American Horror Story: Coven airs its season finale tonight, presumably with some righteous bons mots from Jessica Lange, some GIF-worthy sneers from Emma Roberts, and probably some A+ fashion hats in the mix. (That show's millinery game is tight.) The show's big question is who will rise to power as the new Supreme, but its secondary question is who will die in her wake.
Just kidding! It doesn't matter who dies on AHS:Coven, because it turns out everyone can come back from the dead. You just can't keep a good/bad witch down, apparently. Oh, you can cut her head off, but she'll come back. You can shoot her in the skull, but she'll come back. Heck, you can burn her at the stake and still she'll come back. Witches, man. If they're not dosing people with immortality elixirs, they're Frankenstein-ing dead frat boys into meat-collage boyfriends.
This season of AHS has been fun and stylish in many ways. It's been gross and frightening, campy and silly, and there was that time Stevie Nicks was on, and that was cool. But the show has had a hard time creating stakes because the ultimate high-stakes situation —is this a matter of life or death? — does not seem to exist in the Coven universe. Death? What's death? If people regularly come back from the dead, then what kind of threats could possibly instill fear?
Myrtle (Frances Conroy), Misty (Lily Rabe), Madison (Emma Roberts), Joan (Patti LuPone), Kyle (Evan Peters), and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) have all died and been revived. Nan (Jamie Brewer) and Spalding's (Denis O'Hare) ghosts are still functioning members of the household, so even in death they live. Delphine (Kathy Bates) was beheaded without consequence. (Well, she had to watch Roots, but that's a masterpiece.) Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) was blinded, but had no trouble getting new eyeballs, so presto change-o, she was seeing again in no time. (Later, she decided to take those eyes out and be blind again.) If you can't really die and you can't really get hurt, what's important?
This is why vampire stories are often about love. Mortality and bodily harm aren't on the table, so it's spiritual and emotional harm only — and yet Coven hasn't really told those kinds of stories, either, other than the very minor romance between Kyle and Zoe (Tessa Farmiga). Instead, its focus has been on stories of power. It's Risk, with black dresses. The season is about a power vacuum, but that sounds more interesting than it's actually been in practice. Everybody wants to be the Supreme, but we still don't really know why. What's the consequence of not getting to be the Supreme? Why might someone want it other than just a general human tendency toward power?
Coven has been a fun ride, more coherent in many ways than the show's first season and more consistent certainly than Asylum. But its most startling moments have been instances of gruesomeness, of body-horror — not of stunning behavioral twists, or depths of personality we didn't see coming. Surprise, bitches! Well, not quite: Coven can't shock us with deaths, nor can they shock us with resurrections. Maybe Stevie Nicks can give them a quick lesson on how to just be alive.