American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of the iconic anthology television series, has just celebrated its eighth birthday. The thrilling season first premiered on October 9th, 2013 with a run of 13 episodes. The story revolves around a coven of witches who are descendants of Salem and are currently residing in New Orleans fighting for the survival of their kind amidst the rise of their many enemies. This season was not only critically acclaimed but it remains a strong fan favourite almost a decade later. But the question is, how? How does American Horror Story: Coven remain so impactful in popular culture?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is its star-studded cast. The fact that Jessica Lange (aka the OG Queen of AHS) is starring as the legendary Fiona Goode, the Supreme of the witches, the only thing you have to be afraid of in this whole wide wicked world is already too intriguing. Watching her berate man after man and roast countless people in every episode feels like a dream that you probably would not want to wake up from. Who could ever forget Fiona saying “I couldn’t toast a piece of bread with the heat they were putting on you.” or “Here’s my other offer. You can all just die.”? Everything that comes out of Fiona’s mouth is gold and these lines allowed her to demonstrate her superiority perfectly. Watching Jessica Lange in anything feels like a masterclass but the way she embodies Fiona, from her most fearless moments to the more vulnerable ones, is truly special. The audience is put in a place where they might dislike or fear Fiona for how she is mean-spirited to the bone but some might admire or even aspire to be somewhat like her for her strength. Fiona’s ferocity earned Jessica Lange a Golden Globe nomination and her third Emmy win.
This season also brought back beloved actors from the previous seasons like Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Jamie Brewer, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Taissa Farmiga and Denis O’Hare. However, two of the best decisions in the history of AHS casting are introducing award-winning actresses, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, successfully inducting them into the American Horror Story Hall of Fame. Kathy Bates played the role of Delphine LaLaurie, based on the real Madame LaLaurie who ruled the slaves in her household with absolute cruelty. In Coven, Madame LaLaurie was freed and reintroduced into the modern world (with a black President) by Fiona. Meanwhile, Angela Bassett played the role of Marie Laveau, also based on the real-life infamous practitioner of voodoo. Part of this season’s strength comes from the clashing personalities of each character and how their relationship shifts from enemies to allies and back again. Madame LaLaurie’s dynamic with her arch-nemesis, Marie Laveau, is heavily featured throughout the season. Not to mention Marie’s disdain for the white witches and Fiona, meaning that every time Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett share the screen, the audience is definitely in for a treat.
It is also important to note that it was not only Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates who earned recognition for their roles with their Emmy wins but Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy and Angela Bassett were also Emmy nominees. As if the main cast aren’t enough of a gift to our screens, Stevie Nicks also made a surprise appearance in not one, but TWO episodes (and has it been mentioned that she sings for us as well?). The cast was simply so stellar that they manage to save the fraying plot points towards the end of the season where it seems like the constant addition of new elements steer the story in multiple directions (and not all of them are good) in a classic Ryan Murphy way. Halfway through, the audience may start to question whether all these minor characters are necessary? And are they worth the screen time they are getting? Fortunately, things do wrap up by the end when we are given the answer to the most important question of the season: who is the next Supreme? They do try to let the audience hesitate since it could be anyone at Miss Robichaux’s, considering that they all have the potential. Once the big reveal came, OF COURSE, the new Supreme is Cordelia Goode (Sarah Paulson), Fiona’s own daughter who embraces the new title beautifully.
