How Queer Is American Horror Story: Coven, Episode 6?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 13 2013 11:00 PM

How Queer Is American Horror Story? “The Axeman Cometh” Edition.

amie Brewer as Nan, Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, and Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie.
Spirit Board says ... Jamie Brewer as Nan, Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, and Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie.

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: I'd like to begin with an analogy.

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American Horror Story: Coven: Absinthe :: RuPaul's Drag Race: Absolut

Oh, and Rocky Horror Story: Riff Raff :: AHS: Coven: Spalding

Bryan: I like it! It's just that in Coven, the Interior Illusions Parlor is haunted by an ax-wielding jazz man (and we're not talking about his instrument!), while in RPDR, it's the ghost of Mimi Imfurst's relevance that lingers

Release that drag queen, honey! Latiny, satiny, put her down!

June: I've not been much of an American Horror Story viewer before this cycle, so I was perhaps more surprised than I should be about how smart the plotting is getting to be. Hank is a witch-hunter in the pay of Marie Laveau; the newly released Axeman is going to be Fiona's last great love affair—though I very much doubt they'll end up on a cruise to Nova Scotia. The pieces are fitting together nicely.

Bryan: Oh child, I thought Miss Fiona was going to set that evangelical-looking doctor on fire for such a tacky suggestion. But yes, plot is starting to get as tight as a weave from Marie Laveau's reputable shop—you know, the one with the Human Rights Campaign flag fluttering upstairs. When she buries a white bitch, she means for her to stay dead, and yet no one in this show seems capable of that. I get that we're going for a loose epidemic metaphor, what with all the witches dying, but the thing about real disease is that people can't come back. Literally everyone who has died is either bumbling around again or at least about to sprout up from Lily Rabe's Cassette Tape Memorial Garden. Is that not undermining some of the show's stakes for you, June?

June: It is. The gift of resuscitation is a license to do over, which is great if it's Groundhog Day and there's a doe-eyed maiden you're looking to seduce, but when you're trying to tell a story that makes sense, it undermines the notion of consequences. Does anything really matter if a stinking one-armed corpse can be turned back into a two-time Teen Choice Award-winner with a sprinkle of fine Louisiana mud?

Bryan: Exactly! I'm sure Murphy is up to something with resurrection seemingly being a rule of this cycle, but I'm really hoping it's worth it in the end. If you can just squeeze death out of people like so much paste from a tube, a lot of dramatic possibilities are foreclosed.

Moving on, what do you make of the various queer survival philosophies that are being established, no doubt in preparation for a grand battle sometime in January? We've got the militant radical embodied in Marie Laveau and to some extent in an (unconvincingly) butched-up Zoe, Chelsea queen narcissism in Queenie and Fiona, and radical faerie separatism in Misty Day. I'm most attracted to Misty right now, but I must admit it’s fun see a bunch of teenage girls stab a man to death after reading him with the death card.

June: It's tricky to predict which attitude will be most successful, because the lessons of history are unclear. The Class of 1919 was spunky and radical—full of rhetoric about throwing off their docility and using their grace, strength, and intelligence to defy the Axeman—but their power didn’t last. The days when the gay bars, sorry, I mean the rooms of the young witches' academy, were packed to capacity are long gone.

Nowadays, the adversaries seems to be mainstreaming, assimilation, and a plague—or at least a knife-wielding witch-hunter. The foes are formidable, and I'm not convinced that the tools today's witches have at their disposal are powerful enough to overcome these forces, which have an air of inevitability about them. What's more, the more powerful the witches become, the less effective they seem to be. Fiona has new powers now that she's hooked up to chemo, but, well, she's hooked up to chemo. Cordelia has the second sight—the greatest gift to have and the hardest one to live with—and she's basically left cowering under the furniture.

Bryan: Yeah, and not to be cruel, but it's not a cute look to have your hair falling out in the club, or to have your tears staining the carpet. Are we really meant to believe that witches don't have some kind of tonic for blindness or chemo toxicity? A disguise spell? Something? I mean, they can bring back the dead! I bet if you set Zoe on the case, she could suss one out between Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Essential Pepin. Just keep her away from the spatulas. Speaking of cruelty ...

June: I don't know about you, but the torture of Spalding was too much for me. Using Nan to read his thoughts was an inspired move—as was her lazy millennial summarizing, which turned "I am a man of uniquely developed appetites" into "Sex"—but the torture was just ... torture. (And in future, Spalding, honey, turn your teacakes over with a silicone spatula.) But given Queenie's horrific "gift" as a human voodoo doll, I guess gross scenes like that are to be expected.

Bryan: Oh, surely—we're watching American Horror Story. But it wasn't so much the blistered flesh that got me as their total, like, classist hatred of him. He's creepy, sure—BUT HIS TONGUE IS GONE. That's bound to make one a little lurky. Their treating him like an abject subhuman servant—not, we should note, unlike Madame LaLaurie used to treat her living toys—felt strikingly nasty in a show with otherwise fairly complex morality.

What else, what else, my esteemed mortal colleague? Shall we discuss the romantic fates of Mother and Daughter Goode? One seems poised to “belong to” (as she wished to the doctor) a newly freed ghost, and the other has just begun to uncover the witch-ghosts her husband has created. Is all this going to draw them together, or will Fiona's perpetual martini glass stay between them?

June: Well, to defend the young witches just a tad, they do believe that Spalding killed their friend. And he’s so loyal to Fiona that he'll happily allow them to carry on thinking that. But what if Hank obeys Marie Laveau's impatient orders to bring her the heads of "Fiona, her daughter, and every witch bitch in that house"? Love may be a luxury when their very survival is at stake.

Bryan: Indeed, one can't be too worried about the goings-on in the Gold Bar when her focus must be on lip-synching (spells) for her life. As the action ratchets up (and becomes no doubt more ratchet), I'm beginning to wonder if anyone will be a winner. (Well, we know Stevie Nicks will be when she cameos, but otherwise ...)

June: As the Axeman might sayeth: “U-N-T-I-L N-E-X-T W-E-E-K!”

Don't miss our discussion of Episode 5 and Episode 7.

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.