‘American Horror Story’ ditches the ghosts and demons for the terrors of reality in what looks to be its best season in years
“Fear is currency. It has value.”
Who would have thought that the scariest thing that American Horror Story could do is have season be about real life?
American Horror Story manages to sustain itself for so long by having the luxury of exploring the many different facets of the horror genre. The show wears many hats—or rather monster masks—for the different ideas and themes that it chooses to explore each year. The anthology series seems to have found a freedom of sorts by running through the gamut of topics that so typically occupy horror. As a result, this season has notoriously been noted to be the series first’ non-supernatural year, with the material pulling from the events and trauma stemming from last year’s presidential election. While such an idea might seem a little heavy, especially when in the hands of Ryan Murphy, I was very surprised to see that American Horror Story: Cult appears to be the most powerful season yet (although it’s still early). Who needs murder houses or hotel-dwelling vampires when you’ve got a megalomaniacal, racist commander in chief?
It should only be fitting then that the opening moments of the season revolve around presenting two wildly different takes on Trump’s momentous, bewildering presidential win. In a scene that acts as a fine distillation of the bifurcated viewpoint that appears to be present this year, Evan Peters’ Kai Anderson crassly celebrates Trump’s win as Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards implodes in on herself and has a breakdown. Ally is too crushed for words, but Kai gleefully praises, “The Revolution has begun,” up to the heavens and just like that the season is already off to the races.
One of the major themes that this season of American Horror Story appears to be grappling with is the idea of “the politics of fear.” This is a tactic that the aggressive Kai Anderson positively talks about, whether in reference to how Trump carries himself, or in regard to how he lives his own life. Several people comment upon how the “impossible” has happened, as if the current presidency that we’re dealing with is just as unfathomable as zombies, aliens, or witch covens. Off of that note, AHS: Cult has a lot of fun creatively finding the fear in our new modern triggers, like a red baseball cap with four simple words on it. Suddenly a piece of apparel is as terrifying a sight as someone wielding a machete or chainsaw. In the same way, the episode presents newly empowered racist Trump supporters preying on minorities as if they were werewolves or some kind of literal monsters. Republicans are the new serial killers.
Evan Peters’ Kai Anderson basically wants to take advantage of the new power vacuum that Trump has made possible. He wants to use fear to “liberate” people and then use this power to lead everyone into a new age when he’s calling the shots. Basically, picture Tyler Durden with blue hair and without the abs.
On the other side of all of this is Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards, who’s positioned like she’s clearly the audience surrogate in a lot of ways. Ally is painted as a very damaged, vulnerable person with Trump’s win causing all of her worst habits to come back into focus. It’s interesting to see people presenting Ally with coping mechanisms and ways to feel in control, yet she remains highly skeptical towards things getting better. Ally’s increasing amount of breakdowns begin to weigh down on her marriage and family life with Ivy (Alison Pill). It’s still early on, but it’s easy to foresee this dynamic becoming quite toxic. It also feels like the series wants you to interpret this family as a bit of an exaggerated stereotype when it’s revealed that their child’s full name is Ozymandius.
Taking all of this into consideration, this is already a season where I care about these characters a whole lot more than I have for the characters from previous years and this is only episode one. This is by far the most empathetic, human season of the show in quite some time and that greatly helps in its favor. It’s surprising how much gets accomplished in this premiere alone.
Even though corrupt world leaders and shattered dreams can make for compelling television, AHS: Cult doesn’t hold back from making some connections to a previous season of the show in the form of Twisty the Clown! This deranged jester’s presence this season has already been teased by Murphy, but it’s nice to have the guy back. If anybody has to return, it should be this guy. His scene is the sort of moment that might feel like indulgent fan service, but it ends up revealing a crucial character detail of Ally—she suffers from coulrophobia, a crippling fear of clowns.
This fear of Ally’s hits its breaking point during a moment set inside of a supermarket. As outrageous as this supermarket clown onslaught is, the scene gains a lot more weight when hinting at the broken woman and reality that’s under the surface of all of this. Reality or fantasy though, there’s no denying that some of those clown masks (the three-faced one and Shocked Lady Clown) are absolutely horrifying. Plus, the development that Oz appears to also be seeing killer clowns is certainly an interesting wrinkle in all of this, too. The series seems to certainly be playing with the idea that Ally might not be as crazy as everyone is making her out to be.
Finally, the last thing that needs to be discussed here is the powerhouse of a performance that Billie Lourd brings to the table here as Winter. Lourd was always a highlight of Murphy’s other murder-based pastiche, Scream Queens, and her classic alluring detachment fits perfectly here. Lourd’s Winter goes through some invasive scenes with Kai where he essentially gives her the equivalent of a Scientology auditing session. Kai breaks Winter down to her weakest self and then uses her to infiltrate Ally and Ivy’s life by positioning her as Oz’s babysitter. It’s this material that gets truly upsetting. Caretakers that take advantage of young children and brainwash them into doing evil things or turn against their parents happens all the time and it’s arguably a whole lot darker than monsters that go bump in the night. This is the stuff of real horrors and it becomes increasingly hard to watch Winter sharpening her claws over the infinitely naïve Oz.
There’s a powerful scene where Winter forces Oz to watch actual murder footage and when the young boy balks and tries to look away, she punishes him. She insists that this is what he needs—comparing it to an inoculation of sorts—and that this will make him “better” and get easier over time. It’s easily the most disturbed that I’ve been over this show in a long time and this season is just getting going here.
“Election Night” is definitely on the better American Horror Story premieres in a long time. It manages to introduce and accomplish quite a bit, while also not feeling bloated or overstuffed like past years have. The tightrope walk of a tone that’s present this season also comes across quite clearly in “Election Night,” which is the kind of thing that needs to nailed right from the jump and thankfully it is. Murphy has promised that new and familiar faces like Emma Roberts, Billy Eichner, and Lena Dunham will be making appearances this year, so there’s still plenty to look forward to as well.
Full disclosure here, American Horror Story is a series that I always get very excited to watch, but the seasons never seem to be able to maintain the insane tempos that they establish at the start of the year (Asylum excluded). As encouraging as a lot of seasons of American Horror Story are, I ultimately feel like a lot of the time things fall apart and get particularly messy in the final quarter of the year. The high just seems to wear off. Hopefully this season will be able to break that curse (and a season of 11 episodes versus 12 or 13 could be a good sign, too).
The season is already in good shape if it has me caring about these characters this much already. I’m also asking questions because I’m genuinely interested, not because I’m exhausted or attacking the show. These are positive signs, but that being said, this is still very early on. There have been plenty of seasons in the past that have had amazing premieres only to completely bungle their stories. The creative, ambitious changes present in last year’s Roanaoke seem to imply that the show has learned something and this year does feel genuinely different. Let’s just hope it doesn’t fall victim to all of the same pitfalls in the past.
We have a cruddy president. The last thing we need is a cruddy season of American Horror Story.
‘American Horror Story: Cult’ premieres on September 5th at 10pm on FX
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