American Horror Story: Coven marks the third iteration of the FX anthology series, and the haunted houses and rundown asylums of past seasons have been traded in for a New Orleans boarding school which specializes in training young witches to control their powers. Many of the cast members from the previous two years have returned, and there are a few new additions which complement the veterans nicely.
Via a series of flashbacks to the 1860s, we’re introduced to Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a wealthy member of the upper class who tortures slaves and uses their blood and body parts to mix an anti-aging poultice. This practice attracts the ire of a voodoo priestess (Angela Bassett) and ignites a feud that (we assume) continues into the present day, where Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) discovers her powers during an unfortunate tryst which leaves her boyfriend convulsing and oozing blood from every orifice.
Zoe is quickly shipped off to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, shacking up with a handful of other “special” girls that harbor gifts of their own. The headmistress (Sarah Paulson) is appropriately congenial and seems genuinely invested in helping the girls find their way, but the balance of power is upset when her mother (Jessica Lange) waltzes in and begins taking the students under her wing.
Bates and Lange provide some of this episode’s best moments, which will likely become the trend as the season continues, but Emma Roberts deserves honorable mention as a super-bitchy Hollywood starlet – just imagine the worst parts of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, only with telekinetic abilities.
American Horror Story has garnered a reputation for its potent mix of sex, violence, and the supernatural, and after Asylum stumbled along aimlessly for most of its run, Coven feels very much like a return to form. It’s creepy, it’s sexy, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Hopefully the strong opening is indicative of what lies ahead.