission to retain her youth and vitality. She sees a doctor who focuses on extending life and regenerating cells. Fiona's late husband funded his work, and she forces him to inject her with a highly experimental youth serum.
While on a cocaine binge, she calls the doctor to her home to harangue him about his medicine, which isn't working yet. When he refuses to help her and informs her that he'll be resigning the next day, she uses her witchy powers to literally suck the life and youth from the handsome doc. Viewers at home watched him age 50 years in her arms and drop dead on the spot. Sadly, all that effort didn't seem to have any effect on Fiona's complexion.
Undoubtedly, the most controversial scene was the sexual assault of Madison at the hands of several frat boys. After the main guy slipped a drug into her drink, the guys ganged up on her. While one member of the group raped the nearly unconscious movie star, his fellow frat boys filmed her. Did you think the scene was too explicit for cable TV?
What's a horror story about witches without someone burning at the stake? This time, it served as a cautionary tale about why witches need protection at places such as Miss Robichaux's. Misty Day (Lily Rabe) — a seemingly gentle witch with the ability to breathe life back into dead creatures — is doused with gasoline and set on fire by her backwoods evangelical congregation after one member sees her reanimate a bird. Oh, the irony.
OK, now is the moment we've been waiting for (read: dreading). In LaLaurie's upstairs chamber of horrors, slaves were shackled and tortured in ways that rival the big screen's most graphic examples of "gore-no." From a man whose lips and eyes are stitched shut to someone who's basically skinned alive (and is still alive), those images can never really be unseen by viewers. And the haunting pièce de résistance, her womanmade Minotaur: LaLaurie crams the severed head of a bull onto the body of her daughter's lover, suffocating him. Why? "My great literacy began with Greek mythology. The Minotaur was always my favorite," she said.
By the way, Bates's performance makes her turn in 1990's "Misery" look like a romantic walk on the beach. Who smells an Emmy nom?
[Photos: Goth-Inspired Gals at the 2013 Emmys]
Horror fans know that there's one saving grace to loving a good tale of terror, and that's being able to say, "At least it's not real." Well, that security blanket's been ripped away. As you read above, Madame LaLaurie's crimes against humanity are unfathomable. And "Horror Story" fans who weren't aware that LaLaurie was real will certainly never be able to watch the first five minutes of "Bitchcraft" through the same lens again.
Unlike in the premiere, though, LaLaurie supposedly fled to Paris after a fire broke out in her home, exposing her sickening offenses.
Oh yeah, one more bizarre truth from "Bitchcraft": Nicolas Cage actually did buy the real LaLaurie mansion in 2007.
Here are the witches we know of so far and the powers they possess:
Aside from accidentally killing her first boyfriend during intercourse, thus discovering her power, Zoe kills the frat boy who initiated Madison's rape while he's comatose in the ICU. How? By forcibly having sex with his unconscious body.
Zoe's ability wasn't concocted in Murphy's crazy head. He told journalists at the screening that back in the day, some claimed that Salem witches could actually have "the ability to f--k someone to death." Hmm, seems unlikely, but it sure does make a compelling plot point in "Coven."
Not that we need more proof of her ability to manipulate inanimate objects than killing seven frat boys by flipping their bus, but it's important to know that she uses her ability on a smaller scale as well. She flips a bowl of hot soup onto schoolmate Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) during an argument, and more notably, murdered a stern director back in the day by dropping a metal stage light on his head because he was, well, directing her.
Poor Misty. She brings a small bird back to life and sets it free into the sky, only to be burned alive by her family and church members. Here's hoping a witch with the same power can resurrect her.
Voodoo queen Laveau murdered LaLaurie using a love potion, oops, make that poison. Feeding on LaLaurie's insecurities about her cheating husband, Laveau offered the potion, assuring her that it would elicit fidelity from her hubby. Why kill LaLaurie? Because the poor man who was made into the Minotaur was also Laveau's lover.
This list could get long. She is the Supreme, after all. So she kills the doctor by sucking the life out of him — after throwing him against the walls a bit, of course — and also throws Madison against the walls for saying, "Go to hell, you stupid hag."
Fiona also uses her power of persuasion to dupe a tour guide, allowing the young witches and her to tour the LaLaurie mansion without paying. It's not shown, but we're guessing that's the power she tapped to get those drugs from the now deceased doctor.
Fiona's most terrifying act so far: She had two men exhume LaLaurie's body (then erased their memories), freeing the shackled, but living, wicked woman in "Bitchcraft's" final scene.
Nan (Jamie Brewer)
Sweet Nan's powers may seem subtler, but she seems to have something Fiona doesn't: clairvoyance.
Aside from a few subdued events — like predicting that Zoe would meet someone great (we're guessing Kyle) and sensing that the witches should attend the LaLaurie mansion tour — she senses where LaLaurie's body is buried, which is under a bricked square outside the mansion. She shares this information with Fiona, leading her to unearth LaLaurie.
There's no doubt that we'll soon see more out of Queenie, who refers to herself as a living voodoo doll. After Madison flips the bowl of soup on her, Queenie stabs her own hand (and feels nothing), thus stabbing Madison through her hand. This power could get ugly and bloody fast.
Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson)
We've yet to see the powers of Supreme Fiona's only daughter, Cordelia, manifest. As the headmistress of Miss Robichaux's, it's clear that she's more interested in protecting the girls than going with her mother's approach — i.e., "We're here. We're witches. Get used to it." But she does seem keen on experimenting with potions and powders, and is seen doing so in her lush greenroom.
So, who's ready for Episode 2? What do you think was the most terrifying moment of the "Coven" premiere? Sound off in the comments below!
"American Horror Story: Coven" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.