American Horror Story is, if nothing else, gloriously stylish: the promos for its third season, Coven, were starkly, beautifully creepy, featuring black-clad women in an all-white house, a spare acoustic vocal of House of the Rising Sun playing in the background. The first episode retains that visual sparseness as its plot explodes into gore and camp, a predictable stable of cliches trotted out, thank god, by an arsenal of phenomenally talented actresses.
The younger girls have the least to do: Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) is a newcomer whose supernatural power is literally exploding the brains of boys she has sex with while Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) is a spoiled former movie star afflicted by telekensis, a bad attitude and a penchant for fur coats in swampy New Orleans. Their schoolmates at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (the cover story for witch boarding school) are clearly intended as a sideshow: there's human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey SIdibe) and clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer). Queenie is fat and black and Nan has Downs Syndrome, and when they disappear after a brief dinnertime tussle with Madison it's clear that our pretty white heroines are going to be the ones who get real stories this season. They go to a frat party where Madison is drugged and gang raped and Zoe makes a (boy) friend, who quickly dies in the flaming bus crash Madison engineers as revenge. Of the two survivors, one is one of Madison's rapists. Clearly nothing will do but for Zoe to go to the hospital and finish him off in style.
Meanwhile Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the Supreme witch of her age and Miss Robichaux's headmistresses' mother, is trying to figure out how to live forever, which leads her to exhume a pre-Emancipation-era psycho named Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) whose gruesome experiments on her stable of slaves were intended to keep her philandering husband from straying. LaLaurie is still breathing despite a hundred and fifty-odd years in coffin because she was cursed to eternal life by famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who seems unlikely to want to help Fiona, but who knows, really.
And in the background there's a young witch from an evangelical family who was burned at the stake for her ability to ressurect the dead and a war on witches that Fiona insists is coming. (Jessica Lange pulls off a monologue about the dangers of Twitter and Facebook about as well as anyone ever has.) The episode is full of women, sure, but it's also full of old, tired myths about women: the crone who lusts after youth, power and beauty, and the beautiful, brutal, deadly siren. Zoe's essentially been burdened with a vagina dentata, and though the end of the episode shows her using her own body to commit violence, it's still asking us to see her sex as a tool of destruction, weilded impersonally to terrible effect. American Horror Story has never been known for its narrative restraint, and these tropes are the hallmarks of the genres from which is proudly draws inspiration; I hope they can find a way to subvert, question or otherwise challenge them over the course of the season.