FX unleashes the third season in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's American Horror Story anthology on Wednesday with Coven, a witchy-themed season that stands in stark contrast to last season's deeply twisted Asylum.
This year, Jessica Lange goes head to head with Kathy Bates -- and Angela Bassett -- as Fiona, the long-absent Supreme who returns to oversee her coven of young witches studying at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, that coincidentally is run by her daughter Myrtle (Sarah Paulson). The present-day story again weaves in flashbacks to reveal the witches' heydays and those who wanted them burned at the stake. Among the key players is Bates' Madama LaLurie, based on the historical (and horrible) woman who used the blood of slaves in a bid to fight the aging process, among other twisted ventures. (Murphy describes Bates' LaLurie as "eight times worse than Misery" if that gives you any indication of the horrors to come in Coven.)
"It's a meditation on race relations in this country. It really is an allegory for any minority group living in our country," Murphy told reporters following a recent screening of Coven.
In addition to the central adult story featuring Lange, Paulson, Bates and Bassett, Coven will also explore the next generation of witches -- played by Taissa Farmiga (Zoe, who has the ability to "f--- someone to death"), Emma Roberts (Madison, who has Carrie-like abilities), Gabourey Sidibe (Queenie, a human voodoo doll) and Jamie Brewer (Nan, clairvoyance), each of whom have their own unique abilities with one likely to be crowned the next Supreme (much to Fiona's chagrin).
"I love the formula of the youth story with the veteran actress story," Murphy notes, singling out Coven as his favorite yet of all three stand-alone stories. "We researched a lot about the Salem witches and the girls back then. … We have a lot of Salem flashbacks throughout the year where these girls, who are students, learn about their ancestors, and we deal with that. And more people come in to the show -- other witches -- to that house, and they have very specific powers."
"The great mystery of the season is which of the people you have met [in the premiere] is the Supreme," Murphy says. "Who is going take Jessica Lange's throne? The show also has a really great thriller aspect to it this year -- you really don't find out until episode 12 who that is."
This year also marks the first that AHS will move from its typical home on the Paramount soundstages in Hollywood to location shoots in New Orleans, with Murphy giving Lange credit for helping to make the city a character in Coven.
"I knew we wanted to do witches, and that they were from Salem, but I didn't want to do it in Salem. Jessica kept saying she wanted to do it in New Orleans, so I had to make that work," Murphy explains. "It made sense to me that the true witches were smart enough to escape and had fled."
At that point, the co-creator began researching myths from New Orleans and came across horror legends including Madame LaLurie, Marie LaVeau (played by Bassett), as well as the Axeman serial killer. Not to be outdone, Coven -- like season one's Black Dahlia and Asylum's Anne Frank -- will feature other historical figures weaved into the story.
Also returning this year is season one breakout Farmiga, whose young witch will be paired with Evan Peters' Kyle in what's likely to be a tragic romance given Zoe's abilities.
"I wanted to write something for them, a love story, but I wanted it to be different," Murphy says of his young muse. "She finished season one and went off to make the Sofia Coppola movie, and there was really no part for her last season. After Jessica and Sarah, she's the one I called in first. [Evan and Taissa] love working together and Evan's girlfriend [Roberts] is also working on the show, but I made that work. [AHS season one's Violet and Kit] love story in some weird way is reincarnated in the myth of the show."
Following a heavy Asylum season in which Paulson's Lana Winters' aspiring reporter was raped and forced to undergo aversion conversion therapy and electroshock therapy, Paulson's Cordelia Fox starts the season very prim and proper as the head of the young school for witches. Murphy compares her Coven character to Bewitched's Samantha -- at least at the start of the season.
"I was always fascinated by the dynamic of the show Bewitched and thought, 'What would really happen if Samantha listened to Endora and just went bat-shit dark crazy,'" Murphy says. "There's something that happens to her character around episode five that forces her to realize that her mother may be right [with how she approaches teaching]. They're an odd mother-daughter relationship, and they really don't like each other. Where Sarah starts and where Sarah ends up is completely the opposite of who she's playing in that first episode."
As for the future of AHS, Murphy sees the series running for a long time with self-containing seasons -- but is open to the idea of Coven spinning off.
"[FX CEO] John Landgraf and I have always spoken about how this is a show that is ripe to spin something off, to do something different," he says. "I already know what next season is. It's not witches, but maybe something will happen. We're talking about it. I have the next season of Horror Story already plotted, and it's quite different and fun."
Meanwhile, plans for an AHS companion series, in the same vein as AMC's The Walking Dead talk show The Talking Dead, are not likely to move forward.
"They asked me to do that and I said no," Murphy says. "With a show like this, sometimes I even debate doing this kind of stuff because I feel like I have a tendency to open my mouth too much and give too many spoilers away. I think I would just be ad nauseam. Maybe someday. This show, particularly, has a lot of secrets and things that kick in around episode five and after that I won't be talking."
While it's anyone's guess what the likely fourth season of AHS will look like, Murphy will continue to plant the seed for the show's future in one of the final episodes of the year -- and possibly more. "I thought it would be really cool with this show -- and I might do it this year -- that the finale airs and then I announce what next year's show is by using some sort of visual thing," he says. "I think we're going to try that this year because people would really love it. I loved last year laying in those clues. The last image of the season will be, 'This is what you're getting next year' and we'll announce the title."
American Horror Story: Coven premieres on Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX. Will you tune in? Hit the comments below with your thoughts.
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