In early December, I saw an advanced screening of The Unknown Known, the latest documentary by Errol Morris (even if you’re not a documentary enthusiast, you’ll probably know of his The Thin Blue Line, a crime documentary that helped free an innocent man from prison). Even better than seeing the film months before its release, Morris was in attendance and participated in a Q&A afterwards.
During that session, an audience member asked whether he thought that one of the motivations of the film’s subject, Donald Rumsfeld, for participating was to redeem himself. Morris responded quickly, saying not only that he didn’t think so, but that he doesn’t believe in the concept of redemption, that (I’m paraphrasing, but I think this is accurate) some things that people do can never be atoned for. That’s stuck with me through the holidays and into the new year, the idea that redemption is illusory, that we can’t ever make right what we once turned wrong.
I’d be surprised to discover that Errol Morris was a fan of American Horror Story: Coven, but this episode—the season’s penultimate—is certainly in keeping with his thoughts about redemption. In it, no one is able to escape the fate they created for themselves by their past transgressions (the rest of this article is thick with spoilers; consider yourself warned).
The most egregiously punished is the person who, arguably, has committed the greatest evils: Madame Delphine Lalaurie. In this episode, we find her returned to her former home, now a museum to her cruelty, leading tours and attempting to “set the record straight” about her true actions (she denies that she was a killer, only allowing that she provided “firm correction” to her “domestics”). Those are lies, as she readily admits barely minutes later, but she has appearances to uphold.
When Quennie arrives to confront her, LaLaurie muses on redemption in the modern world. With Paula Dean and Anthony Weiner intercut, she says that she’s learned a public spectacle of humiliation and perhaps tears is what provides redemption in the modern world. She even reminds us that but a few episodes ago she was moved to tears when watching footage of the Civil Rights Movement. But LaLaurie rejects redemption: she wasn’t crying because she’d seen the error of her ways; rather, she wept for “the state of this world,” its fallen status, the topsy-turvy racial values that will never be righted. She cried because she’s an unrepentant white supremacist and racist who will never change, in a world moving ever away from her. By the end of the episode, she’s trapped by voodoo deity Papa Legba for what seems to be forever in her attic torture chamber, forced to watch her daughters tormented by Marie Leaveau.
The other great unredeemed character of Coven, Fiona, meets a similar fate. When Cordelia finally meets the Axeman, her mother’s paramour, she reveals the truth about Fiona to him: she was using him, never planned to run away with him, that “she can only love herself.” The Axeman protests that their love has changed her, transcended Fiona’s selfish nature, but Cordelia persists and ultimately prevails. “You feel that?” she asks the stricken Axeman. “That empty, heartbroken feeling? That’s what it feels like to get close to Fiona.”
The Axeman, enraged by her betrayal and callous use of him—behaviors that Fiona has indulged in for decades, be it in becoming Supreme, attempting to maintain her position, or simply fulfilling her whims—murders her, sinking his axe into her back a half dozen times. It’s almost a shock to see it happen (ever though the fallout from it is depicted before the act), but something about the explanation of why Fiona can’t be resurrected—she’s been fed to gators—doesn’t ring quite true. We’ll see if she reappears in the finale.
Notice, too, that the Axeman hasn’t been redeemed. He’s killed many people, it’s true, but once he and Fiona began their affair, his killings stopped. He dreamed of a life with her, of leaving New Orleans together and setting up elsewhere to bask in their love. But he’s a mass murderer, an axe murderer, and what he’s done can’t be lightened. So he ends the episode with his torso being liquified under the knives of the girls of Miss Robichaux’s.
The larger question, though, is whether American Horror Story: Coven can be redeemed. As I’ve chronicled over the last few months, this season has been rife with questionable choices and outright repulsive elements. The final episode, next week’s, promises to reveal, through a test of magic, who the new Supreme is. Whether anything that can happen in those 42 minutes is enough to make up for the season’s failings remains to be seen. But I suspect that, by this time next week, I’ll be in agreement with Errol Morris.