Spoilers ahead for the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult.
In July, Vulture’s Mark Harris wrote a piece proclaiming that the next few months would usher in a new period for pop culture in the age of President Donald J. Trump. “The next wave of Trump-era art will probably be about the world we’re in, not about the world too few of us saw coming,” he wrote.
The new season of American Horror Story: Cult, particularly the deliberate, political terror depicted in its first seven minutes, may serve as the most obvious marker of that new wave of storytelling, which doesn’t address Trumpian times by slyly slipping in through a subtextual back door, but barrels straight through the front entrance while loudly screaming its of-the-moment intentions. (In the case of AHS: Cult, it also does this while showing us a dude humping a television broadcasting Fox News.)
The horror genre tends to place a lot of weight on its beginnings, which are often designed not only to jolt, but to establish the foundation for everything that comes later, tonally as well as plot-wise. The extended pursuit of Drew Barrymore at the start of Scream confirms that the mysterious killer could strike anyone at anytime, but more important, that the film will make a sport of meta-acknowledging its genre’s tropes. The camera that winds its way through a suburban home at the start of 1978’s Halloween turns out to actually be capturing the POV of a very young, already homicidal Michael Myers, making it clear that this troubled soul may have reason to eventually revisit the same house on that particular holiday. Previous seasons of American Horror Story have often adopted a similar approach, teasing out the dark history behind its settings, like season one’s Murder House, Briarcliff Manor in Asylum, or the New Orleans of Coven, in the earliest minutes of its first seasons.
As I said in my review, AHS: Cult gets to its point right away with a politically charged beginning that features actual, spine-chilling footage from the recent presidential campaign trail — “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” — then segues into the series’ first sequence of genuine terror: Election Night 2016. The toggling between aggressive November 8 celebration, as represented by Kai (Evan Peters) shouting “U-S-A!” as the election is called in Trump’s favor, and the profound, distressed shock expressed by Sarah Paulson’s left-leaning Ally — “Merrick Garland,” she cries. “What’s going to happen to Merrick Garland?” — is a moment that simultaneously depicts a world too few of us saw coming and the world we’re in now. Even though AHS: Cult may briefly veer away from politics in subsequent scenes, at least on a surface level, the opener very clearly establishes the election as the show’s inciting incident and constant trigger for Ally’s psychological shakiness and Kai’s apparent pursuit of misguided power.
As written by series co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and directed by Bradley Buecker, these seven minutes in Electoral College hell toy with tropes as much as Scream does, but within the very specific framework of 2016-2017 America. When Trump walks onstage to make his acceptance speech in the wee hours, we hear the ominous syntho-thumps typically reserved for the horror movie moment when the psycho killer suddenly appears. The stereotypical freeze frame on the terrified potential female victim manifests itself via a close-up of Ally, with a single tear running down her face and a sad little “I Voted” sticker still affixed to her sweater. When Kai walks to the bedroom where his sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), a Clinton supporter, is grappling with grief and frustration, we track that path from his POV, the same way John Carpenter lets us follow Myers to his sister’s room in Halloween. Even a throwaway line like the one that comes out of the city councilman’s mouth — “I hope every one of those voters who decided it was a good time to cast a protest vote is happy when that psycho gets us all killed” — has an air of horror-movie foreshadowing about it, especially given what happens to that character by the time episode one is over. (That protest vote comment is more or less the equivalent of saying “I’ll be right back” in a slasher flick.)
All of this takes the very real aspects of the Election Night reaction — the disbelief, the elation of Trump’s supporters, the anguish from those on the Clinton side, coupled with frustration toward third-party voters — and heightens them to a deliberately cheeky, cartoonish degree. The characters are also a fun-house mirror — or maybe fake-news mirror? — versions of what liberals and conversatives are actually like. Kai’s totally nutso response to Trump’s win is the stuff of anti-Trumpers’ most extreme nightmares. (“All those Trump lovers are probably at home spreading Cheeto dust all over their faces and dry-humping Sean Hannity. Yes — that is what they are actually doing.”) Ally’s unwavering faith in Rachel Maddow and her whimpering panic is precisely the sort of crybaby liberal snowflake behavior that conservatives attribute to their philosophical adversaries. Naturally, when Winter, the card-carrying millennial in this scenario, bemoans her candidate’s loss, she blames her cable network for not being more sensitive about her feelings: “What is wrong with CNN for not giving us a trigger warning before they announced the results?” She adds: “I don’t even know what’s real anymore.”
And that, right there, might be the mission statement of American Horror Story: Cult, a show that reflects our response to the election of our first reality-show president right back at us, in a scripted form that also feels borderline documentary-esque. The many teasers for this series promised us it would be about clowns. And make no mistake: There are some scary-ass clowns in this thing. But AHS: Cult, from the very beginning, hyperbolizes and scrambles the line between fantasy and reality in an effort to also make us see that there are other clowns to fear. Those clowns are the pro-MAGA soldiers and inconsolable Pantsuit Nation patriots who for different, not at all morally equivalent reasons can’t find their way back to sanity. In other words, they’re us.