How does 'American Horror Story: Coven' compare to 'Asylum' and 'Murder House'?

Jessica-Lange.jpg

Image Credit: FX

And so the third American Horror Story has come to an end. The final episode of Coven crowned a new Supreme and significantly increased the season’s already-impressive body count. Co-creator Ryan Murphy tells EW’s Tim Stack that he’s already working on the fourth iteration of AHS — not to mention making plans for a fifth. And why not? Coven was the highest rated edition of the series yet. It also expanded the AHS repertory, with Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett devouring city-sized scenery in precisely the kind of larger-than-life roles they haven’t been getting from movies: You imagine that pretty much every actress of a certain age would kill for a sit-down with Murphy. Coven proved the long-term health of the horror-anthology experiment.

But how did this season measure up to past American Horror Stories? It was bigger, certainly. Besides Bates and Bassett, the lead cast constituted a fantasy-league reunion of the AHS ladies: Taissa Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, and of course Jessica Lange. And even the characters they were playing felt bigger. Lange was a colorful supporting character in Murder House and a spiraling repressive nun in Asylum, but her Fiona Goode was an imperial Titan by comparison: Anna Karenina and Cleopatra crossed with Blanche DuBois and Magneto. She was the Uber-Lange.

AHS has always been over-the-top, of course. But Murder House and Asylum both told purposefully contained stories, in a haunted house and a mental institution. AHS had Miss Robichaux’s, but it also had New Orleans, and its interests kept wandering further afield. There were flashbacks to Salem, and a lengthy tangent about Witch Hunters which turned into a non sequitur insta-remake of Too Big To Fail. Stevie Nicks played herself, twice. Everyone died, usually more than once. I’m not sure how much larger the budget was on Coven, but “MORE” was clearly the season’s defining aesthetic.

That made the disparate parts of Coven a lot of fun. Part of what makes the whole AHS format exciting is that it clearly encourages the writers to throw every idea at the wall in one go. There were at least seven different legitimate spinoffs encased inside of Coven. (Wouldn’t you like to see a whole show about Meryl Streep’s Daughter leading her suffragette Coven through the jazz age? It would be like Boardwalk Empire with any female characters besides Gretchen Mol. Hey, Gretchen Mol could join!) And Coven also proved a great showcase for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed about half the season and gave the show a florid visual swagger to match the outlandish storytelling.

But to me, Asylum still trumps Coven in one important way: The Ending. Coven established early and often that it was leading up to an inevitable conclusion: The crowning of a new Supreme. This added some reality-show competition to the season, but it also made the ultimate endgame a bit unsurprising. And the fact that — SPOILER ALERT — Cordelia was crowned Supreme felt like an attempt to retcon that character’s bizarre trajectory into a kind of coming-of-age story. And the bigness of Coven meant that some characters just got lost in the final moments: The whole Zoe-Kyle thing seemed to run out of gas almost immediately.

Asylum also decided to focus its final hour on an iteration of Sarah Paulson. But where Cordelia was a bit of a milquetoast, Paulson’s Lana Winters was the beating heart and brutal soul of Asylum, all fierce ambition and freaked-out energy, a victim who struck back. She was tough, but she was no cookie; she was kind of the hero, but Paulson never even played her as sympathetic. The final episode of Asylum played out like an old Alan Moore comic book, beginning in the present and then hopping back across the decades to wrap up every hanging character arc — before finally concluding with a final act of killing that is still the best argument for American Horror Story‘s whole Camp Opera/Greek Tragedy aesthetic.

To me, Coven felt a little bit like a Greatest Hits collection, whereas Asylum was an album where even the deep cuts were bangers. But I know plenty of people who still stump for Murder House, which had the benefit of surprise. Back in Season 1, it still meant something when characters died — or when it turned out they’d been dead all along. And the breakneck pace of the storytelling was grafted onto a human-sized story: Murder House‘s themes of family, marital resentment, and teen angst had a resonance, which the later seasons tended to fly by on the way to ever-more-ambitious flights of fancy.

What do you think, viewers? Vote in the poll below! And remember to check out Tim Stack’s exclusive chat with Ryan Murphy about the next two iterations of American Horror Story.

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