Coven is considered to be a big shift in American Horror Story, considering how it follows the gruesome and truly horrifying second season, Asylum. Leaving the gloomy and tense atmosphere in the past, it introduces a more camp and sassy side of American Horror Story that actually sticks around to this day. This transition was refreshing yet some fans cannot help but yearn for the “true horror” they were once offered in the past. However, the fans also demanded for the witches’ return. As an anthology series, each season of American Horror Story follows a different theme with a new set of characters each time. There may be some allusions to locations or characters of the previous seasons but none made a proper return to the show. One of the few exceptions, if not the only, is Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) who returned in the fifth season which is American Horror Story: Hotel. Even tidbits of the witches’ return were not enough to satisfy the audience’s thirst, leading to the arrival of American Horror Story: Apocalypse in 2018. This eighth season was a special crossover mainly between Murder House and Coven with a special mention of Hotel. It brings the coven back to face their greatest enemies yet (men and the Antichrist) and promises an epic battle between the two. It did not really live up to its potential but it did give the audience some great moments. One highlight was in the season finale where all seems to be lost and Cordelia Goode has to find a way to win against Michael Langdon (played by the fantastic Cody Fern). No specific spoilers here but the way Cordelia says “Satan has one son… but my sisters are legion, motherf*cker.” with such will is bound to bring a triumphant smile to the audience’s face.
Coven did not only introduce a new direction to American Horror Story but it also became the internet’s new source of memes. One of the first memes that come to mind is Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) saying “Surprise, b*tch. I bet you thought you saw the last of me.” as she spins in a red dress. This has become the go-to gif of users who want to convey that something or someone has truly returned. This scene is just so memorable that it was also reenacted in Apocalypse when Madison finally made a come back from the afterlife. Another Coven meme that has persevered is images of near-death Fiona Goode smoking like a boss as her health deteriorated due to the rise of the new Supreme. This meme is often used on Twitter as a means of saying how tired and worn out one feels and it definitely conveys the mood well as that was definitely not Fiona’s best moment. The longevity of these memes from the show is truly commemorable as they were first seen in 2013 (also reenacted in 2018 in Madison’s case) and are still used in 2021.
It is interesting that whether Coven could be described as feminist remains debatable. Yes, the season is female-led and revolves around strong diverse female characters but we all know that these women tore each other down relentlessly and tried to kill each other too many times (some even succeeded). However, in contemporary culture, witchcraft has long been used as an allegory for the issues and violent backlash that women and feminist movements face in society. Witches are representatives of those who are deemed as outsiders and anomalies in society, referring to social identities which are considered as “inferior” in the socially constructed hierarchy or simply do not belong at all. These marginalised identities can and often do face persecution while being neglected, ostracised and discriminated against. This happens to the witches in Coven as their enemies include witch hunters who cannot stand the thought of women having power over them.
Even though both the witches of the coven and Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen, put aside their differences to put an end to their shared enemy, the coven and Fiona Goode in particular, still represents white second-wave feminism. This movement was most prominent in the 1960s through to the 70s in America. During this period, there was more discussion on the topics of women’s oppression, gender and roles within a family. The idea that women had to be liberated from men, who are their oppressors, also drew heavy attention. However, it is important to note that middle-class white women were the face of second-wave feminism. This means that there were white women who are more focused on their own liberation from the shackles of gender discrimination while black women were also fighting racial oppression simultaneously. Feminists of the said period call for solidarity and unity amongst women but some also assume the role of the oppressor of women of colour.
Similarly, Fiona Goode calls for the unity of the coven and witches but throughout the season, she places a dichotomy between her witchcraft and voodoo, viewing the latter as inferior. She insults Marie and her voodoo over and over, highlighting the existing hierarchy amongst witches. Moreover, the three members of the council of witches are white, emphasising the lack of diversity, even on an administrative level. Fiona and her council symbolise the older generation and self-preservation, representing second-wave feminism. However, the emergence of Cordelia Goode as the new Supreme creates a new era of witchcraft where true unity can be achieved. She wipes the slate clean and starts anew by establishing a new council with Queenie, a black witch who possesses voodoo abilities, and Zoe, who was ostracised but found home within the coven. This ending provides a stronger and more empowering coven that can be seen in Apocalypse and opens a path to showing the values of third-wave feminism.
Being one of the two seasons of American Horror Story to spawn a crossover season as a continuation of the story, it is safe to say Coven has to be one of their best seasons. It provided scalding verbal burns, all-black fashion looks, memeable moments, award-winning performances and b*tchcraft. Coven is undoubtedly iconic and its grip on pop culture is undeniable. With its immense popularity, maybe we’ll see even more of the witches in future American Horror Story seasons?