American Horror Story: Coven Premiere Recap: Schoolhouse Wreck

American Horror Story

Season 3 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

American Horror Story

Season 3 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Michele K. Short/FX

Good morning, my own little coven. I’m thrilled and properly horrified to be your AHS recapper for this witchiest of seasons. There is a lot to discuss — like, a lot — so let’s start this spellbound season posthaste.

We begin our not-so-fair story in New Orleans in 1834. Kathy Bates’s Madame Delphine LaLaurie is holding a swanky dinner party to introduce the eligible bachelors of town to her three lovely daughters — Marie-Louise Pauline, Marie-Louise Jeanne, and One-of-These-Things-Is-Not-Like-the-Other winner Borquita. Cut to Pauline’s making eyes at a black servant named Bastien, who stands in the adjoining hall.

We then get a grisly close-up of Madame LaLaurie as she dips a brush into a silver dish of blood and coats her face in red. This is her nightly skin-care regimen, which I’d like to think of as Olay: Resident Evil. Her husband interrupts and says that something horrible has happened during the dinner party. Turns out that Pauline was caught seducing Bastien. The official story, Madame LaLaurie insists, will be that Bastien assaulted Pauline, and she summarily orders him to be sent “upstairs,” a proclamation met by Bastien with abject terror — and with good reason.

If you thought that you’d be spared truly dark stuff after last season’s Asylum … you thought wrong. We witness the whole stomach-churning panorama of Madame LaLaurie’s “Chamber of Horrors,” from a slave whose mouth has been sewn shut after being filled with excrement to a slave whose face has been peeled back to reveal the muscle — and rot — underneath. Madame LaLaurie proceeds to have Bastien’s own mug shoved into a recently severed bull’s head as an homage to the Minotaur, her favorite character from Greek mythology. Exactly what she plans to do with this Minotaur besides, well, look at it is unexplained, but clearly, Madame LaLaurie doesn’t seem like a pillar of rationality.

Cut to the old AHS theme and the new opening credits, which look like a re-creation of The Crucible as done by Harry Potter’s Death Eaters.

In the first of several slow-motion hair segments, Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) sneaks home with her boy-toy, Charlie, for the purpose of relinquishing her V-card. The plan goes horribly awry: simply being exposed to Zoe’s nether regions causes Charlie to erupt in blood and die of a brain aneurysm.

Zoe’s mother, Nora, explains that Zoe carries a genetic mutation that has been passed from generation to generation. Zoe is, therefore, not a lethal virgin; she is a lethal witch virgin! In a throwaway line, we find out that not everyone exhibits symptoms in the same way. For example, Zoe’s cousin Amanda is “just bulimic.” (Yikes.) Also, Zoe informs us that the women sentenced to death during the Salem Witch Trials weren’t actually witches. The real witches escaped, fleeing to New Orleans, where their magic thrived.

Nora tells Zoe, while they’re still in black from Charlie’s funeral, that Zoe is being sent away to a boarding school for her kind. Seconds later, a quartet of Men in Black look-alikes whisk her away via Amtrak. They are led by Frances Conroy, whom I could best describe as “Grace Coddington playing Anne Bancroft’s Miss Havisham in the Gwyneth Paltrow Great Expectations.” She delivers the episode’s most memorable and completely random line: “I’m just maaaaad for tartan!”

Zoe then enters Miss Robichaux’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies, a home décor experiment that I will now rename Brew, Bath, and Beyond. She suddenly finds herself terrified by a trio of cloaked, masked actors from Sleep No More or Eyes Wide Shut: The Musical. Just before faux-sacrificing her, they erupt in laughter and introduce themselves as her schoolmates: Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a washed-up starlet who immediately earns points for calling Zoe “Sabrina”; Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), which is what I call myself in the mirror every morning; and Nan (Jamie Brewer), a kind-hearted, if enigmatic, clairvoyant.

Enter Sarah Paulson as “Cordelia Foxx, Headmistress.” Cordelia explains that Miss Robichaux’s was founded as a regular girls’ finishing school in 1790. The building spent a fallow period as a military hospital and then, under the guidance of a multi-hyphenate witch named Marion Wharton, became a secret school in which more than 60 budding witches once lived. However, as more families became aware of their genetic disposition toward having occult offspring, they reproduced less, causing the witch population to dwindle. Listen, I understand that having a daughter with an aneurysm-causing hoo-ha might be somewhat traumatic, but think of how spotless your house would be!

