How Queer is American Horror Story: Coven, Episode 3?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 23 2013 11:15 PM

How Queer Is American Horror Story? “The Replacements” Edition

Jessica Lange as Fiona Goode
Let's just pretend she could be more beautiful

Photo by Michele K. Short/FX

For the duration of American Horror Story: Coven, 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 cauldron’s surface. Don’t be afraid to add your own cackles in the comments.

June: Bryan, I must begin by praising your nod to Dorian Gray last week. When I saw the business with the portraits early in this episode, I was bursting with pride!

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Bryan: Why, thank you, June! My only regret is that they didn't start throwing shade at Ms. Fiona from inside their frames, Harry Potter-style. She'd deserve that and more, of course, after what she did to her drag house—excuse me, witch-coven—mother, Anna-Lee.

June: Before we get into the mommy issues in this shocking episode, can I pause to just boggle at the show’s diva quotient. This week, we had Christine Ebersole, Patti LuPone, and Mare Winningham in addition to the amazing cast we'd already met in the first two episodes.* It's a little overwhelming—and it makes me hope extra-hard that we'll get another musical number this season.

Bryan: Girl, you know Ryan Murphy has a diva Rolodex that I'd kill for ... with a blade, across his blessed throat, splatter splatter, Spalding we need a new rug, not a new supreme kween. Patti LuPone had better werk with that holy-roller business. You know I'm a Southern boy, so I was pleased when Madison and Nan brought over the traditional welcome cake, but I almost choked on my supper when Madison explained to Ms. Piety that her religion was a "crock of shit."

June: Madison's gracelessness was perhaps her biggest shortcoming. We saw that her powers were blossoming—she'd soon be demonstrating her mastery of the seven wonders—but I balked at her lack of respect for tradition. The title of this episode was "The Replacements," and it was all about the necessity of passing the torch, but we saw how difficult that can be. Fiona jumped the gun, grabbing Anna-Lee's title and the power that goes with it before she was ready (at least in Anna-Lee's eyes). Kyle's mother, Alicia, on the other hand, maintained her physical connection with her son for far too long.

Madison was neither as driven and precocious as Fiona nor as stuck in her terrible ways as Alicia. But was she ready to lead? It was her unnecessary needling of LuPone’s Joan Ramsey—and her tactless way of trying to get into the Ramsey boy’s shorts—that made me think Fiona was right to off her. Madison would've brought far too much negative attention to the coven.

Bryan: Totally. Madison had all the bravado with none of the calculating ambition. Though once she found out that she might be even more special than she already imagined herself to be, she went very All About Eve—not a good idea around Fiona. I could tell things were going south when, over brunch, she was too much of a millennial to understand that she was being tested. And her failure was only compounded when she proved she didn't have what it took to take out her elders. So yes, slashing approved. The only question is how that will affect the supreme power-leaching cycle—will Fiona get it back, or will the works get gummed up somehow?

June: There don't seem to be any coven members whose powers are on a par with Madison's—much less Fiona's—but given the reigning supreme's medical diagnosis, I can't help but see a parallel to the gay ‘80s.

Fiona's doctor told her, "Your blood work is alarming, and your immune system seems to be in some kind of free fall." That's a clear a reference to AIDS. In the 1980s, the virus took so many of the gay movement's leaders (and artists and accountants and everythings) that there was a severe leadership gap. One generation all but disappeared before the next was ready. It looks like the coven is going through its own version of that dynamic.

Bryan: I love that reading, especially given Cordelia's infertility. With mommy killing mentees and daughter unable to conceive (at least, without a little boiled semen and spilled goat's blood), we really do have the makings of exactly the kind of gap you describe. Speaking of the sought-after voodoo fertility rite, we should note that this episode was queer—using a very broad definition—in ways that surprised even me. Unorthodox impregnation methods aside, we had the incest you mentioned (with a dead, re-assembled body, no less) and Queenie's initiation of bestial-ish sex with the minotaur. If last season was in many ways about the way desire curdles when it is frustrated, this one seems to be about desire run amok. For sex, for youth, for children, for substances, and, of course, for power.

June: Yes. It’s just too bad that the objects of their desires so often seem unworthy. Cordelia's quest for a child is at least socially approved, and I heartily endorse Queenie's do-it-yourself attitude to the pursuit of love. But the others seem so empty. As Fiona said of Kathy Bates’ Mme. LaLaurie: "Eternal life—and all you can do is stuff your face and cry?" Fiona's life seems so empty—she's on the diva diet of booze and pills, so she doesn't even have gustatory pleasures. For her, it's all about power and the desire to be desired. None of these witches seem to be doing anything worthwhile with their special talents. Except perhaps the lonely Misty Day, who can make the dead rise again.

Bryan: Oh yes, there's more than a little late-Judy Garland in Fiona's situation. But I suspect circumstances with Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau will eventually force her out of her malaise. Misty Day is more of a mystery to me at this point. We saw, as predicted, that she is jealous of Zoe’s relationship with FrankenKyle, and Zoe is apparently too naive to see the potential danger in that situation. My guess is that Misty will come twirling out of the bayou very soon, and her arrival, freighted as it is with frustrated desire for some kind of feminine belonging, won't bring anything good.

June: This show is an endless parade of bad mothers—Kyle's, Cordelia's, Madison's, Queenie's. Cordelia, who is a sort of den/drag mother to the young witches, is the only halfway decent maternal figure. She’s merely ineffectual—and she, of course, is infertile. What's next: a hit job on apple pie?

Bryan: Possibly! But the mothering relationship I'm watching with great interest right now is that—stay with me—between Mme. LaLaurie and Queenie. Yes, Mme. LaLaurie is now, in a delightful twist, Queenie's personal slave, but their brief exchange about Queenie's weight and her replacement of love with food had the shimmers of some kind of strange, trans-historical tenderness. You watch, I wouldn't be surprised if those two ended up in a healthier place than the rest, however unlikely.

June: Healthier than the rest of this bunch might not be much of an achievement, but I can see that coming to pass. There's something about the honesty of their exchanges that gives me hope they can both move to a better place. After all, one of them is mourning her lost daughter, and the other needs a mother's love.

Let's hope that you and I get to a better place, too, and that Spalding finds a new rug that compliments the school’s decor.

Don't miss our discussion of Episode 2 and Episode 4.

*Correction, Oct. 24, 2013: This post originally misspelled Mare Winningham's last name.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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