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‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Will Make You Feel Better About Your Mother

Behind the voodoo of TV’s witchy-est show, schlock therapy that could come back to haunt you

Rachel Shukert
January 03, 2014
Jessica Lange as Fiona Goode in American Horror Story: Coven.(Frank Ockenfels/FX)
Jessica Lange as Fiona Goode in American Horror Story: Coven.(Frank Ockenfels/FX)

I don’t know about you (I mean, obviously, because with a few notable exceptions, I don’t actually know who you are) but I always like to make my main New Year’s resolutions incredibly easy to achieve. Things like:

• Try more kinds of cheese.
• Buy that basil-scented all-purpose cleaner your friend has that smells so good.
• Finally go into the furniture store that has that lamp that you like.

As a wise woman once said (OK, maybe it was my agent), happiness is all about managing expectations.

But there are harder things too. Things like:

• Do the dishes immediately after finishing a meal.
• Stop buying so many discounted diffuser sets on Gilt.
• Be nicer to your mother.

I can’t help you with the first two, but if you’re still suffering from somewhat of an emotional hangover from the traditional holiday airing of grievances, I’ve got some advice to help you achieve the last one: Catch up on American Horror Story: Coven.

I admit to being somewhat late to the party on AHS, despite receiving no less than 39 separate emails, Tweets, texts, and phone calls during the last season (which was set in a creepy Massachusetts mental asylum in the 1960s), most of which said something along the lines of: “You know it has a Nazi doctor on it, right?” (Apparently, I am the first person anyone thinks of whenever so much as a hint of Josef Mengele wends its way into popular culture.)

This season Ryan Murphy’s frighteningly accomplished cast of deranged repertory players has made its way down to the present day, to a New Orleans mansion in which a new generation of well-bred young witches—the descendants, we’re told, of the original Salem group—are being educated under the supervision of headmistress Cordelia, played by Sarah Paulson, and her mother, Fiona Goode, played by Jessica Lange, the hedonistic “Supreme” of the coven and a fading beauty desperate to preserve her waning dominance over her acolytes. So far, so good; it’s basically Harry Potter meets Streetcar Named Desire. All great so far.

It’s in the show’s forays into historicity that things take a turn for the truly macabre. In the world of AHS: Coven, immortality is about as plentiful in Louisiana as swamp water, and rounding out the cast are Angela Bassett as the real-life voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, still crazy after all these 200+ years, and Kathy Bates as the infamous Mme. Delphine LaLaurie, the notorious 19th-century torturer and serial killer of dozens, possibly hundreds, of hideously unlucky African slaves. In real life, LaLaurie was driven from her New Orleans home by an angry mob and vanished under mysteriously circumstances some years later in Paris; on TV, she’s made immortal and buried alive by the omniscient Laveau, in vengeance for committing a particularly gruesome bit of bestial horror upon her houseboy, Laveau’s lover, who Delphine thought was becoming a little too familiar with one of her slutty daughters, only to be let out a century and a half later by Jessica Lange and subjected to a kind of anti-racist re-education boot camp involving making pie for Gabourey Sidibe while watching Roots, sort of like if the corpse of Adolf Hitler was resurrected in order to be valet to Jonah Hill (note to self: not a bad pitch for a buddy movie; also, pleasingly, not unlike Encino Man.)

But beyond all the voodoo batshit witchypoo hooha, the true theme of AHS: Coven is mothers. Biological mothers, surrogate mothers, symbolic goddess-worshipping mothers. And specifically, how mothers—all kinds—are, essentially, totally insane monsters.

Literally monsters. Magical, terrifying monsters. As I’ve written before, Jewish mothers have really gotten the short end of the stick in the PR department over the years, what with the nagging and the guilt and the “what, the other one you didn’t like?” and the elegant ability to insinuate that your new boyfriend is simultaneously too good for you yet not good enough. But while you may make jokes about how she’s hanging on so long she’s going to bury you all, is she literally immortal? Did your mother burn your favorite aunt at the stake for a murder your mother actually committed? Did she break your legs and stuff you in a cage in the attic with a bunch of mutilated slaves she had turned into crab-people as if in a really, really racist version of The Island of Dr. Moreau? Did she, like Patti LuPone playing your garden-variety religious freak next door (I mean, talk about an embarrassment of riches, and did I mention she sings in this show? Patti sings), force you, a grown man, into a bathtub to administer an enema … or let me back up here a second, did your mother ever administer an enema punitively?

I mean, come on. Of all the bad mommy porn out there—the tabloids gleefully passing judgment on neglectful celebrity mothers, the proudly subversive “mommy juice”-sipping Internet soccer moms, even Sophie Portnoy standing over her cowed son with a steak knife—there’s nothing that even compares to this sort of thing. And maybe that’s exactly the point—maybe instead of an attack on the construct of motherhood, AHS creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have actually mounted an impassioned defense of the real thing.

Consider it an extremely entertaining form of shock therapy—schlock therapy, if you will. Next time your mother sets your teeth on edge with a passive-aggressive remark about your polo shirt, remember that scene in the bathtub and think: It could always be worse. Your real-life mother has nothing on these reel-life ones. So, give her a call and take her out to dinner sometime this month. You don’t want her coming back to haunt you.


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.