The fifth episode of American Horror Story: Coven, Burn, Witch. Burn! all hinges on a moral technicality. It further explores the links between womanhood, motherhood and life, and the fact this comes from women’s closer relationship to nature. In Burn, Witch. Burn! Coven looks to look at what happens when these unspoken and often unconscious duties are failed and the consequences paid because of this.
There are two kinds of distinct failures examined in this 42 minutes of television. The first case is Fiona Goode. As the returning matriarch of the titular coven, her role is that of a woman who has abandoned her responsibilities to her young witch charges. Admittedly, given Fiona’s bullish and volatile attitude, the coven’s peaceful, undercover status quo might instead have been long embroiled in a war with the voodoo witches had Fiona stuck around, despite Fiona having brokered a truce between the voodoo and Salem witches herself. Nevertheless, Cordelia makes it abundantly clear that Fiona’s absence from the coven is not appreciated. Through their fractious relationship it becomes apparent that this is not the only way that Fiona has failed Cordelia in a nurturing role. Cordelia is plainly dressing up her feelings of abandonment towards her mother as rage at her mother abandoning the coven. In a cruel twist of fate, as Fiona and her daughter are finally beginning to repair Cordelia’s emotional damage in a bar, she is physically, irreparably damaged in the bar toilets. Acid is splashed in her face from a hooded assailant and she is permanently blinded.
While Cordelia is kept in hospital it’s clear that Fiona isn’t totally blind (I’m sorry, I’m an awful person) to her utter failure in her mothering duties. She admits as much to Cordelia’s husband who’s come back from cheating on her to be with his hospitalised wife. Stealing pills from a hospital store room and hallucinating her way down the hospital corridors in a scene straight out of Max Payne, Fiona enters a room with a woman sleeping in the same room as her dead baby. In a very intense and moving scene, Fiona gives the dead baby to the grieving and confused mother, before bringing the baby back to life in her mother’s arms. It’s a powerful moment that immediately equates motherhood with life. After all, without a mother to give birth, how does the life come to be at all? By bringing a child back to life for her mother, she is trying, and convincingly so, to make amends for her previous and current failures.
On the other end of the scale we have Madame LaLaurie, who, in 1833, places her daughters in cages in her attic for at least a year as punishment for plotting to kill her. It’s her daughter, Borquita, one of the invading zombies from last week’s episode, who LaLaurie lets in the house, her mothering instinct too strong to resist, despite her daughter being a shambling corpse. LaLaurie is ruled by this until Boquita is about to kill Queenie. As the series has shown us so far, her role as a woman, and therefore a proponent of natural, justice kicks in and she is forced to re-kill Boquita to prevent an unnatural and unjustifiable death. And there’s little more an unnatural death than one by a zombie on a proxy voodoo vendetta.
Both Fiona and LaLaurie have been terrible mothers in the past, and karma, natural justice, demands they make recompense for this by means at extreme ends of the life-death spectrum. One of them is supernaturally gifting life from death to a mother, while conversely the other is gifting death to unlife to a daughter. And a gift it is indeed, as LaLaurie herself puts it, “this last act was the only kindness I ever did for her”.
We’ve looked at the depiction and ramifications of neglect, woeful neglect in the case of LaLaurie’s treatment of her daughters (and as such her more severe means of balancing the equation of natural justice). But what of this moral technicality? This brings us to Myrtle Snow.
While things might not be all as they seem by the end of the episode we, for now, have to take things at face value.
It is apparently revealed in Burn, Witch. Burn! that Snow has not neglected the coven, but she has actively worked to take it down. While Fiona’s and LaLaurie’s neglect of other women was neglect in the extreme, it was not designed to damage the coven and its members; this simply happened as a result of personal ambitions and extreme punishment as a means of self preservation. Snow, on the other hand, wanted to damage and discredit her fellow witch as a main goal, which she could parlay into control over the coven. It’s deliberate sabotage vs. extreme neglect, but the former has deliberate malicious intent and is the end goal in itself. As such, in this system of natural justice, Snow is burned at the stake for doing less harm to the coven than Fiona. But it’s her intent, not the impact, that gets her the death penalty. It might not have been so harmful, but on a technical level, it’s morally worse.