‘American Horror Story: Cult’ turns back the clock for a glowing episode that begins to connect its clown-tastic dots
“The whole thing is just like a bad reality show.”
This latest season of American Horror Story seems to have either grabbed their viewers from the start, or they’ve been completely against this curious experiment. While admittedly this hyper-real approach to this show has been working for me, I can fully understand how it may be a bridge too far for some (although, come on, this show has thrown creepy death magicians, Voodoo Antichrists, and Stevie Nicks at its audience). It’s usually around this point in the season that even the strongest years of American Horror Story begin to show signs of fatigue. However, “11/9” strongly chooses to spend its time on motivations and backstory in an installment that retroactively sheds the previous three episodes in a fascinating new light.
If there’s a singular journey that this latest season of American Horror Story is trying to chronicle, it seems to be in charting Kai’s growth and rise towards “world domination.” This episode really helps solidify that point, with it turning the clock all the way back to November 9th and looking at the work Kai’s achieved up to the show’s current timeline. “11/9” is all about Kai building his army and how he goes about forming his various relationships and dependencies.
Kai’s bond with Harrison felt a little artificial last episode with their relationship totally coming out of the blue. “11/9” works towards showing that these two actually do have a rather strong preexisting friendship, one that even verges on being as fundamental to Harrison as the bond he shares with Meadow. If nothing else, Kai’s “courting” of Harrison seems to make it pretty clear that Kai is in fact the one behind the murderous clowns. The Smiley Face symbol popping up in the locker room seems to be the first official sighting of their creepy calling card.
As this episode spends time in the past, it takes this step back to help shade more background information on its characters. In this sense, it does do goof work to help explain how characters like Harrison and Kai know each other, but it’s unclear if its placement four episodes in is exactly the right spot for this. The episode’s placement feels kind of random and haphazard or like it’s mixing up the narrative flow just for the sake of it. That being said, it’s only appropriate to get an episode all about the Wiltons right after Meadow dies and Harrison finds himself heading into tumultuous territory. Still, I can’t help but feel like “Neighbors From Hell” might have carried a little more impact if this episode were to have come first.
As the full scope of Kai Anderson begins to be realized, he’s given a number of strong scenes that help underscore just how extreme his agenda is here. There’s an incredibly powerful moment where Kai rushes to a man’s aid who appears to be bleeding to death. However, all of Kai’s attention is focused on this man’s American right to vote, not towards his health and wellbeing.
It makes for yet another example of this season putting a clever political spin on classical horror tropes. This isn’t a man heading to a hospital for help, but some deranged man who has just lost a limb, yet is so excited to bring Trump into power that he needs to cast his vote, everything else be damned. His electoral pick is meant to be just as shocking as the visual of his bloody stump. It’s incredible. Later on the full scope of this scene is explained and the audience gets to truly comprehend what lengths people are going to create this “revolution.” The episode goes to morbid Saw-like territory, but instead of situations where people must face ultimatums like, “Cut off your arm or lose your life,” it’s instead, “Cut off your arm or lose your right to vote.” It’s bonkers, but isn’t this where we are in the world right now? These people just don’t want to feel powerless.
As Kai continues to work his way into people’s lives, it’s crazy to see how many catchphrases and slogans that he’s able to spit out about everything. He’s in Tyler Durden mode especially hard this episode. Yet, learning that he was in Mensa at fourteen certainly indicates just how powerful this guy is and why he really needs to be considered a threat. Evan Peters’ performance continues to grow in exciting, terrifying ways and it’s one of the season’s most electrifying aspects. Seeing how he seeps into everyone’s brain and slyly gets them on his side is continually fascinating. In spite of how off-putting and aggressive he is, he’s still always fighting for the underdog and wanting to do the right thing. While Trump may be spouting similar things but truly only caring about himself, Kai does seem to be empathetic to others, even if he does often tow the line with being a sociopath.
As helpful as Kai can be towards people that have trouble standing up for themselves, his confidence boosting slowly morphs into murder coaxing and the guy’s true motives obviously begin to come into question. Sure, he is helping people gain independence and come into their own, but pushing these people into murder obviously isn’t the only answer here. In spite of all of this, Harrison still considers Kai someone that’s worthy of believing in and Meadow can even walk in on them with a dead body and still not lose faith.
While the majority of “11/9” is devoted to Kai’s slow infection of the community, the episode also turns the spotlight on Adina Porter’s character, news anchor Beverly Hope. American Horror Story jumps back even earlier to December of 2016 and tells a rather tragic tale regarding Beverly. “11/9” elegantly juxtaposes the running trope of news anchors getting bombed with “fuck her right in the pussy,” but warps it into Trump’s infamous phrase, “grab her by the pussy.” This phrase then slowly destroys Beverly’s life and breaks her apart. It’s continually fascinating to see how each episode of this politically-fueled season can take a different facet of Trump’s regime and turn it into some piece of horror or a trigger point for a character. All of this ends with Beverly Hope feeling like a character that’s a lot more significant than we’ve been led to believe so far. Watch out for this one, guys. She might even end up outliving Kai…
Beverly’s downfall is tied together with the entrance of Serena Belinda, a young ladder-climbing news executive who’s eager to get ahead. Friend of the franchise, Emma Roberts, makes a brief appearance here as Serena, whose goals are eerily similar to those of Robert’s character, Chantal Oberlin, from Scream Queens. Roberts’ excels here as she calls people “dickwad” while gleefully grimacing over having to handle a puppy. The ensuing clown murder that follows is powerful stuff, but I wish it had been one unbroken take that ended with the camera falling to the ground as the cameraman finally gets it. Also, the clown costumes are still all sorts of terrifying, but this “set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” approach to these murders is beginning to feel a bit repetitive. Any time a new character gets introduced it feels like there’s a bullseye on them. Take a breather for an episode. Although I suppose part of the fun here is that between his many series Murphy has such a huge repertoire of actors at his disposal to corpsify.
It’s enlightening to see how Kai finds weakness in any individual and then plants himself in their lives and begins to systematically take them down. Kai insists that fear isn’t like a virus, but his actions say much to the contrary. He even makes use of a computer virus at one point in the episode to cover his tracks, but Kai himself is the biggest virus that’s out there. “11/9” might ultimately be too exposition heavy for some, but it definitely kept my interest, which is always something that’s crucial with this show. Furthermore, it’s nice to get a bit of a breather from Ally and the heavy focus that she’s taken up so far in this season. Her material was reaching the point of feeling like too much and becoming somewhat routine, so moving away from her this week certainly helps. It definitely looks like Ally is going to need some support in her ring soon though as Kai seems to be winning over everyone that he meets.
Maybe people would have more sympathy for her if she hacked off an arm?
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