Ah, autumn. The time of rotting leaves, ominous skies, lurid decorative squash, and, of course, the new season of American Horror Story. As has been suggested in Slate’s earlier coverage of the show, AHS is not only one of the most unique and engaging things on television, but also (in no small part due to its campy creator, Ryan Murphy) one of the queerest. Therefore, for the duration of the current “Coven” season, June Thomas and J. Bryan Lowder will gather each week in Outward to call the corners and charm the most recent episode of its queer meaning, whether brazenly obvious or bubbling just below the caldron’s surface. Don’t be afraid to add your own cackles in the comments.
(Read a review of the premiere episode from Slate’s television critic Willa Paskin.)
Bryan: Good morning, Mrs. Robichaux.
June: Good morning, Miss Fiona Goode!
I was taken aback by the opening of Episode 2, which read like an hommage to Swamp People, History's hugely successful show about gator hunting in the swamps of Louisiana. And then Lily Rabe’s Misty Day showed up, twirling to Stevie Nicks. In some ways, the Misty Miss Day feels like the queerest character on the show: She has a drag-queen name, she worships a diva (albeit one with two names), and like many a young homosexual, she's desperately searching for a friend. As she says when she lures Zoe and Kyle to her lair, "Now I'm not alone." My heart broke for her!
Bryan: As did mine! I delighted in seeing Lily Rabe in yet another ethereal, wild-eyed role, though I'm hoping that this time no demons are involved. Her sort of non-denominational, earth-mother situation was very appealing in contrast to our warring Salem and Voodoo friends. Plus, she was giving off some serious lesbian energy, no? Certainly, I felt some kind of desire on her part for Zoe (perhaps not sexual, but intimacy is wanted, I think). I wonder how having "ideal boyfriend body" Kyle in the triangle will muss with that.
June: Yes, I'm not sure how to take the creation of Kyle. The assemblage of the boy parts was very Rocky Horror Picture Show (only in the 21st century, the song would go "in just seven minutes I can make you a man"), but I don't really feel the connection between Zoe and Kyle. Of course, I understand Zoe’s desire for justice—she felt bad that he was condemned because of his association with the rapist frat dudes, and it makes perfect sense that a witch with roots in Salem would be invested in the right to a fair trial. But Madison seems far too determined to pair Zoe off with Kyle.
Bryan: Yeah, that whole narrative felt a bit ... constructed ... to me. First Zoe is completely grossed-out and horrified, and then she's ably sewing the hip bone to the leg bone because she "HAD TO TRY!" The queens with whom I savored this episode were all like, "Girl, when has the resurrection thing ever worked out well?" I wonder if Ms. Madison isn't just interested in her power and abilities, pure and simple. (Side note: The show needs to clarify pretty soon what exactly magic is in this universe—at first it seemed like the familiar psychic powers with a bit of advanced botany, but then we've got yellowed papyrus and Latin—but I digress.) But I did enjoy when, after the Black Flame Candle failed to ignite, she just gave up and went to check her phone like a good millennial.
Speaking of Madison, her attitudes in these first two episodes seem to be articulating some kind of wonderfully violent feminism—or am I crazy? Like, all men are pigs (including Kyle) and really just parts to be played with or tumbled around in a bus. And we still don't know what her relationship to the Steubenville situation was, exactly. I can't decide if it was true date rape, or if she somehow orchestrated the situation just for the pleasure of revenge.
June: You’re not at all crazy. And with the revelations out of Maryville this week, it's hard for anyone who isn't a Quaker not to cheer Madison’s summary judgment on men who feed liquor to young girls and then assault them. And yet, and yet, there's a lot of manipulation on both sides. Given her powers, which are impressive even if they're not yet fully harnessed, I'd be surprised if she could really have been taken advantage of so easily in the first place.
Bryan: I’m not blaming the victim, BTW—in American Horror Story, no one is blameless.
June: Indeed. What do you make of Fiona Goode's quest for eternal youth? This is a common enough urge, of course, as the healthy market for cosmetics and plastic surgery proves. But I'm feeling a tragic aspect to it that I associate with gay-male culture—specifically a sort of Cher-ian energy that's so often mirrored by the queens who worship her.
Bryan: Oh, totally. I mean, Jessica Lange is clearly Ryan Murphy's gay diva puppet projection screen in this series, and there is no narrative more gay-male than Dorian Gray. There's something very 21st-century Gloria Swanson about Fiona's character, swooning around and desperate for the relevance that comes with beauty. The only difference is that Fiona is still a total HBIC, ability-wise, so she's that much more dangerous in her desperation. She's also giving a certain kind of old queen imperiousness vis-a-vis the younger students, with her disdain for their ignorance and yet her insistence on their being better than the "straight" world. It's very radical liberation versus Cordelia Foxx’s assimilation model.
June: That brings up some interesting kinship dynamics. These women are not a happy family—there is resentment and condescension and plain old racist hatred flowing among them—but they are a family. In the case of Fiona and Cordelia, it's a question of blood, but for the most part it's an intentional family, where the old hands are schooling the children on how to use their skills, who to emulate, and what kind of trouble to avoid like the plague. It's like the drag families I always feel so envious of on Drag Race. Fiona and Cordelia are passing on the occult secrets of the sisterhood, just as drag mothers teach their daughters about wig lace and tucking.
Bryan: Yes! In the first episode we had Zoe Benson taken away from her biological (to be read in RuPaul's cadence) family to join this one for her real education, which is a path that a drag queen or, really, any queer person must follow to some extent. I'm always calling David Halperin to the stage on this subject, but his point is so essential: Homosexuality is innate, but gayness, like witchiness apparently, is learned. Reading and wit and camp and cruising = enchanting and potions and hexing and wearing fashionable black garments.
Speaking of camp, a final question for you: Race seems to be the most tricksy issue being addressed in this season, most graphically via Kathy Bates' Mme. La Laurie and her treatment of her slaves and punishment by Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau. But I feel that Murphy is trying to temper the nastiness of having all that on screen with camp (as has been true throughout this series). Is it working for you? Did you, for example, find the campiness of the scene where Marie is doing Fiona's hair to be enough to transform the racism in that exchange into something productive or entertaining?
June: Transform it? No. But like a lot of people, I imagine, I'm hungry for an honest discussion of race, and somehow, possibly incorrectly, it feels like that's more possible when the African-American in the conversation isn't disguising her anger and her hunger for revenge, and the Caucasian isn't masking her contempt for black American culture. It's not exactly pleasant to watch, but it's different. And I did love the black beauty shop as the venue for Fiona and Marie's showdown (and as the place where Marie would work her modern-day magic). After all, churches and hair salons are the most segregated places in America.
Until next week, when like Miss Goode and Mme. La Laurie, we can wander down the street together, you in something sleek and black, me in a crinoline.
Don't miss the discussion of American Horror Story: Coven, Episode 3