‘American Horror Story’s’ latest episode plays with reality while exploring the chaotic nature between power and safety
“I’m worried about you.”
“You should be.”
After delivering a particularly engrossing season premiere last week, there was plenty of room for the follow-up episode of American Horror Story: Cult to disappoint or lose some of that bonkers momentum that they built last week. While “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” might not be exactly as grabbing as the premiere, this is far from a drop off in quality, especially when so many of the ideas introduced last week get to breathe a little more.
For instance, a major theme that’s played with in this episode is the idea of not being able to trust reality. At two separate points Ally says, “I don’t know what’s real anymore,” and Oz more or less repeats it. This idea of not knowing what’s real and what can or cannot be trusted has become an overwhelming feeling as of the events of the latest presidential election. Not only in the sense that the events themselves are unbelievable, but ever since then there seems to be a record amount of “fake news” and information to cloud the truth. Ally and Oz Mayfair-Richards may not know what’s reality anymore when it comes to these killer clowns, but it’s meant to act as an extrapolation of the shock that people were/are in ever since the election. American Horror Story: Cult’s second episode, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” embraces that feeling of vulnerability and digs in deep to the point that everyone feels like they’re basically children that are afraid of the dark. While some are cowering in fear from the shadows, others are grabbing a flashlight and using the opportunity to take charge.
It’s interesting to see how much of a microcosm this second episode takes place within, with the bulk of its focus lying on the Mayfair-Richards. To begin with, the episode attempts to get into Oz’s head and plant some doubt by explaining that the boy suffers from night terrors. The fact that these clowns that he’s seeing are most definitely real, but he’s treating them with an air of irresponsibility because he thinks they’re just in his head makes for trouble. It’s a particularly bold move for this season to feature (at least) two characters who are unclear of what’s real, but as long as it’s not something that’s run into the ground, it should hopefully not become a problem.
In the brain bleach department, Winter continues her re-programming of Oz and I continue my wincing at this bleak storyline. It’s especially unnerving to watch the two of them bond and grow closer, with their relationship certainly making for the most fascinating and unnerving aspect of the season so far. Furthermore, Billie Lourd continues to kill it with her performance as Winter Anderson. Each one of her scenes is so damn tense and you never know if she’s being honest and what she’s really up to.
Seeing Ally slowly getting pushed into becoming dependent on Winter, who is just manipulating her this entire time, is also crushing behavior. Ally gets plenty of chances in this episode to rant and rave some more about killer clowns—this time, a power outage makes her concerned about terrorist attacks—and Paulson gets to lets loose like she did in the premiere. Unfortunately, this is all a little more reductive the second time around and hopefully the entire season won’t just be Ally breaking down and her character acting helpless. If Ivy is already getting frustrated, think how the audience must feel.
Perhaps the biggest scene this week that speaks towards Ally’s vulnerability also happens to be the most powerful scene of the episode. Evan Peters’ Kai Anderson and Ally have an extremely tense conversation about safety and power, with metal bars separating them the entire them, hammering the point in. It’s startling work from both of these American Horror Story veterans and I’m even more excited to see what Peters is going to bring to the table this season. On that note, the fact that councilman Chang’s death directly benefits Kai certainly makes it seem like he’s working with these killer clowns, if not one of them himself.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” also throws some new characters into the mix, with Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman being terrific AHS additions as Harrison and Meadow Wilton. At the moment they just seem to be enjoyable maybe-murderers who have moved in next door, but there’s much more of these quirky neighbors to come. While it might also be a little heavy-handed, Harrison’s hobby of beekeeping speaks pretty directly to the hive mentality that is present in cults. The episode massages some theories about collective consciousness when dealing with mob mentality and uprisings and it hints at some potentially interesting directions to come for the season. Or, you know, lots and lots of mutant killer bees.
The other major takeaway from this episode is learning that clearly Ryan Murphy and company want to turn each episode from this season into some piece of social commentary and breakdown of what’s gone down over the past year. This installment features plenty of grisly murders, just like past entries of the series, but this is the first time that these graphic displays are reduced to race-related issues and excuses to deport people. No one is interested in looking for the real killers or enacting actual change. All of this contributes to the overwhelming feeling that Ally is experiencing that the world is falling apart along with her.
All of this is amplified by the episode’s conclusion and parting thoughts, which are especially nihilistic. Ally purchases a gun as means of feeling safe, which is the perfect sort of too-true satire that’s actually going on in the world right now. Adding a gun to Ally’s lucid behavior is also just a scary prospect and not something that’s going to be good for anyone. The fact that all of this boils down to a race killing where a helpful immigrant gets shot for no reason might be dark as all hell, but it’s also symptomatic of what’s going on right now, as sad as that may be.
During past seasons people have asked Murphy how he thinks up these insane storylines, but this year, we’ve been living through the dress rehearsal.
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