The anthology series' third chapter is set in present-day New Orleans, where young witches coming of age learn their craft at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. The school's headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), however, has a different opinion about teaching than her mother Fiona (Jessica Lange), the Supreme witch of their coven. In the premiere, Fiona returns from Los Angeles — where she's essentially been seeking a cure to what ails her most: age — and takes a vested interest in the remaining young witches at the school, including newcomer Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), human Voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and the clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer).
Concurrently, viewers will get a glimpse into New Orleans' past, where the evil Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), inspired by the real-life 1800s serial killer, was the No. 1 enemy of Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), a real-life practitioner of Voodoo. Bates' character, whom Murphy describes as "eight times worse" than the actress' infamous Misery alter-ego, becomes the catalyst for a present-day war between the Salem witches and those who practice Voodoo.
"I knew we wanted to do witches and that they were from Salem, but I didn't want to do it in Salem — we thought about that briefly," Murphy told reporters after a screening of the premiere, explaining that it was Lange who wanted to move production to New Orleans. "Once she said that, I started to research. You come across Madame LaLaurie and Marie Laveau and the Axeman [Danny Huston] serial killer and all these great horror legends of that city and it felt like a natural [choice] to me. There's something about that city that's creepy and scary."
But it's the story of Laveau that Fiona will take the most interest in. "The idea for the series is that Marie Laveau has perfected the idea of eternal life, which many people say she did and believe she still walks among people in New Orleans," Murphy said. "The Salem witches are not immortal; they have not found that ingredient of everlasting life and clearly that was the only thing keeping [Fiona] from living forever and taking everybody over, so that is a big plot point."
In Coven, each witch has their own special power — you wouldn't guess Zoe's if you tried — which they're meant to explore at the school. Even the oddest powers, Murphy said, were all based in realism. "We researched all that Salem stuff," he said. "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. More people come in to the show, other witches, to that house and they have very specific powers."
But Fiona's return isn't so much to help nurture these girls as it is to suss out her competition. See, while she's been off searching for the key to eternal youth, others are beginning to harness their powers in a way that could threaten her position as Supreme. "The great mystery of the season is which of the people you have met is the Supreme," Murphy said. Just a tip, don't get too attached to any of the witches. "[Fiona] kills one of [the students] in Episode 3," Murphy teased. "She's not giving that up throne. She thinks she's found out who the Supreme is and that person gets killed."
Enter the council, who are charged with keeping order in the coven. The council includes Frances Conroy's Myrtle Snow, the sworn enemy of Fiona, and Leslie Jordan, whose character is modeled after Truman Capote. "The council is a collection of very bizarre, funny witches who live among us, who are called in to put out fires," Murphy said. "The big rule of the coven is if you are caught as a witch killing or harming another witch, you are immediately taken out and burned. One or a couple of the witches are killed very early on, so the [council] ... shows up to — it's basically like a court."
But Fiona's daughter Cordelia has a much different prerogative than mommy dearest. Their relationship is contentious at best, but will quickly take a turn when Cordelia does what her mother never thought she could: Taps into her full potential. "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 batsh-- dark crazy,'" Murphy said. "She does start very prim and proper and there's something that happens to her character around Episode 5 that forces her to realize that her mother may be right. They're an odd-mother daughter relationship and they really don't like each other." What could be the reason behind her sudden turn is the introduction of Cordelia's husband in Episode 2. "Suffice it to say, he's no good," Murphy said.
In true Murphy fashion, witches won't be the only creatures going bump in the night. In addition to the aforementioned real-life serial killer the Axeman, viewers will quickly be introduced to a ghastly minotaur. Both characters will serve as this season's Bloody Face or Rubberman. There will also be a Frankenstein-esque character, whose identity viewers will quickly discover. But the real question of the season is who has the power to take Fiona's place. "The show also has a really great thriller aspect to it this year," Murphy said. "You really don't find out until Episode 12 who that is."
American Horror Story: Coven premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on FX. Will you be watching?