How Queer Is American Horror Story: Coven, Episode 13?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Jan. 29 2014 11:11 PM

How Queer Is American Horror Story? “The Seven Wonders” Edition.

Sarah Paulson as Cordelia
Cordelia sits in judgment.

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 don't know about you, Bryan, but I found that season finale quite satisfying. Although some innocents suffered—I scream a loud and impassioned "Balenciaga!" for poor, big-hearted Misty Day, condemned to kill and resuscitate dissection frogs from here to eternity—there was at least a soupcon of justice in the world. Cordelia rose to be a fair and balanced supreme (with hair so lustrous she should be doing shampoo commercials); Zoe and Queenie became wise council members; and the lines of young would-be witches snaking around Miss Robichaux's Academy looked like the tryouts for American Idol: Sorceress Edition. But best of all, it was all, like, totally queer!

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Bryan: OMG, June, we will have to have a private chat away from the children about Delia's fab blowout! Who knew that the ascension to the supremacy favored one with an eighth wonder—naturally moisturized locks. But I digress. We are in accordance that this was a very fine way to end this chapter of the storybook. Though I do have some small objections to certain character resolutions that we can get into later, I was generally pleased with the almost classical way that Coven wrapped up. A kind of cold, divine justice was applied across the board, ashes were produced, but through them, a new (indeed, queer!) era was born. I feel like so much happened that we should just start at the beginning: Stevie Nicks' prelude to the seven wonders. I was into it. You?

June: Not so much. Perhaps my camp meter needs recalibrating, but to me it was too heavily on the cheesy side of the spectrum. It reminded me of the YouTube video of Marnie singing Edie Brickell's "What I Am" that we keep seeing on Season 3 of Girls. I loved the shared commitment to shawliness, though.

Bryan: Oh, there were (no doubt well-selected by Myrtle) cheeses for sure, but I don't know, it felt like something of a narrative palate cleanser for me. In certain ways, this episode felt self-contained or perhaps tidier than the last few, and I think the little ditty helped announce that specificity.

Anyway, on to the games. It struck me, as I watched the girls work their magic, how much the contest resembled a drag ball: Have you mastered all the categories yet, hunty? Plus, Myrtle and Cordelia made fine judges with their constant stream of cocktails. What I can't give 10s across the board to, though, is the death of Misty Day. What, exactly, is she being punished for? Being too sensitive? Clearly, she didn't have the mettle to be the next supreme, but that didn't add up to a truly horrific version of damnation in my ledger.

Then again, perhaps Misty's end is better understood as a metaphor for the closet. Her vision of hell was a scene of schoolroom bullying brought on by a "power" that she couldn't help expressing but that she nevertheless wanted to hide. It's telling that the gruff teacher made her do something masculine in killing the frog, something that went against her queer sensitivity to preserving life or being kind. Sounds kinda like my own experience with football, to be honest. Perhaps in the end, Misty's "crime" was never overcoming her fears of being totally out about her powers, of seeking isolation and shadow instead of community and visibility. Silence = Death, or in this case, ash, after all. It's a harsh judgment on the closet, but something tells me Ryan Murphy doesn't have much sympathy for that in his moral universe.

June: Ooh, I love the parallel between the seven wonders and a drag ball. (Sorry, Queenie, you failed at Resurrection Realness.) And I also think you're right about why poor Misty had to turn to ashes. She was always the most marginalized of the young witches, perhaps because she was least comfortable with her powers. Queenie was despised by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons—none of them justified—and that hatred seemed to make her stronger. Her version of hell was all too familiar; she'd escaped it before, and she did it again. Zoe's hell felt juvenile—an endless loop of romantic breakups—and Madison's was a big meta-joke (you say Liesl in The Sound of Music Live; I hear Britney in Glee), so someone's had to be more harrowing. Of course, Misty wasn't the only one who found herself living in a Groundhog Day horror show; Fiona's version of hell involves catfish, cat piss, and knotty pine. And she'll be waking up to the Axeman from this day forward.

Bryan: Oh I cackled heartily at that Sound of Music shade. But yeah, I think your reading of Queenie in particular is spot-on. She's the only witch who has had to face any real adversity in her life, so she knows better than to sink into the grease pit of trying to placate ignorant people. Before we get to Fiona's fate, don't forget about the significance of Madison's. It read like a cautionary tale to the bitchy queen who doesn't respect her elders, who cares so little for her fellow queers that she won't even deign to help them when she has the power to heal. Watch out, or that rough trade you treated like scum may come back to choke you, and your sisters won’t be there to help.

