I have a rule about TV shows. It isn’t invoked very often, but it’s never been proven false: if your episode features a music video, it lacked enough story and ideas to fill out its running time.
Despite all of American Horror Story: Coven‘s weaknesses this season—its inconsistent logic, its failure to address racism in a mature way, its blank characters, its consequence-free conflicts—I was still shocked to see the finale open with a music video. The front door to Miss Robichaux’s school swings open to reveal white witch Stevie Nicks. She crosses the threshold to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s mid-80s comeback hit “Seven Wonders” and commences to prowl the halls of the school singing the song. Fully the entire pre-credits segment is given over to Nicks’ singing and twirling—and thus my rule applies. A show that needs to fill its time with lip-syncing and jump cuts is watching the clock.
Notably, the title of the episode is “The Seven Wonders,” a reference to the trials that witches must go through to determine the new Supreme. The Seven Wonders have been referred to throughout the season, and now that Stevie Nicks has appeared singing a song of the same name, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that at least part of this season’s mythology was built around the song and with the idea that Nicks might appear. Other shows have used songs as crucial elements—think of “All Along the Watchtower” in Battlestar: Galactica—but I can’t think of one that relied on a song from the outset for part of its foundation.
That foundation is built on eroding sediment. American Horror Story: Coven contributes a number of valuable things to TV: queer concerns and sensibilities, a show in which women are the central characters and men don’t matter much (what a refreshing and necessary inversion from most hour-long dramas), a regular home for horror on television, atmospheric and thrilling visuals. AHS, in all of its seasons, has been beautiful, visually compelling. But, especially in Coven, it is an empty beauty, all surface and no substance. What are Coven‘s ideas? What has it told us about women’s relationships (that they’re catty and vicious), about race relations (they’re not good), about religion (followers are hypocrites), about men (they’re rapists, liars, and murderers)? These are not deep thoughts nor are they expressed with subtlety or sophistication.
In theory, a queer, feminist show ought to be somewhat radical, by its very existence a critique of heteronormative patriarchy. But the show wasn’t about witches—metaphors for being gay (hammered home after Cordelia outs witchcraft as real on CNN, the interviewer asks her, “so you’re saying it’s not a choice being a witch?”)—shaking up the world that oppressed and feared them. Instead, witches turned inward and did everything they could to destroy themselves. This could be a clever demonstration of how oppressed minorities are turned against each other by dominant cultures seeking self preservation, but Coven hadn’t thought of that. Rather, it engineered opportunities for diva turns and set pieces with little lasting meaning or impact.
Coven lacks enough ideas to even end on original notes. Instead, it borrows from True Blood (witches “come out” to the world in the news, inviting understanding and acceptance) and, as in the first episode, the X-Men (Cordelia recruits witches and creates a map dotted with their locations). Creating satisfying finales has been notoriously difficult for major series in the golden, and now perhaps the silver, age of TV. Better shows than Coven have tried harder and failed more deeply, but that disappointment often stemmed from high-quality runs raising expectations to untenable levels. That American Horror Story: Coven hadn’t established a strong, successful season before now makes its conclusion not disappointing, but welcome.