The many terrifying faces of Jessica Lange

Wyatt Miller

After two self-contained seasons of terror, “American Horror Story” easily embodies the term “crazy pants.” Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have taken their hypersexual horror anthology to a new level with season three, titled “Coven.” Minotaur-pleasuring, human voodoo-dolling and Stevie Nicks-worshipping insanity have appeared already, but one constant holds the show together like glue. 

That glue is Jessica Lange. Playing a wildly different character in each season, Lange is a staple of this terrifically twisted series. After winning her Oscar for “Tootsie,” Lange consistently took challenging roles that eventually garnered her four additional Oscar nominations. In 2011, Lange brought her talents to television in the first season of FX’s “American Horror Story.” Her performance as Constance Langdon, the villainous neighbor of the doomed Harmon family, was deliciously wicked — exhibiting a deadly motherly charm that hid even deadlier secrets. In the span of just 12 episodes, Lange made Mrs. Voorhees look like June Cleaver. Her powerhouse portrayal dominated the 2011 television season and won her both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Lange’s excellence carried over into season two, “Asylum.” Though the storyline, set in an asylum with aliens, human experiments and demonic possession, was appropriately insane, “Asylum” was ultimately a quieter season. As Sister Jude, the head nun of Briarcliff Mental Institution, Lange gave fans a decidedly more sympathetic character to obsess over. Where Langdon’s arc was permeated with constant sinister behavior, Jude’s arc was intensely transformative and often tragic. At first glance, her character was villainous and cruel, but as her caretaker/patient mentality was reversed, Jude emerged as a hopelessly lost soul desperately racing to escape the mistakes of her past. Her redemption in season two’s finale gave viewers a surprisingly tender send-off. While that ending was unusual for such a typically dark show, “Asylum” effectively nurtured a growing knack for mature and nuanced character development that has continued into the first few episodes of season three.

With “Coven,” Lange appears to be returning to her purely antagonistic season one roots with her nasty performance as Fiona Goode. Goode is the current “Supreme,” a generational title given to the most powerful witch in the coven. Goode’s obsession with eternal youth and her ruthless defense of her status gives Lange’s performance plenty of power-hungry material to play with, though viewers don’t have much reason to sympathize with her. Goode’s hilariously antagonistic relationship with Kathy Bates’ immortal Delphine LaLaurie is the biggest selling point of this season so far and the escalation of their conflict is going to be exciting to watch.

Lange’s terrific performances consistently draw viewers into the morbid world of “American Horror Story.” Here’s hoping her winning streak continues as “Coven” draws to a close and that Murphy and Falchuk’s next horrifying yarn amply features her wicked versatility and commanding presence.