American Horror Story is well-known for its repeat cast members. Lily Rabe and Frances Conroy have both appeared six times. Denis O’Hare has done five seasons, while Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange, who has won more Emmys (two) than any other AHS actor, both have four to their credit.
But only two actors have appeared in all seven iterations of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series, including American Horror Story: Cult, which comes to a close on Tuesday night. That would be Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, a pair of performers who have proven how skilled they are at reaching outlandish yet believable extremes, a quality that’s crucial to what is, perhaps, the most extreme show on television.
During their time on American Horror Story, Paulson and Peters have played witches and ghosts, killers and suspected killers, psychics, alien abductees, and two-headed freaks. But in many ways, Cult asked the most of them, partly because it danced so audaciously with Trump-era politics and also because it forced them to play multiple individuals who have gone off the deepest of deep ends.
Peters tackled a total of seven characters this season, including his principal one, Kai Anderson, America’s most dangerous city councilman. But he’s also played Andy Warhol, Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, and — because sure, why not? — Jesus Christ. Paulson technically only played two people: the anxiety-ridden Ally Mayfair-Richards and real-life Manson follower and murderer Susan Atkins. Given the massive change in Ally’s personality toward the end of the season, though, that character practically counts as two instead of one. In a way, Ally has two faces just like Bette and Dot, Paulson’s conjoined alter egos on American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Even when the writing and plot twists on Cult didn’t necessarily make total sense, the performances by Paulson and Peters remained compelling because both of them are so committed to leaning hard into the show’s hairpin tonal and emotional turns. In certain ways, their roles also felt like a full-circle landing point from where they started in season one. In her very first scene in American Horror Story, during the Murder House season, Paulson is introduced as medium Billie Dean Howard, a white woman whose spiritual communication powers were thrust upon her by the ghost of her murdered cleaning lady. “All I wanted was to improve my tennis game and unseat Charlotte Whitney as the president of my book club,” Billie Dean explains. “But I was chosen.” Seven seasons later, as we near the end of Cult, it’s easy to imagine Ally expressing a similar sentiment.
Paulson has a refined appearance and air that makes her a natural choice to play women of higher class, intelligence, or both. It’s a quality present in Billie Dean and even more crucial to our understanding of Ally, a woman terrified by the prospect of Donald Trump being elected president, yet bathed in enough privilege to feel like a vote for Jill Stein won’t hurt.
In the Election Night sequence that opens Cult, Paulson manages to deliver lines like, “What’s going to happen with Merrick Garland?” and infuse them with genuine despair while also making them sound completely ridiculous. But what Paulson does most consistently during the first half of Cult is play the role of panic-stricken snowflake. Ally is practically paralyzed by her fears of clowns, of the new neighbors, of suspicious lawn-service trucks, of her son being taken away from her. All of these fears turn out to be valid, but initially, she is so shaky that she’s simultaneously frustrating to watch and thoroughly relatable to anyone who’s ever experienced profound anxiety. Which is … most people. Maybe that’s precisely what makes Ally frustrating: No one likes looking in the mirror, especially when the reflection shows us our own weaknesses.
The tension this season often reaches its peak in moments when Ally is terrified. Paulson becomes so visibly agitated that we can practically feel the cortisol shooting through her system, whether it’s in episode five, when she claws at the perceived holes in her own skin, or in episode six, when she cowers in a bathroom, screaming and crying as she waits for one of those homicidal masked figures to find her. The look on Paulson’s face when the bathroom door opens and she realizes that the person in the evil (but bipartisan!) elephant and donkey mask is her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), is a mix of horror, shock and, above all else, revulsion.
As Kai, Evan Peters plays a revolting, disturbing character from the very beginning of Cult, whether he has a mask on, off, or his face covered in Cheetos dust. Like Paulson, Peters leans so fiercely into the seriousness of what he’s doing that he’s able to make it believably off-putting and absurd all at once, whether Kai is humping the TV while shouting “U-S-A!” after Trump’s victory or writing a fake suicide note in order to cover up the murder of a feminist political rival played by Mare Winningham. “Of course they will,” he says matter-of-factly when others question whether the public will believe the note is real. “It’s on Facebook.” He says this with such blasé confidence that it’s both funny and chilling.
This role also harks back to Evan Peters’s role in Murder House, where he played Tate Langdon, the ghost of a teenager who committed a mass school shooting and continued to engage in violent acts during his afterlife. If Tate hadn’t been shot and killed, it’s easy to imagine him growing up to become a man like Kai: angry, unrepentant, and in such need of admiration that he literally demands it from those around him. When Kai plans to enlist his followers to murder numerous pregnant women in an effort called “Night of 1,000 Tates,” it’s a reference to Sharon Tate, the pregnant actress famously killed by followers of Charles Manson, a cult leader who becomes a touchstone for Kai toward the end of the season. But American Horror Story fans may have been reminded of that other Tate, the white male teenager whose masculinity had the potential to grow more toxic with age, just as it did for Kai and his easily manipulated recruits.
Because his trajectory is moving in the opposite direction from Ally’s, Kai becomes more agitated and paranoid just as Ally seizes firmer control of herself. The pinnacle of Peters’s performance this season comes in the penultimate episode, “Charles (Manson) in Charge,” in which he riles up his base by spewing rants about “woke warrior assholes” and the Helter Skelter crew and, ultimately, killing his own sister. (The fact that Paulson, as Susan Atkins, writes the word “Pig” in blood during that flashback to the Manson murders is another AHS callback; Paulson made her first American Horror Story appearance in an episode called “Piggy, Piggy.”)
By this time, Ally has crossed over from frightened lefty to steely, murderous cult member, a role she assumes to enact revenge on all those who have wronged her. She poisons Ivy and watches her die without a flash of guilt. We also know that she’s getting into Kai’s good graces and setting up Winter to look as though she’s crossed him. There’s a delicious moment in “Charles (Manson) in Charge” when Ally asks Winter how she knows that Kai killed Ivy, then flashes a quick half-smile that’s as creepy as any of the sinister grins on the masks that Kai & Co. wear throughout the season.
What had been solid solo work by Peters and Paulson finally turns into a chilling duet during this episode, when Kai confronts Winter over her betrayal and Ally backs him up. As Kai confronts his sister with a “bug” he says she planted — even though it’s actually a Fitbit battery — the corners of Paulson’s lips turn up again, just so, in a way that whispers, “Gotcha.” And when Kai decides his only recourse is to kill Winter, he strangles the life of her while grieving her death at the same time. Peters’s cheeks shake, he weeps, and the veins on his forehead bulge with such force, it looks like his whole face is going to erupt, volcano-style. It is intense.
Now, is it ridiculous and unbelievable that Kai would kill his sister while receiving guidance from a vision of Charles Manson, also played by Evan Peters? Yes, of course. Is it preposterous that Ally has become so cold-blooded in such a short period of time, after being so fully paralyzed by her fears and phobias? Sure it is.
But for better or worse, American Horror Story is a creature of hyperbolic, over-the-top, gross exaggeration. As actors, Paulson and Peters are unafraid to embrace the excessive drama and wild plot swings, and their greatest talent lies in their ability to make these situations seem real and emotional enough to resonate. Their performances, throughout all seven seasons but especially during American Horror Story: Cult, have made the show better than it sometimes had a right to be.