“We are under siege ladies our lives our very existence is always at risk.”
In 1834, Madame Delphine LaLaurie is trying to sell suitors on the charms of her three daughters, but the party doesn’t go as planned. Her husband catches Pauline fornicating with one of the house slaves. The slave in question is dragged to the attic, revealing an elaborate torture setup filled with tormented slaves and a stench so awful LaLaurie needs a nosegay of flowers to withstand it. A little boy arrives with a bull’s head and places it on the restrained man. LaLaurie explains her ‘genius,’ “My great literacy began with Greek mythology. I used to sit on daddy’s lap and he would read me those stories, full of their vengeful gods and wonderful miraculous creatures…” She is thrilled to at last have a Minotaur of her very own.
In the present, meanwhile, Zoe has brought a boy home for what is clearly her first time having sex. After asserting that he doesn’t want to hurt her it becomes clear that Charlie has it backwards; he suffers a bloody and fatal brain aneurysm and dies mid-coitus. Her mother confesses they are witches, and Zoe is sent away to boarding school because it’s “too dangerous” to keep her. A gaggle of men in dark glasses and severe suits with Myrtle Snow at the fore escort her to New Orleans, and Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, where they promptly vanish.
Zoe enters the building alone, only to find the building is seemingly empty, sparsely furnished, beautiful but austere. She is shadowed by sneaking figures, her fellow students alleviating boredom with a brisk hazing. They are revealed as Madison Montgomery, young movie star telekinetic, Queenie the ‘human voodoo doll,’ and Nan, the clairvoyant.
Cordelia Foxx, the headmistress, explains the history of the facility from its inception as a finishing school in 1790 to military hospital in the Civil War, to its ultimate purchase by Marian Wharton for use as a safe haven and school for witches. Cordelia explains that witches are a dying breed; families aware they carry the gene have been choosing not to breed and the bloodlines are dying out. Still, within each generation there is a Supreme witch, one who possesses all the myriad gifts a witch can have. Cordelia’s young charges argue the difference between suppression and control, and Cordelia justifies her stance with the story of Misty Day, a witch with the gift of resurgence who was burned at the stake by a mob as she swears the killers will end in flames.
Fiona Goode wants the experimental stem cell “infusion of vitality” her husband’s money has been funding the research of, but scientist David explains what they do “isn’t magic.” Fiona convinces him, but after five days of treatment she sees no results. “We are organic matter. We are animals. We rot. We die.” He tenders his resignation but she treats him to actual magic, using witchy vitality-sucking to temporarily rejuvenate herself. As it fades away she smashes the mirror in frustration.
Zoe learns by dinner that her schoolmates have a contentious relationship with one another. Madison is a rollicking bitch to everyone ever, and Nan plucks private thoughts from everyone’s brains with impunity. Madison and Queenie come to blows but Nan soothes the situation. Madison shrugs it off in favor of taking Zoe to a frat party.
Cordelia is busily at work in her greenhouse/laboratory. Her concoction is ruined by Fiona’s arrival, and the flask shatters on the stone floor.
Cordelia: I don’t have a broom.
Fiona: That’s ironic.
The tension between the estranged mother and daughter is heavy, especially as Fiona expresses her disappointment in Cordelia’s choices. “You are the only child of the supreme… You could be ruling the world.” Fiona has returned in the guise of being helpful; she has seen the news coverage of Misty Day and worries it will be Salem all over again. “A storm is coming. You teach them to cower and to hide in the shadows, but there are no shadows. Not anymore.”
Her intervention is ill-received, but Fiona is determined to stay and help the girls learn to be strong instead of simply in control of their gifts. Meanwhile Madison and Zoe go to a frat party. To the fraternity boys Madison the movie star is “prize tuna,” but Kyle has eyes only for Zoe. Though he has vowed to keep his brothers out of mischief, his distraction allows time for Madison to get roofied and gang raped. Zoe realizes Madison is missing and Kyle interrupts the rape in progress. As her rapists leave the party Madison uses her gift to crash the bus.
The following morning’s report of Kappa Lambda Gamma finds Madison being cool about her revenge, though Fiona clearly knows what she has done. “The world’s not gonna miss a bunch of assholes in Ed Hardy t-shirts.” The girls get their first taste of the Supreme’s power, and Fiona dismisses Miss Robichaux’s as Hogwarts before telling the girls to wear something black because she’s taking them on a field trip to Popp’s Fountain. She makes her stance clear in opposition to her daughter’s philosophy, “When witches don’t fight, we burn.”
Nan has keen observations about the city as they walk, and Fiona asserts she is smarter than the others combined. Nan wanders into the LaLaurie house during a tour regaling visitors with 179 years of hauntings from LaLaurie’s terrifying treatment of her slaves. The tour guide describes LaLaurie’s beauty treatments, in which she made poultices from the freshly removed pancreas of slaves. LaLaurie has vanished, presumed dead at the hands of Marie Laveau as revenge for mutilating Laveau’s lover. What was supposed to be a love potion to ensure LaLaurie’s husband’s fidelity has done something very different. Outside, Nan hears ‘the lady of the house,’ either a spirit or an undead LaLaurie.
Zoe goes to the hospital in hopes that Kyle is among the survivors of the fraternity bus crash, and is disappointed. She shuts the door, to finish what Madison started with the crash. Meanwhile Madison is shown secretly suffering the ill effects of her violent rape, tying the pair together in morbid solidarity. “That’s what happens in a crisis; all the bullshit falls away.” Meanwhile Fiona discovers Madame LaLaurie, still alive and looking as hearty as she did 180 years prior.