How Queer Is American Horror Story? “Head” Edition.

Melon-ballin' mama: Frances Conroy as Myrtle
Melon-ballin’ mama: Frances Conroy as Myrtle

Photo by Michele K. Short/FX

For the duration of American Horror Story: Coven, June Thomas and J. Bryan Lowder will gather each week in Outward to call the corners and charm the most recent episode of its queer meaning, whether brazenly obvious or bubbling just below the cauldron’s surface. Don’t be afraid to add your own cackles in the comments.

June: Bryan, this episode has to keep us going for a month until American Horror Story: Coven returns on Jan. 8, and it certainly didn’t skimp on sensation. We got Hank’s back story (more disappointed parents who have transferred their hopes to more suitable surrogate children), Queenie giving Delphine sensitivity training, a spree killing at the salon, and some misbehavior with a melon baller.

Bryan: Misbehavior With a Melon Baller is the name of my yuppie housewife cooking school where they just drink pinot and watch me cook.

June: Were you as intrigued as I was by the brotherhood of the witch-hunters? It set up a tired old gender binary—women as creative supernatural types and men pledged to keeping them in check—but I liked the way the show played with Hank, who’s not quite man enough to “put down” his first witch and who later becomes more than a little enchanted by Cordelia—his “passing” is very complicated and conflicted. He really does seem to have feelings for Cordelia—it’s just that his father is pushing him to do his dudely duty and stamp out the pestilence of witchery on the North American continent.

Bryan: That’s a sharp observation—almost as sharp as those blessed silver bullets the Delphi Organization must order in bulk. I was indeed intrigued by their existence—this is the time of the AHS year when big puzzle pieces always seem to fall into place—and yes, Hank’s gender trouble, his inability to man-up and do his duty, was compelling. And when he finally turns that anxiety on the voodoo tribe, I think the echoes of school shootings past, in which the murderers were similarly driven by feelings of inadequacy turned to rage, were no accident.

June: Yes! This episode made all all kinds of disquieting suggestions: that some spree killings are actually witch-hunting expeditions, that miracle medical procedures might involve just a hint of witchcraft, and that high-flying corporate finance gets an assist from the supernatural. I was just disappointed that we didn’t see any butch lesbians among the Delphi employees. After all, if Quentin qualifies as a Salem sister, the brotherhood might welcome some double-X chromosomes.

Bryan: Oh, surely! I’m glad you’re thinking about “witch-hunting” more broadly. The expression means trying to root out something that’s not there with a degree of intensity that says more about the hunter than the alleged witch. Clearly, Hank isn’t afraid of magic; he’s afraid of his failure of masculinity. But I’ll admit, I’m still grappling with the juxtaposition of imagery in that final sequence—Marie Laveau’s family getting murdered while LaLaurie’s head gets re-educated via the civil rights protest footage. Did most of the black people in the show have to die for us to learn that lesson about white male Hank? Are we, like white female LaLaurie, supposed to learn something important by seeing black bodies in pain? We’re being forced (in a sense) to watch something, too, and I’m not sure I’m down with the politics of it.

June: You’re absolutely right about that, but there’s also another, more anodyne, explanation for why the voodoo coven got shot up and the Salem sisters survived: We’ve never really learned any of their names, beyond queen bee Marie. That’s no accident, of course—among the astonishing roster of superstar actresses in the cast, only two are African-American—but when the plot requires the warring factions of witchcraft/voodoo to unite and fight the larger forces threatening their very existence, this show was always going to have the white women be the focus of attention.

I found Queenie’s attempt to educate Delphine fascinating. There was a kind of joy in the project—I’m glad she put B*A*P*S on her curriculum—but a real seriousness, too. Queenie really wants to dispel Delphine’s ignorance, and it seems that perhaps she succeeds in the end. Clearly, this is major wishful thinking on the part of a creator of message shows, but it makes perfect sense to me that Ryan Murphy would believe that images and songs can change minds—after all, at least one poll shows that programs like Glee, The New Normal, and Modern Family helped to change some viewers’ attitudes to gay marriage.

Bryan: I confess I may have had a different reaction. On one level, I find the floating head of a skilled actress like Kathy Bates both delightfully campy and wastefully terrible, so there’s that. But that tactic also felt, I don’t know, redundant? Before Queenie switched sides, she and Delphine were becoming something like friends, and it seemed that our caricature of Southern racism was learning a lot about tolerance over cheeseburgers—which, of course, is how most people actually overcome prejudice in real life: through personal, human relationships. I can see why Delphine might benefit from a history lesson in general, but showing her contextless images of black people being sprayed with water cannons is nothing compared to the pain and torment she herself had directly caused for their ancestors. If she couldn’t find humanity in suffering then, why now? It just felt so simplistic, messagey (as you say), and liberal self-congratulatory. It’d be like showing a homophobe images of Stonewall and Pride parades and expecting them to come around, versus knowing someone gay on a personal level. The latter is almost always more effective.

Goodness we’re getting heavy here though—perhaps a palate cleanser is in order before we wrap up? We need to talk about Myrtle!

June: We do! So, when Myrtle praised Misty Day’s “power, compassion, and uniqueness,” were you, like me, desperately trying to figure out if that spelled anything, charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent-style?

Bryan: I WAS!!!! PCU—what does it mean?

June: There seems to be a movie of that name—with Jeremy Piven and David Spade, no less—about the political-correctness-ing of higher education and the modern obsession with “sensitivity awareness”!

Bryan: Myrtle is certainly even more unhinged than I had guessed. That sight-giving scene had me gagging in more ways than one.

June: Though I knew as soon as the melon baller appeared that it would be seeing the inside of someone’s eye socket before the episode was over.

Bryan: I’ll admit I did not see that coming. (Ha!) Myrtle’s lines have become so pleasingly Wildean that I become distracted and have to pause the episode to repeat them. “I do love a key lime pie! Even more than an ile flottante“! Call me a philistine!”

June: Now I wish her character had been named Phyllis Stein.

Don’t miss our discussion of Episode 8 and Episode 10.