American Horror Story is many things: polished, sexy, camp, dark, quippy. The show’s greatest weaknesses, the things that it’s not, include subtle and mature. In “The Replacements,” the third episode of American Horror Story: Coven, those weaknesses take center stage.
The lack of subtlety inhabits episode’s main theme: people being replaced. The character most acutely feeling the tenuousness of her position, the possibility of her replacement, is Fiona. Fiona is a vain woman, obsessed with her beauty and disappeared youth, willing to take any necessary measures to preserve what she has, and perhaps recapture what she’s lost. In this episode, her grasping brings Fiona to ruminate on her bloody ascent to being the Supreme (the world’s most powerful witch). She was once a beautiful upstart, convinced that her time had come and willing to do what was required—in this case, murder—to achieve it. Now, though, her charms (though not, perhaps, her magic) are fading. Once she could have any man she wanted, without any effort: “Every one of them is certain that they lead, but it is my dance. I make the first move, which is no move at all,” she says. Now, she’s ignored in bars filled with younger people.
Seeing her as the young challenger to an older Supreme makes guessing the episode’s next step simple: a conflict with Madison. Supremes are marked by controlling seven powers of witchcraft (as we’ve seen, most witches only have one or two). In “The Replacements,” Madison begins to manifest new powers, tapping her as potentially the next Supreme. The parallel—two young, arrogant, ambitious blondes in conflict with older, insecure women—is hardly subtle, but it only lacks a bit of grace. Subtlety flies into the night on a broomstick, though, when Fiona literally sees herself in Madison while the pair shoot pool, a scene dropped in just in case the hour-long parallel had been lost on any viewers.
One of the strengths of genre work is that it allows for the examination of otherwise hokey or tired themes through metaphor. The Fiona/Madison conflict—generational, sexual, power—takes the metaphorical form of cancer: Madison is sucking Fiona’s power, which has led to a cancer that’s killing the older woman. A workable metaphor, but the hammering home of the similarities between the two has called so much attention to it that it feels clunky (though the climactic scene does include one genuinely surprisingly and, should it keep, season-altering development).
A lack of subtlety isn’t fatal to genre work, especially horror: after all, what’s subtle about the Friday the 13th series or Saw? Subtlety has its place, but it’s not a universal virtue in horror. Immaturity, on the other hand, is a harder mouthful to swallow. AHS has always lacked some maturity, as though some plot points are inserted simply for the “OMG!” reaction they elicit from the audience. The outrageous, matters of questionable taste, events bordering on offensive are common to AHS, part of its mission to excite and titillate the audience, hoping to provoke a reaction. (Spoilers from here on in)
That juvenile shock-seeking, that careless treatment of serious material, arises in the handling of the incest between Kyle and his mother (it’s far from the only instance, though; I’m making notes about the topic of race in Coven). Kyle’s mother, of course, is grieving for the loss of her son, but when Zoe returns the resurrected Kyle to her, we also learn that she’s mourning the loss of her lover. Kyle, she tells Zoe earlier in the episode, had become the man of the house when his father left; clearly that meant something different than the audience may have expected.
But let’s be clear about this: assuming that the incest began years earlier (which seems a fair assumption), this is the rape of a minor by his parent. Just because it’s a mother doing this to her son, rather than a father to a daughter, doesn’t make it any less wrong, any less upsetting. But that’s not how the episode treats it. Rather, Kyle’s mother hugging her son leads to kissing, which leads to a handjob—which leads to an audience of giggles, wide eyes, and enthralled mock outrage. This is the second act of sexual assault in Coven—the first being Madison’s gang rape in the first episode—but whereas that was treated as trauma, this is initially presented as sexy and it’s hard to tell how Kyle feels about it (yes, he kills his mother, but is that a reaction to this or a result of his resurrection having gone wrong?).
All of which brought to mind another prominent supernatural show with incest at its core: Twin Peaks. (Again, spoilers if you haven’t seen the show) Where AHS handles incest as something almost sexy, in Twin Peaks it’s a tragedy, an act freighted with fear and guilt and horrifyingly tense silences. It leads to murders that tear at the fabric of a community. It’s a dark and horrible crime. Not so in American Horror Story.
The juvenile pleasure American Horror Story takes in outrage and shock is its greatest weakness. It can offer entertainment, but when it wades into more serious waters, its ironic, sarcastic, distant tone is a failing.