Bonus Moment: Denis O’Hare appears as a Riff Raff–like, mute manservant named Spalding, so let’s all please refer to him as Denis O’Hair from now on.

Cordelia explains that every generation has what it calls the Supreme — its most gifted witch, one who has “countless gifts, some say all of them,” like being every X-Man at the same time. (Thus far, Zoe is totally Rogue.) The camera lingers on Nan when this topic is discussed, as if she may be the Supreme, though this may be a red herring.

Cordelia admits that she’s not the Supreme but says that she wants to teach Zoe to control her gifts. Madison claims that Cordelia is really just trying to suppress their instincts, like they’re back in the 1600s. Cordelia claims that if the witches don’t stick up for each other, they will be rooted out and eradicated — something that recently happened to a Cajun girl named Misty Day, played by Lily Rabe, who signed a contract for this season even though the character was named Misty Day. (“Any relation to Lucky?” all self-respecting fans of Three Amigos! wonder aloud.)

Misty, part of a small community of snake charmers, was seen raising a bird from the dead (Pushing Daisies: Coven!). Her community then burned her at the stake, though this doesn’t seem like the last we’ll see of her: Later, a newscaster casually mentions that Misty “may have been burned at the stake” as if he were mentioning a traffic jam on Highway 90.

“WHERE IS JESSICA LANGE?” cries America in unison. And then, there she is, as Fiona Goode, meeting with Dr. David Zhong (Ian Anthony Dale, a.k.a. Eastern Dylan McDermott). Dr. Zhong runs a research facility — funded by Fiona’s late husband — that specializes in anti-aging medication. Fiona demands that the doctor begin treating her even though his medicine won’t be approved for two years. At first, he seems to refuse, but then we cut to Jessica Lange having a one-witch party of her own …

… which is the best scene in this premiere. The bender in question finds Fiona starring in what looks like an episode of Silk Stalkings or a late-eighties perfume commercial with the tagline “Cocaine: The New Fragrance from Jessica Lange.” She blasts “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” does a few lines, chain-smokes, goes out on her balcony (where I hoped she’d run into Jenny from Forrest Gump), and then Dr. Zhong enters. She berates him because she’s been “injecting his shit for five days” and has seen no results. Dr. Zhong threatens to resign, at which point Fiona magically tosses him around the room, then gives him a kiss, which causes him to age decades in a matter of seconds and turn into a rotted corpse, like the impatient Nazi at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

After Fiona’s disposed of him, she eyes herself in the mirror as if newly restored with the bloom of youth. But it seems that whatever youth Dr. Zhong’s death has bought her dissipates, and she’s left looking the same. She then angrily smashes the mirror, which makes me wonder if you still get seven years’ bad luck if, you know, you’re already a witch.

Back at Brew, Bath, and Beyond, over what looks like a dinner of soup and focaccia bread from the Macaroni Grill, we find out that Madison matriculated at Miss Robichaux’s after an incident on one of her movie sets: When a director yelled at her for not hitting her mark correctly, she telekinetically murdered him by causing a stage light to fall on his head. The best thing about this flashback is that it is totally unclear just what sort of scene Madison is shooting. It looks like she’s doing a one-woman revival of Gypsy at Trader Joe’s, which I’d totally go see.

Nan mysteriously divulges to Zoe that Zoe will meet “a strange and unexpected love,” a revelation that is met with annoyance from Queenie. Queenie’s real anger has yet to be revealed, though: When Madison provokes her, Queenie stabs a fork into her own hand and causes Madison to feel its effects. Turns out that Queenie is a “human voodoo doll.” She leaves the table to blow off some steam, saying, “I’m not hungry anyway.” Madison replies with a genuinely funny, though below-the-belt, line: “Like anyone believes that.”

Set to the bewitched Carly Rae Jepsen descant that acts as the episode’s recurring musical motif, the next scene finds Cordelia mixing a potion in Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy den from Batman & Robin. Fiona drops by, and we find out that she is Cordelia’s mother. According to Fiona, Cordelia never realized the true extent of her power — a particular shame given that she is the only child of the Supreme. Hence, we discover that Fiona is, like Beyoncé, the Supreme of her generation.

The potion that Cordelia is mixing is supposed to give Fiona the “infusion of vitality” that she so desperately craves, but Fiona simply pours it into the cat’s milk bowl while telling Cordelia about the retreat that she just took with Shirley MacLaine in Sedona. Fiona claims that more and more witches are going to be found out owing to the prevalence of social media — a theme that, it should be noted, True Blood has explored at length. (Jessica Lange’s pronunciation of “Twitter” is every bit as amazing as you’d expect; ditto when she says “Hogwarts” later.) “When are you going to die and stop ruining my life?” Cordelia asks, threatening to rat out Fiona to “the Council” that governs their kind, but Fiona resolves to stick around and help.

