American Horror Story: Cult Is a Fascinating Take On Our Political Moment

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Photo: Frank Ockenfels/FX Networks

Based on the advance publicity for American Horror Story: Cult, most viewers already know that the seventh incarnation of the perpetually rebooting FX frightfest involves clowns, bees, Billies (as in Billie Lourd and Billy Eichner), and, to some extent, Donald Trump. But they may be wondering exactly how much this season will touch on the recent presidential election, especially since co-creator Ryan Murphy has said it will not be addressed literally.

After watching the first three episodes of the most charged social satire American Horror Story has ever attempted, I can tell you that Murphy was telling the truth, mostly. American Horror Story: Cult does not literally recount the Clinton vs. Trump saga in some wild, Wes Craven–esque spin on a slasher flick. But is this season about that election and its aftereffects? Oh, hell yes it is.

Episode one gets political from the jump, opening with a montage of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. “You can’t just say whatever pops into your head if you want to be the president of the United States of America,” Clinton booms during a stump speech, at which point ominous background music builds to a crescendo and the focus shifts to images of people on November 8, 2016, watching election results on cable TV.

One of those people is Kai Anderson (AHS regular Evan Peters), a seemingly alt-right-leaning figure who, upon hearing that Trump will be the 45th president, looks heavenward and whispers, “The revolution has begun.” Meanwhile, in a living room elsewhere in the same Michigan town, Ally Mayfair-Richards (Murphy muse Sarah Paulson), is still in deep denial about the Democrat’s chances. “I won’t believe anything,” she insists while pacing around her upper-middle-class living room, “until I hear Rachel Maddow say it.”

Then Clinton concedes, Trump makes his acceptance speech, and Ally screams and weeps with all the panic-stricken despair of a final girl convinced she has met her maker. Cut to Kai, who celebrates by shouting “U-S-A,” humping his television, and dumping a bunch of Cheetos into a blender to create an orange powder that he spreads all over his face in an homage to his dear leader. People, if you have come to American Horror Story expecting subtlety, you are so knocking on the wrong Murder House door. But surely you knew that already.

One could argue that AHS: Cult gets less overtly political after that initial sequence, and that’s not entirely false. But its subtext remains, always, the fractured nature of American society circa 2017, a subtext the show doesn’t merely hint at but announces using a bullhorn. Ally — who co-owns a restaurant with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), with whom she’s raising a semi-anxious son — falls into an emotional and psychological crater followed by the catastrophic transfer of presidential power. Old fears — including a phobia of clowns, which both she and her son start to see everywhere — bubble up again, along with fresh anxieties about the serial killer or killers on the loose in her community; her odd new neighbors, Harrison and Meadow (Eichner and Leslie Grossman, who played Mary Cherry on Murphy’s teen comedy Popular); the possibility of terrorist attacks; and Kai, who makes an aggressive effort to earn her support while running for city council. (Note: Ally does not appear to be afraid of bees, but bees do buzz their way into the frame before too much time passes.)

Things go wrong for this poor woman or someone in her family practically every five minutes, which infuses AHS: Cult with a constant sense of tension, as well as a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” level of absurdity. That line between terror and comedy is always a tricky one to walk, but it’s even trickier here because the material cuts so close to current bone. Every issue from your typical CNN news crawl is represented, folks: immigration, ISIS, racism, the environment, and, most significantly, the war between the extreme right and left. This show is trying to do a lot.

Some may find that approach excessive and the idea of Grand-Guignol–ing what’s happening in our country a little crass, especially since the show takes some pretty pointed jabs at progressives. Others, especially those well-versed in the series’ over-the-top sensibility and drily snarky humor, will dig into it all with complete relish, viewing Cult as a simultaneous escape from and means to process their own anxieties about the present moment, a service the horror genre has often historically provided.

Personally, I fall mostly in the latter camp. I haven’t been this immediately intrigued by a season of American Horror Story since Asylum. There are certain elements in AHS: Cult that I consider problematic; the setting has as much of a Michigan vibe as a backlot suburbia in the middle of Burbank, and characters on both sides of the political spectrum are steeped in stereotypes, though that also seems like kind of the point. But other details create an effective sense of atmosphere. Take some time to notice the cockeyed bookcase in the Mayfair-Richards’s living room and how it conveys a sense of perpetual imbalance, or the fact that the couple’s restaurant is named The Butchery on Main. (Farm-to-table dining suddenly sounds so sinister!) One of my favorite running gags is the fact that Harrison and Meadow are co-vice-presidents of the Michigan chapter of the Nicole Kidman Fan Club. (“Did you see her in Big Little Lies?” Harrison asks Ally and Ivy. “She was transcendent.” Apparently even characters on a Ryan Murphy show were paying more attention to Big Little Lies than Feud.)

The whole cast is terrific, but the series is (no surprise) a real showcase for Paulson, who’s a bundle of jangled nerves and teary-eyed fear. At no point does Ally resort to sheetcaking, but you just know that if someone handed her a fork and a pan of something frosted, she would go straight to town, probably while ranting about clowns and Ann Coulter. But Paulson’s just as convincing at conveying Ally’s stubborn desire to grip her fist around reality. She also knows precisely how to get a laugh while playing a scene perfectly straight. During an argument, when Ivy reminds her that she voted for Jill Stein, Ally says, “You said you weren’t going to bring that up again” with such wounded intensity that you can’t help but snicker.

In keeping with American Horror Story tradition, season seven borrows tropes and imagery from tons of other horror movies. Basically any film in which anyone has ever been a stalker or a person stalked – from The Strangers to Psycho to Fatal Attraction to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which happens to be the title of episode two — is evoked in some way. So are previous seasons of American Horror Story, particularly the fourth one. Twisty, the grotesque clown from Freak Show, reemerges in Cult in a scene that echoes his introduction in that previous season, suggesting that the ghosts of the threats we faced in the 1950s are haunting us in 2017. The fact that Paulson played conjoined twins in Freak Show also feels relevant; as a liberal white woman who couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton and says things like, “Do you understand the specific pain of someone like me being called a racist?” Ally may be a bit two-faced herself.

But the most clever aspect of American Horror Story: Cult — which doesn’t start to fully establish the “cult” aspect of its plot until episode three, and even then things are still a bit cryptic — is the use of Ally’s trauma as a metaphor for the Trump-induced madness many Americans experience on a daily basis. Ally is either delusional or she’s being gaslighted, convinced that things she sees are not necessarily there. That’s precisely how plenty of Americans feel when they listen to the commander-in-chief blatantly lie on national television, then hear some pundit declare that he just became “presidential,” or Trump’s Instagram feed announces that he witnessed “first hand [sic] the horror and devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey” beneath an image of him merely looking at a screen. It’s understandable that Ally, not to mention the rest of us, are starting to think there’s some sort of conspiracy at work to make us question our own eyes and ears. The way Kai justifies his white male rage has an equally familiar ring. “Everything is somebody else’s fault from now on,” he advises another character in episode three. Translation: Look what you made me do.

Essentially, the world in American Horror Story: Cult has gone completely berserk, yet it only seems maybe 20 percent more nuts, tops, than the world in which we actually live. Maybe I’m crazy for enjoying a series that approaches this volatile, still-unfolding chapter in our nation’s history with such gruesome enthusiasm and with its tongue tucked so firmly into its cheek. But we’re all a little insane at this point. American Horror Story: Cult is apparently on a mission to force us to admit it.

American Horror Story: Cult is a Compelling Trump-Era Satire