I hope Jessica Lange never ends her collaboration with Ryan Murphy. "American Horror Story" just won't be the same without her.
No matter what outlandish acts Murphy and his co-producer Brad Falchuk ask of the Oscar and Emmy winner, she turns them into small-screen magic.
That's never been truer than in the scare-fest's latest season, "Coven" (9 p.m. CT Wednesday, Oct. 9, FX; 3.5 stars out of 4). Lange plays Fiona Goode, the all-powerful Supreme witch of an ages-old coven that fled the Salem Witch Trials for the relative peace of New Orleans. Fiona has been around forever, though, and time is taking its toll. She may still be beautiful and shapely, but she needs a pick-me-up and will do anything to get it.
After some soul-searching, er, sucking, at one of her homes in L.A., Fiona heads to New Orleans, where she busts in on her estranged daughter. Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) runs Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, which really is a Hogwarts for novice witches.
"Your little kingdom is a mess," Mommy Dearest snaps when Cordelia demands she leave. Fiona insists on helping Cordelia properly teach her young charges—newcomer Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Madison (Emma Roberts), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and Nan (Jamie Brewer)—to protect themselves from a coming storm.
"It's Salem all over again," she warns.
As Fiona, Lange transforms from privileged, Prada-wearing ball-buster to desolate, fading beauty to a mother crushed by her inability to connect with her daughter—all while remaining a supreme bitch. (The premiere isn't titled "Bitchcraft" for nothing.) Her first scene with Paulson, also continuing her stellar work from last season, is heartbreaking. Defeat washes away Fiona's bravado when Cordelia snaps, "When are you going to die and stop ruining my life?"
Fiona's desire to remain youthful dovetails nicely with the flashback story that opens "Coven." "Just look at this wattle," moans Kathy Bates as Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie, a real-life 1830s serial killer who tortured and murdered her slaves. As she laments the state of her face, Madame applies her own beauty secret—human blood.
Bates' performance totally lacks the vanity and self-consciousness that defines her character. She's frightening to watch. "The heeelll I caaann't," she spits when her daughter, caught seducing the houseman, suggests mom can't control her. What Madame does to the houseman—and a bull's head—is even more terrifying.
Murphy has suggested that "Coven" will be more fun than past seasons of the anthology series. Sure, when one of your witches has a killer vagina, there are bound to be a few sick laughs. And Lange and her young costars know their way around a put-down, too.
But I have my doubts about how "fun" it'll be after watching Bates and Angela Bassett, as Marie Laveau, a vengeful voodoo priestess who may find fault in Fiona's actions. The flashbacks alone might have some viewers running for a bucket.
Although the premiere is hampered by unnecessary narration and over-exposition, it's still a bewitching brew of whimsy, psychological scares, horrific atrocities and the wonderfully relentless feeling that something wicked this way comes.
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