‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Scrutinizes Toxic Female Relationships

     American Horror Story is no stranger to strong female characters.

     Women in this series are strong, smart, opinionated, and no stranger to ambition.  Even when they are portrayed as the villainess, they prove themselves to be as equally driven, scheming and manipulative as any male super-villains.  What makes them great is the fact that they are also multi-layered.  They are given the opportunity to prove that they can be driven and be friends, mothers, and daughters as well as….well, murderers.

     When I first watched Coven, I wasn’t a fan.  After the genuine scares and creative twists of the first season, Murder House, I was hooked.  Then came the insanity of the second season, Asylum.  No pun intended; if you haven’t seen it, prepare to be mind-boggled for several weeks afterwards.  So to me, when I dove into Coven, I wasn’t overly impressed.  Since Coven, this series has reached higher and higher levels of wonderful weird.  I am a big fan of this show, which is definitely not predictable.  As newer seasons have come out, my mind always goes back to Coven.  Why didn’t I love it?  I’m allowed to not like something, I know, but the rest of the series has been so consistent for me that it began to gnaw at me every time I thought about it.  So, I resolved to rewatch it.

     I’m happy to report that in the lens of a rewatch, this season is surprisingly more enjoyable.

     What struck me right away was the lack of male actors in this season.  Even Evan Peters, usually a series figurehead, took more of a passenger seat ride in this one as a hapless Frankenstein.

     Men not being a large part of a story about witches is hardly surprising.  The theme of witches being ostracized and historically outcast, killed and otherwise tortured is one as old as the Salem Witch Trials.  Even older, I’m sure.  The first time a dude cheated and got caught, I’m sure he summoned up a flock of cave-bros to stone her to death because she must have tricked him somehow.  Sorcery!

     What was surprising in this case was the fact that the story was not all about how these women had had their lives ripped apart by men.  Granted, there are moments, though most end quickly and violently, and are not dwelled upon as a major part of the plot.  Instead, this season chose a different route.  It chose to focus on the witches relationships with each other.  What this season managed to do is to focus on how women relate to each other.  It is a story about how we band together and lift each other up, but also about how we too often can tear each other down.

     One of my favourite examples of this was the relationship between Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett).  The two are extremely powerful, but bitter rivals.  Why?  Because Marie, who is three hundred years old, believes that witches have taken the good parts of voodoo and bastardized it to make modern sorcery.  While it is clear that this is a good deal about race; Marie was treated unbelievably cruelly in her former life, and scars like that do not go away.  There has been a tentative truce held between the two groups, and they have mostly pretended the other doesn’t exist for years.  However, when the two team up it is truly something to behold.  Fiona and Marie gleefully watching an axe-wielding ghost that they smuggled into a corporate headquarters take bloody vengeance on witch hunters is truly something to behold.  They hold a mutual respect for each other, but it was something that they were never able to admit because it was so firmly rooted in their identities to hate each other.

     Fiona pulled a similar trick with her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson).  Their relationship was so defining for both of them that I don’t even think that there was a mention of her father.  Fiona sees in Cordelia a power that she is jealous of, and one that could end her reign.  And as her daughter, Cordelia takes it.  She takes it and takes it and takes it.  Cordelia is far from weak.  When she discovers that her husband is cheating on her, she is done with him, immediately kicking him out of the house.  To her, he had never been a cheater, and he had changed in her eyes.  Her mother, on the other hand, she has come to expect this behaviour from, and it has become the norm.

     What is interesting is that Fiona’s true feelings are not revealed until the final episode.  Neither the audience nor Cordelia herself expects her to rise to the occasion; both have convinced themselves that Cordelia is never going to step up to the plate as a result of Fiona’s constant discouragement.  Had she embraced and nurtured her daughter, their relationship would have been healthier and the entire coven would have benefited from an encouraging leader as well as had a new leader who was groomed and prepared to take on the responsibility.

     One character that I firmly hated the first time around was Emma Roberts’ spoiled princess Madison Montgomery.  She was the true entitled diva, which Ms. Roberts excels at playing.  Her “I could give a shit” attitude gets tiring.  What is interesting in this case is that everyone within the coven gives up on her fairly quickly.  She is traumatically attacked at the start of the season, and while one witch asks her about it the next day, she shuts them out and that’s the end of it.  It is only at the end of the series that we see the cracks starting to show.

     One area of witchcraft that is explored is the netherworld and the fluidity of life and death for these beings.  When Madison experiences death, she feels that death is the only thing that made her realize that she was empty.  She hadn’t even allowed herself to process what had happened to her, and chose to continue to wield her power in the one way that she knew that she could: boys.  She chooses to engage in a relationship with her friend’s boyfriend, who is passively going along with what ever he is told.  When he confronts her at one point, she cries and begs, “But I love you!”  He stares at her briefly, and then says, “You’re not that good an actress.”  And it’s true – she never really loves him, she just wants to hurt the other girl.  But calling it this simple is missing the point; she has control over her relationship with her friend, but she feels that she has no control over what happened to her or where she will go once she has to leave the coven.  So, to continue to feel powerful, she tears down her friend and push everyone else away.

      Overall, Coven does feel different from the rest of the series, and I think that re-watching it has made me realize why.  Compared to the other seasons, this one has its roots firmly grounded in reality.  Magic aside, it is truly about the relationship between each of the girls.  They are all individuals, and have personalities that are prone to clashing.  They love each other, and when it comes down to it, they’ll protect each other.  But they also betray, manipulate, and abuse each other.

     Sadly, I think that as women most of us can say that we’ve had this kind of relationship with another woman in our lives before.  We’ve all had a toxic friendship or a rocky relationship with a relative.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to see how toxic it is until we’re out of it.  By paying attention to shows like American Horror Story: Coven, maybe we can avoid engaging in them in the future, and begin focusing on lifting each other up.

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