Editors note: Please be advised that this article contains spoilers.
FX tied up its third season of American Horror Story, subtitled Coven, this week with “The Seven Wonders.” It’s time to pick a new Supreme to head the Coven, and the four younger witches are tested to see which one has the magical powers necessary to take command. All does not go smoothly, but we are left with a definitive ending.
First of all, it is a little disappointing that the witches are trapped in a backwards power structure in which the one with the greatest magical abilities, i.e. the strongest, is the leader. We’ve seen with the current Supreme, Fiona (Jessica Lange), that skills have little to do with wise decision making. Even with a Council to support the head, shouldn’t this coven make a change, rejecting the old way?
But that’s nit-picky and doesn’t really apply to the story, since at least the characters and the world stay pretty consistent over the thirteen episodes. “The Seven Wonders” as an installment is excellent.
The opening of “The Seven Wonders” is basically a Stevie Nicks (herself) music video, which is fine. It’s a great song and the visuals are beautiful. It may not completely fit with the tone set, but it’s fun, original, and a really cool way to kick off this season finale. I enjoyed it immensely.
After this, the real plot begins with Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), Madison (Emma Roberts), and Misty (Lily Rabe) being tested. Given the unpredictability of the writing, it’s difficult to predict ahead of time how it might turn out. Some viewers might see Misty’s death during the trial coming; we’re repeatedly warned that this is a very dangerous, sometimes fatal, process, and Misty shows hesitation and limitation early in the contest. But few will predict Zoe’s death during foolish goofing off or Madison’s victory.
Madison seems appropriate to follow in Fiona’s footsteps because they’re a lot alike. They’re both selfish and cold, pretty and vain, bitchy and with sass. Madison appears downright evil at times, such as when she refuses to bring Zoe back from the dead, even though it’s well within her power to do so. But so does Fiona, who plans on slaughtering everyone, including her own daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), to buy herself thirty more years as Supreme. So the pointed shoes do fit.
But Madison also seems the early, obvious choice in Coven, so if “The Seven Wonders” had left things there, it would have been a great disappointment. Instead, the whole situation plays out in such a manner that Cordelia must draw her own inner strength to the forefront, enter the race late, and beat Madison. Which she does, quite effectively, meaning the new Supreme is not one anyone would have considered at the beginning of the hour.
American Horror Story: Coven sets up Cordelia’s rise throughout the season. There are many set backs for her, to be sure. Being blinded, learning her husband is a witch hunter, any interaction with her mother; these are things that tear Cordelia down. However, knowing her gene pool and seeing glimpses of greatness, it’s not surprising when Cordelia does overcome the odds to achieve victory. When her new-found power is mixed with her kindness and compassion, she is the likely candidate to lead the coven into a new era of tremendous potential and growth, which she does by publicly reaching out to the witches of the world.
The ending of Coven is the most open-ended of any American Horror Story season so far and begs for followup. While there is some closure, with many characters dead and Cordelia advancing the school into a new period with Queenie and a resurrected Zoe by her side, there are also all sorts of implications that remain unexplored. How does the world accept the existence of witches? What will bringing so many together do? More than the first two seasons by far, Coven deserves a second outing, which would be a completely different story.
Now, as much as I like this ending, there are some weak points in “The Seven Wonders.” How is Queenie accepted back so readily after her betrayal? Why isn’t Zoe more moved by Misty’s death? Is Myrtle (Frances Conroy) really so selfless that she’d orchestrate Cordelia’s rise to power and then offer herself up for death for no other reason than to leave the coven in good hands? And was that necessary, as no one would have ever told on Myrtle for her transgressions? This finale should have been two hours, as these bits could mostly have been explained or delved into more deeply, and the hell part of the competition, skimmed quickly over, could have been its own episode. But these complaints pale in comparison to all the terrific character moments this season, and even this hour.
Among the best moments are Cordelia grieving over Misty as the gal turns to dust in Coredelia’s arms, Kyle (Evan Peters) strangling Madison to death, totally deserved, and the departed Spalding (Denis O’Hare) showing up to help hide the body, and Cordelia beating Madison in the competition. These are all defining scenes, the culmination of season-long arcs that provide satisfaction and closure.
Best of all is the finale confrontation between Cordelia and Fiona. Fiona comes to kill her daughter, but has waited too long and is too weak to do so. Fiona’s plan and deceit are sound and worthy of her, but she overestimates herself. Cordelia, bolstered by her new authority, finds it in herself to forgive her mother and let her die in her arms. The words they say to one another are enlightening, and both actresses play the scene with such rich tension that it will be remembered long after being viewed. This is nothing short of brilliant.
Just as good is Cordelia’s hell, living in domestication with The Axeman (Danny Huston). Some may argue that The Axeman isn’t important enough to Cordelia to spend eternity with, in stark contrast to the existence Madame Delphine (Kathy Bates) and Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who had their perfect ending last week, are trapped in. But I think that’s kind of the point. Fiona didn’t want to be tied down or normal, and now here she is stuck with a man she doesn’t love. It’s horrible for her. Papa Legba (Lance Reddick) laughing at her is icing on the cake.
There are also little bits just for the fans out there, meta references to make us smile. Madison names her hell as being in The Sound of Music reboot, and not as the lead, a poke at the recent broadcast network effort. This is even more fun when you consider Glee, another series from the mind of Ryan Murphy, is also a musical, and so he’s almost firing off a shot at his competition. It’s amusing that Sarah Paulson’s character is once more in front of TV cameras in “The Seven Wonders,” similar to her part at the bottom of Asylum. The Last Supper tableau just before the games begin is terrific. Kyle asking Spalding “Who are you?” – two main characters who only share this one scene in the entire season, is hilarious. These may be small gags, but it’s nice that Murphy and company include them.
And so we have another stellar season of American Horror Story to look back on. Basically, this season has been an amazing tale of some fascinating women, thoroughly well done. Better than Asylum, and arguably just as good as the first outing, albeit in different ways, Coven is a fantastic accomplishment, proving the show’s creators know what they’re doing in regards to crafting a tale and picking the right cast. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
American Horror Story has been renewed for a fourth season, and will return with a fresh setting and complement next fall.