'American Horror Story: Coven' Finale Approaches: 5 Things We Learned This Season

Sometimes even Stevie Nicks can't save you.
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american horror story coven

I've seen the season finale of "American Horror Story: Coven," and I won't give away any spoilers (my HuffPost TV colleague Chris Jancelewicz will have a full recap after the episode airs).

But I will say this about the "Coven" finale: It's coherent, it has a few entertaining moments, and it makes a certain amount of sense. And that's more than I can say for most of the rest of the season.

It didn't have to be this way: When the season began, "Coven" appeared poised to tell some outrageous and provocative stories with its stellar cast. Nobody who'd seen "AHS: Asylum" expected "Coven" to be perfectly structured or to rely on linear storytelling and subtle symbolism -- that's just not the style of the franchise, which prefers bombast, high melodrama, freaky-deaky atmospherics and scenery-chewing of the highest order. As Phil Dyess-Nugent notes, it's a show that's more about style than morality, but in the past, it's unleashed some sharp, smart observations about human nature, power and the lies that people and societies are willing to tell themselves.

The show has demonstrated that it can deploy all of its outsized, theatrical elements to excellent purpose, as it did with "Asylum," which ended on a lyrical, bittersweet, loony yet emotionally satisfying note. There were missteps here and there, but following that earlier season to some very dark, twisted places proved worthwhile. When "AHS" is working, even if events on the screen are bizarre or disturbing, you feel something for the characters, whose pain is given meaning and who often yearn for something just out of reach.

"Coven" had basically none of that. Sigh.

So what did we learn from this once-promising, ultimately disastrous season? I have handily divided the lessons into five bullet points:

1. Even top-notch actresses can't save shoddy material. "Coven" started out so promisingly! Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Gabourey Sidibe, Frances Conroy and many other fine thespians assembled in a gorgeous house in New Orleans, and the mood was a suitable mixture of grim and giddy. The first few episodes featured a lot of catty skirmishing, designer clothes and scorching one-upsmanship, but what fun that was in the hands of this cast. At first, I didn't mind that the season was more scattershot and less compelling than "Asylum" -- maybe the payoff would come later, or maybe the show's writers were pursuing more superficial ideas and themes.

Hahaha, what naivete! It turns out nobody was pursuing anything -- certainly not much worth following -- and as the season lurched from one slapdash idea to the next, the writers left the exceptional cast high and dry. The actors tried hard to forge some sense out of the slipshod material they were given, but there was no sense to be found, and the younger cast members were given particularly dopey storylines. The fever-dream intensity that is the show's speciality ultimately had no impact, because nothing really mattered and the character journeys devolved into unfunny jokes.

For the most succinct explanation of why most of this season was a dud, I must defer to Tom and Lorenzo, whose weekly takedowns of "Coven" have kept me partially sane: "There are no consequences and no explanations [in 'Coven']; just a series of vignettes that seem only marginally connected to each other. And yes, this is a world where magic exists, but any fantasy or speculative fiction writer worth her weight will tell you that an imaginary world needs to be built and explained for the reader to buy into it. If any character can accomplish anything at any time, based only on the whims of the writers, then what's the point?"

Exactly. I don't watch "AHS" for tightly controlled plots and a carefully honed structure; I know the show is going for a different kind of intensity, and sometimes the improvisatory nuttiness can be a lot of fun. But it's not too much to ask that the show have some emotional coherence or a narrative that acquires some meaning and momentum over time. If actions are divorced from consequences and most of the characters lack any compelling qualities -- again, what's the point?

2. Excellent production values and designer clothes can't mask the stench of suspect or offensive material. By setting the new season of "American Horror Story" in the South and introducing prominent characters of color, it looked as though "Coven" was going to explore issues of race in the "AHS" style we've come to expect -- in your face, shocking, provocative, unsubtle. That sledgehammer approach can work, if you have something to say: Last season's Nazi-tinged material, for example, was unsettling and scary but also at times lyrical and disturbing in all the right ways.

But "Coven" really had nothing to say on the topics of race and gender. As the season wore on, it was clear that the show wanted to shock with scenes of violence without actually giving them much weight or meaning. The repetitive scenes of brutality against women and people of color began to come off like "Saw"-style violence porn, complete with queasy, reactionary undertones. So often, those with less power were depicted as hopeless pawns or nameless victims; and especially when women were on the receiving end of brutality, the show often seemed to imply that they had it coming. Sure, "Coven" looked cool; it employed talented directors, that house was gorgeous and the ladies always wore killer heels. But that doesn't excuse the season's view of women, which amounted to "Bitches be loco," or make it okay that that its approach to race relations can be summed up in the marginalization of the once-powerful Marie Laveau, who was handily assimilated by Fiona's coven when it became convenient for Fiona. And like the show's political subtext, Marie was dead before the season was over.

3. Even if a show excels at provoking GIF creation, that doesn't mean it's worth 13 hours of your life. Sure, the Internet pounced on a few "Coven" lines and moments and turned them into entertaining memes. But memes do not a season make, and midway through the season it was clear that "Coven" was just churning out a bunch of preposterous, meaningless filler. The horn-playing serial killer, the random witch hunters, Patti LuPone as yet another creepy mom -- these stories were so sloppy and inconsequentially told that you could have excised them from the season and nobody would have noticed or cared. As for the question of Who Would Be The Next Supreme, the reality show-within-the-show, the women seemed to be competing for the title of Most Selfish and Stupid Ninny. Please don't get me started on the criminal misuse of Lance Reddick.

Once in a while, the show's actresses managed to give their "Coven" characters texture and depth -- when they had material they could work with, that is. But by the end of the season, I was only watching for Myrtle Snow (Conroy), the fashion-diva character who was the unsung hero of this otherwise frustrating mishmash.

4. We should probably be afraid of what's coming next season. I'm betting that people will try to tell me that it's no big deal that this season didn't work for me, that next season might be more my thing. But the problem wasn't that I didn't respond to "Coven's" themes, setting or ideas -- all of those things seemed quite tantalizing at the start. The problem was my increasing annoyance at dumb developments and time-wasting storylines. Trust me, I like batshit-crazy, bonkersawesome storytelling as much as the next person, but there's an art and a skill to doing that kind of thing well. It's as though whoever was in charge of "Coven" lost interest long, long before the show had actually ended. The next season will have to come out of the gate strong if it's going to keep me as a viewer, because I had to wait until the finale for it to become watchable again, and I'm not wasting that much time twice.

And the final thing we learned from the previous 12 episodes of "Coven" is...

5. If you're floundering and flailing, not even Stevie Nicks can save you. Scarf-twirls are awesome, but sadly, they are not magic.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "Fleming," "The Good Wife," "American Horror Story: Coven," "Parks and Recreation" and "Looking" in this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie, Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, Sarah Paulson as Cordelia

'American Horror Story: Coven' Season Finale Sneak Peek

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