How Queer Is American Horror Story: Coven, Episode 5.

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 6 2013 11:00 PM

How Queer Is American Horror Story? “Burn, Witch. Burn!” Edition.

Taissa Farmiga as Zoe
Is this the face of the next supreme?

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, before we begin this week's discussion, I must draw attention to something Mark Harris tweeted over the weekend, since it addresses our core concern here on the Outward American Horror Story: Coven desk: “If you wrote a TV show and somebody sent it back saying ‘Not gay enough’ 100 times and FINALLY you nailed it … American Horror Story: Coven.”

Advertisement

Bryan: A wise man. Though I'd argue that the previous two entries shared a gay sensibility as well, I have to say that Coven is pitch-perfect. It's campy and nuance-oriented, sure, but it also picks up on the melodrama and even the sadistic quality that's often present in the gay reception of a non-gay story: There's always some amount of violence involved when we take wicked pleasure in the troubles of diva-like female characters. Speaking of sadism: Honey, this week!

June: This week indeed. As is so often the case with this show, I’m not quite sure which of the atrocities to tackle first. Given the episode's title—“Burn, Witch. Burn!”—perhaps it should be the incineration of style icon Myrtle Snow. She accepted her fate with surprising equanimity. Perhaps she simply accepted that she had been completely outmaneuvered by Fiona and her tame living voodoo doll, Queenie. But I suspect Myrtle just didn’t want to live in a world where a cheap trick by a pretty deceiver could have her supposed friends consigning her to the flames with nary a second thought.

Bryan: Something about the internalized witch-o-phobia aspect of that scene made it very difficult to watch—I mean, to do to one of your own the very thing that was famously done to your community by outsiders? The parallel to the "why are faggots so afraid of faggots" brand of gay-bashing that can sometimes happen are not accidental.

June: You use an interesting term there. The word faggot, after all, has its origins in the bundles of sticks used for burning heretics. In this case, at least, we did start the fire.

I do admire the show's talent for finding humor in the middle of despair. Quentin's ability to identify Myrtle’s alleged nom de sorcier, Jennifer Wooley, as Veronica Lake’s character in the camp classic I Married a Witch, was fabulous.

Bryan: Yes, that was priceless. But don't you find it wonderful that his overt queenliness seems almost gauche in the context of a show whose gayness is so next-level? For example, the theme that was foregrounded in this episode was clearly one's relationship with mother. We had LaLaurie's undead daughters popping by for tea and stabbings, Spalding still babying Madison’s rotting corpse in the attic, Fiona's regret over her relationship with Cordelia painfully examined, and the claim that Myrtle was a better mother to the latter than the former, though perhaps for her own obsessive reasons. I wonder what Freud would have to say about all this?

June: Absolutely. I'm of an age where familial homophobia was a more common response to a child's coming out than PFLAG kumbaya, so the Mommie Dearest stuff feels very powerful. It's striking, though, that the show is so supportive of second chances. After acknowledging her own failings as a parent, Fiona brings a stillborn baby back to life once its mother promises unconditional love. Mme. LaLaurie gets to put Boquita out of her eternal misery, and she's having her own repechage with Queenie: The role reversal of the young woman taking the (very) old lady to her bosom was really moving. These second chances at parenting also reminded me of those anti-gay politicians who have a change of heart when their own children come out. I'm all for do-overs in this context.

There's one second chance that I'm not so happy about, though. Misty Day’s gift for resurrection feels like a big red flag. If she can even bring back a witch who has been consumed by fire, then it seems that no foe is ever truly vanquished. At least not as long as Miss Day is around. Ditto the now one-armed Madison Montgomery, should Misty ever make it into Spalding's sanctum sanctorum. It’s not that I don’t want to see more of Myrtle and Madison—they’re both wonderful witches—but if the narrative can always be rewritten, all the good that’s come before can easily be undone.

Bryan: I was giving that a little of the old side-eye, too! If memory serves, Day could only bring something back if it had a trace of life left in it—recall the alligator in the season premiere? I find it hard to believe there was anything left in Snow, especially after that mysterious puff of energy about 15 seconds into the burning, which I took to be her soul, or whatever, heading on out. But deus ex machinas aside, I am grinning a little at the idea of Day and Snow teaming up against Fiona. Sparks and glares will fly.

Now, can I ask a very basic question? What the hell did Zoe say when her new power was debuted against the zombie, and, by extension, against a rudely de-floated Marie Laveau? Something about nature?

June: I don't know! I tried to engage my own powers, but I couldn't quite make it out. "Burn in nature"? "Return to nature"?

Bryan: "Be in nature"? "Benign nature?" "Be nice, nature"?

Oh, and speaking of new powers, did you leave with the impression that our poor Cordelia now has the gift of second sight to compensate for the loss of the first?

June: Yes, she seemed to see cheating Hank's pre-murder rumpy-pumpy. Surely that means she's just one step away from seeing him offing his bit on the side.

By the way, I'm now really worried for Zoe. I'd rather be in that nightmare hospital or maybe even in the LaLaurie chamber of horrors than in Fiona's cross-hairs. I hope all those pills Fiona boosted keep her from noticing Zoe’s newly manifesting powers.

Bryan: OMG, I cannot even start with that opening chamber scene—so let's don't. But yes, Zoe does seem on her way to being the next supreme, and a powerful one, too, if we can make anything of Laveau's lack of familiarity with that particular power. Perhaps Zoe's bringing an eighth wonder to the ball, children: "Be nice" realness.

June: I never thought I'd say this, but I hope there are fewer flaming queens in next week's episode.

Bryan: Yeah it takes a lot of werk and smelling salts to dispose of all those serving crispy face.

Don't miss our discussion of Episode 4 and Episode 6.

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

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