June: You're right, I'm doing what people (especially privileged people) often do and racing past the complicated, not-so-nice parts of the story so that I can get to the easy, kumbaya bits. Madison compared herself to Fiona—another woman who turned her back on the coven once she'd accumulated some social capital—but her sin was even greater. She refused to save her sister witch and then threatened to out the coven to TMZ. That wasn't just a reminder of how nasty closeted queens can be when their perks are threatened—in that sense, Madison was half Roy Cohn and half Liberace—it was also one of the many biblical references that were shoehorned into this episode. Cordelia quoted the 1 Corinthians 13:11 verse about putting away childish things; Myrtle reminded Delia of the saying from the gospels that a prophet is never recognized in his own home; and Cordelia got to be the Good Samaritan, helping poor dead Zoe after Madison had left her on the side of the road. Am I crazy to see those parallels?

Bryan: No, you’re not crazy—and don't forget the Last Supper tableau. A certain kind of morality was a major theme of this episode, at no other moment more so than when Myrtle admitted the necessity of paying for her sins so that the coven could start untainted. I have to say, that scene was hard—I doubt we'll see a campier character than that on TV for some time—but in the end I think she was right. Her work was done, and she'd already lived two lives. Better to leave the coven bittersweet than poisoned. And with that, I guess we're finally at the real finale, the true end of Fiona. I thought it was beautifully executed and gorgeously acted by Jessica Lange. Her moment of humanity was genuinely moving, I thought, and her punishment fair. Contracts must be kept, after all, and boring domesticity seemed a fitting sentence for a woman who'd fled intimacy and responsibility her whole charmed life, using and abusing people's good will along the way.

June: Well said. But let's talk about Cordelia's vision of the coven's future. Madison threatened it with TMZ, Delia took it to Headline News. All those things she said—that the coven doesn't proselytize, doesn't have an agenda, and doesn't recruit—were awfully familiar. Witches are born that way, she said. It's not a choice, and resisting one's calling means rejecting one's full potential. Of course, that's the official line on homosex—I mean, witchcraft, but I think we all know it's not completely true. Or, at least, that it's an oversimplification. As true a moral compass as Cordelia has been, I'm not altogether comfortable with the message that homosex—I mean, witchcraft is in our DNA. (Or, for that matter, Fiona's philosophy that women lose their power—that is, their agency—when they give birth. Talk about a retro point of view.)

Bryan: Oh yes, that interview was some True Blood-level queer analogizing, clearly. But as you point out, Delia's articulation of the Born This Way philosophy was more complicated that it might have seemed. It's true that a witch may be born with some predisposition for controlling minds and looking good in black, but at some point she must choose to own and practice that identity. Ignoring it doesn't mean it will go away, of course (and suppression will be painful and damaging), but it must be said that some amount of choice is involved. I actually think the show did something interesting in that vein, in that it maintained the need for witches to learn from elders, to participate, as it were, in a culture. Cordelia's call wasn't just "come out, come out, wherever you are"; it was come out and come learn about your people, your power—we need community and culture to make the most of ourselves. All of this, if it isn't clear, firmly applies to gay people, in my view.

Before we go, I do want to sound one note of discord on Myrtle's lonely theremin. Given how intensely this season drew on issues of race and privilege, I must say I am still not comfortable with the fate of Marie Laveau. Yes, I'm glad that a black witch is now on the council, but the ease with which Murphy dispensed with a woman who was essentially a community organizer bothers me. I don't have much more to say about it, but as we reflect on the season, that particular character trajectory is one worth thinking about a bit more.

June: Yes, although I know Ryan Murphy is just one part of AHS: Coven's creative team, the show demonstrated a tendency, common to all his projects, of creative amnesia. He often sets up Big Issues and then conveniently forgets all about them two episodes later. Sure, Fiona was the longtime supreme of the titular coven, so it didn't surprise me that she came back from the dead for a big wrapup this episode, but nor did it please me that Marie Laveau didn't do so.

But now I must be off. I saw somewhere that Liza Minnelli is going to be talking about her hip. I don't want to miss that.

Bryan: Oh no, you mustn't. June, it's been bewitching kiki-ing about this show with you these past few weeks. Can I count on you to twirl in again this fall when we embark on American Horror Story: Sudden New Orleans Housing Deficit?

June: Absolutely. Until then I'll be shopping for a black parasol.

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.