NOTE: There is some material here that could spoiler the series. Please be advised.
The American Horror Story franchise hit its third season with Coven, and it's with this installment that I finally understand what it is the series is trying to accomplish.
The first was set in a psuedo-Roswell and seemed a collage of various X-Files tropes. The second series was better, it was set in a mental hospital in the North East and had more of a straightforward story. With the third, the writers seemed to understand what they were doing, and properly got to work.
What this series does, apart from provide a wonderful backdrop for Jessica Lange to be incredibly awesome in, is to take a set-piece from a quintessentially American horror motif. Be it an abandoned mental hospital (the ur-example being a very real and very creepy one in Danvers, Massachussetts I had the misfortune to live near), or a dry, alien-invasion prone desert, or in this case the voodoo and urban decay and old-money decadence of New Orleans and stitch together elements of what horrifies the American psyche, and use it as a canvas upon which to paint.
It doesn't work, and has never tried to work in a jump scare or ostensibly "horror movie" mode, leading some people to wonder why it's even called "Horror Story". Oh sure, there's some blood, some gore, some guy in a mask here and there, but it's far from a slasher movie or even a Tales from the Darkside creep-fest. But no more or no less than softcore porn, Twilight-for-adults True Blood.
But when you take a step back and look at the themes they draw on, they're all quintessentially American. Nobody fears grey aliens grabbing for you in the night or being attacked for miscegenation in Budapest, Hugary. London, England might have been the site of Bedlam but it wasn't a place where people were subjected to medical experiments or locked away in quite the same way as Jessica Lange's sadistic nun in season two. A woman's right to control her own reproduction didn't have a Roe Vs Wade moment that could be exploited by a series in having someone forcibly impregnated and kept that way by medical science.
On the surface, it's the story of man vs other: there are two covens of witches in New Orleans, the white ones (who own a prestigious boarding school for girls more like Professor X's academy in X-Men than Hogwarts) and those of color, who gather around the immortal Marie Laveau to practice voodoo, and the truce between these groups which was uneasily held for decades is now broken.
It's also man vs man: the black characters aren't as well developed (except to be tortured in an attic in a Django Unchained type montage of cruelty in the slave period in a series of historical flashbacks) so the internecine fighting we see on screen is confined to the white coven: not only do they bump each other off and jockey politically - which is awkward in a world where resurrection is possible - they're all vying to be "The Supreme". Amongst witches, apparently, there is a first amongst equals who radiates more power and has political control. The Supreme at the time of the season's start is Lange's character, a decadent Baby Boomer who murdered the previous one to get her position. She returns from her travels not only to bully her daughter (who has been running the white coven in her absence) but also because she is dying. Part of being the Supreme is that as a newer girl begins to ascend, the present one fades. The present Supreme's immune system is falling apart, and she has cancer: she can't even be made to look younger as she fades, as no reputable surgeon would work on someone decaying so rapidly. With the help of one of the young witches she finds a woman sentenced to eternal life buried under the cobbled side streets of New Orleans, for being monstrous and torturous even by the standards of the day - and tries to use her to find some way of staying alive. The only one who knows that secret is Marie Laveau, whose contempt for the whites who stole her people's power is turned to anger by the Supreme threatening her, but then exacerbated by her own daughter approaching begging for a fertility spell. (Preying on the fears of a Gen X generation who may have left having a family too long...)
Because whereas the white coven has the money and the nice house in the French Quarter, complete with servants, it doesn't quite have the power in the back room of a hair salon in the Ninth Ward.
Things are further complicated with love triangles, both with the boy next door (whose mother is a Bible basher) and a revenant literally pieced together from a pile of dead fraternity brothers, the head of which belonged to the only and nice boy amongst them. His reanimation isn't initially complete, and he reacts to his incestuous white trash mother's molestation by beating her to death.
Shout-out to the cast, in passing. Returning actresses reprise different roles, but they've acquired several excellent talents in the offseason including the actress who played Precious, and a delightfully talented young lady with Down's Syndrome who is given the opportunity to play a nuanced human being with wants, foibles and personality (as opposed to being "the one with Down's"). They also managed to snare the arch-villain from True Blood, unrecognizable except for a brief portion in which his unmistakable voice with its inimitable southern drawl signals to you that it's him.
As a plot, as characterizations go, it's a somewhat predictable kind of story with some great set pieces, including a couple of zombie armies raised by the minions of Laveau as she goes into full bore vouduisante mode, hovering above veves in an impossible, Satanic trance.
Where it shines, though - is that it has honed in well on the concept of fridge horror: the sort of thing that hits you much much later. Never mind the squeamish ugliness of the fates of slaves in the Deep South, and the obvious racial tension through the series - it hits on the Baby Boomers' fear of their own imminent mortality, knowing that they ripped a power they weren't ready for from a generation that didn't stop them, using it only for their own decadent and selfish purpose. The Supreme got an inheritance, and she squandered it - ignoring her family in pursuit of her desires, wasting the potential and power of her coven to jet-set and enjoy her own whims. And at the end of her life, being haunted by the terrific loss she inflicted on the world. (And in the series conclusion, literally waking up in Hell as a result). Likewise, the woman two generations back cannot but contain her horror at a black President, of being humiliated first by being made a maid but also then made a literal slave to a young woman of color. Another young girl finds out about her immense power when she has sex for the first time and causes the boy in question to die horribly, a clear metaphor for risks in a generation that has always known AIDS. (As a result she takes to dressing like Debbie Gibson and playing the virginal foil to the teenage vamp. (not vampire, vamp.)
Skeletons (well, zombies) in the closet come back to literally dismember the living. Black characters live with the frustration of coming from the cradle of civilisation with noble blood, reduced to second class blue collar workers by a bigoted society. The hot-shot pretty girl Millennial believes herself capable of anything and the way to the throne literally paved for her by a jealous Baby Boomer mentor, only to find when literally put to the test she's great at some things, and horrible at others and not quite as good as she thinks - her worldview of life revolving around her and all her assumed innate superiority vanishing in an instant. And let's not forget fraternity gang-rape. There's any of a number of ever-present fears that get pricked, just enough for you to notice, but not enough for you to realize you're noticing. It's a finely nuanced exercise in finding a balance where you're uneasy but pulled forward by a plot past that uneasiness.
There's also a certain fridge brilliance in using the same actresses, with different characters, exploring related themes. One actress previously played a nightclub singer who sought personal redemption in a nunnery, trying to walk away from a degnerate life she later regretted, but couldn't let go of - and in this series plays a decadent witch at the end of her life trying to redeem it through the supernatural in other ways. Another actress played out the body horror of being lesbian, raped, and pregnant against her will in a previous series but is now playing a woman who is barren, trying to keep the attention of an adulterous man and willing to risk her own soul to have a child. There might be something, as this series continues, of seeing "vertical slices" of horror as the same themes are explored by the same actress in multiple roles in multiple series over time.
In modern parlance, there's a "trigger warning" every few minutes for somebody, and that's really the essence of horror. All the tropes, all the set pieces of urban legends and shared Facebook news items and "things we just don't talk about" woven into a multi-layered gumbo, passing itself off carefully as a softcore-horror. It's masterfully done.