At the behest of a tweet that Madison receives, Zoe accompanies her to a crowded frat party. Zoe soon espies Kyle (Evan Peters) — the shaggy-haired ringleader of the frat — through a gigantic ice sculpture surrounded by discarded red Solo cups, like Joe Francis’s Romeo + Juliet. They immediately hit it off. Meanwhile, Madison is approached by the most devilishly handsome of the frat boys, from whom she accepts a drink while calling him her “slave” (a particularly unsettling term given the episode’s beginning).

What Madison doesn’t know is that the boy has slipped her a roofie, and he takes her to an upstairs bedroom where she is gang-raped in a truly sickening montage. I see the tendency to show how “horrifying” an incident like this is in the wake of Steubenville, but it’s still an excruciating sequence to watch. When Kyle stumbles upon what’s happening and sees his frat brothers taping it, he chases them out of the party and into their douchebag party bus, which pulls away. Zoe also runs after them but is unable to stop them. Then Madison suddenly appears behind her and, with one flick of her arm, sends the bus spinning into air and crashing into fiery pieces.

The next day brings a sunny breakfast in the school kitchen. Zoe walks in, inexplicably dressed like a footman, to see Queenie and Nan watching a news report about the crash; they learn that seven of the frat boys died and that two survived. Zoe, of course, hopes that Kyle is one of the survivors, especially because he tried to stop the rape from happening. Fiona, meanwhile, waltzes in, though none of the girls knows her, and says, “The world isn’t going to miss a bunch of assholes in Ed Hardy T-shirts.” Still, she knows that Madison caused the crash and criticizes her for the sloppy way in which she handled it. When Madison snaps back, Fiona sends her flying across the room.

Fiona decides to take the ragtag bevy on a “field trip” to Popp’s Fountain, a witch haven that has fallen into neglect after Hurricane Katrina. FYI, if you’re worried that witches are being ferreted out and burned at the stake, it’s probably not the smoothest move to parade them around town when they’re dressed in black like members of a Hocus Pocus cosplay. When they pass Madame LaLaurie’s house, Nan deserts them, and they end up following her on a tour of the premises. At one point, one of the young women on the tour asks the guide, “Wasn’t this house owned by the guy in Face/Off?” Listen, not even the people who produced Face/Off refer to Nicolas Cage as “the guy in Face/Off,” but you guys, it’s true: Nicolas Cage totally owned that house in real life!

We then find out how Madame LaLaurie “died.” She was given a poisoned love potion by the faaaaaabulous Marie Laveau, played by Angela Bassett, who should star in a movie called How Stella Didn’t Age in Twenty Years. Marie Laveau’s lover, it turned out, was Bastien, the slave that Madame LaLaurie turned into a Minotaur at the beginning of the episode. Fiona also learns that Madame LaLaurie used a poultice “made from human pancreas” to stop aging — which obviously piques Fiona’s youth-obsessed interest.

Zoe visits the hospital where the surviving victims of the bus crash are recuperating and is horrified to discover that the frat boy who orchestrated the attack is one of the survivors. Deciding that she might as well use her deathly womanhood as revenge, she mounts him and thereby causes him to die of an aneurysm. Kids these days! When did smothering someone with a pillow become so passé? Meanwhile, Kyle’s death seems all but confirmed when Zoe sees his framed photo at a memorial on the frat house’s steps; we see Madison bawling in the shower; and — I can’t believe that I’m writing this — we see Queenie sneaking a chicken leg out of a refrigerator.

Using Nan’s divining capabilities, Fiona discovers that Madame LaLaurie’s body, the location of which has long been unknown, is buried in the backyard of her horror mansion. Fiona hires two men to dig it up — “glamouring” them so that they do not remember — and we end the episode with Madame LaLaurie, resurrected, heading into the night to get a drink with Fiona.

Aaaaaand that’s one action-packed, satisfying, yet hurl-worthy episode. How will the Madame LaLaurie versus Marie Laveau feud play out? Will Zoe raise Kyle from the dead so that Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters can be truly reunited this season? If Cordelia isn’t the Supreme of her generation, then who is?

Make sure you follow me on Twitter for these and other burning questions. And break out your cauldrons and cigarettes — we’re just getting started.

American Horror Story: Coven Premiere Recap