This story contains spoilers about Tuesday’s episode of American Horror Story: Cult.
American Horror Story frequently bases its creepy fiction on real-life events and people, from actual murders to performers in genuine freak shows. But in its seventh season, American Horror Story: Cult, the anthology series takes that approach to of-the-moment levels by setting its action around the 2016 presidential election and commenting directly on the national climate now that Donald Trump is in the Oval Office.
Both the risks and subtextual benefits of tapping so directly into the Zeitgeist are on full display in this week’s episode, “Mid-Western Assassin,” one that FX announced on Monday had been reedited in the wake of last week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. The opening sequence — which, in a press release, the network said “some viewers might find traumatic” — was pared down for Tuesday’s broadcast, but still made available in uncut form on demand and FX’s digital platforms.
The original version is also the one provided to critics in advance, and the one that I watched. Its opening scene depicts people at an outdoor event — a rally for city-council candidate and undercover cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) — where gunshots are suddenly fired as attendees scream, dive for cover, and make mad dashes to escape. Ivy, the restaurateur played by Alison Pill, ducks behind a fountain and is shaking with fear when another character attempts to help tug her to safety and is hit, causing blood to splatter on the pavement and on Ivy. Police quickly move in and as the camera tightens its focus toward the shooter, we see that the weapon is in the hands of Ally Mayfair-Richardson (Sarah Paulson), Ivy’s anxiety-ridden estranged wife and the victim of several layers of terror that were carefully orchestrated by Kai and his followers, one of whom is Ivy.
As FX’s press release noted, this episode was shot two months ago and was not intended to reflect what happened in Las Vegas. By American Horror Story standards, it’s also not particularly gory, or at least not as gory as it could have been. But this episode’s opening scene and its conclusion, which revisits the shooting from a different perspective, are indeed disturbing given their timing. Although I had not seen the edited iteration when I wrote this piece, I believe that making some trims was the right call. But even if the Vegas shooting did not happen and the episode’s content had not been slightly revised, the sequence would still raise questions about where boundaries should be drawn — on American Horror Story or any show — when it comes to depictions of mass violence.
One of the reasons the AHS: Cult sequence seems so in tune with last week’s carnage is because such shootings happen so frequently in this country and so often follow the same patterns. That’s also why many viewers may feel uncomfortable with seeing such incidents depicted in scripted television: They can very, very easily feel like gratuitous, unnecessary glorifications of the behavior they seek to condemn. (I would also argue that network and cable news, which showed cell-phone footage of the Vegas attack in a non-stop loop last week, do the same thing to an even more blatant degree.)
American Horror Story has fallen into that gratuitous trap on several occasions, maybe more than several depending on your perspective. Two particularly egregious examples are its season-one depiction of a school shooting that contains obvious parallels to Columbine and a scene in Cult’s fourth episode in which a TV reporter and her cameraman are brutally stabbed by Kai’s cohorts while taping a segment at a community event. In both scenes, what is unsettling is how specifically they conjure violence that happened to real people in the not-so-distant past. The murder of the reporter, played by Emma Roberts, and her colleague, very blatantly evoked the horrifying on-camera deaths of reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward in 2015. As I watched that scene, all I could think about was how appalled and distressed the loved ones of Parker and Ward would feel if they happened to be watching.
I am sure the loved ones of those lost or injured in Las Vegas felt the same way if they happened to tune into “Mid-Western Assassin.” But while I can say, unequivocally, that Emma Roberts’s character could have been killed under less tasteless circumstances without the show losing anything of importance or substance, I am not sure yet if that’s true about the shooting sequence simply because it seems so key to where the story is going next. In most cases, mainstream television handles mass shootings and other disturbing crimes, such as rape, in unsophisticated and extreme ways. What makes this shooting feel possibly more crucial to the Cult narrative — at least at this moment — is the fact that Ally is being framed for it.
Which brings me to the other of-the-moment news story that American Horror Story taps into this week, clearly without intending to: the explosive revelations about the alleged sexual harassment and assault perpetrated for decades by megaproducer Harvey Weinstein.
There’s an awful lot to the Weinstein story, but the core of it is about the women who were abused and victimized by a powerful man, with help from a whole bunch of complicit people who did nothing to stop it when they could have. That’s also exactly what’s happening in American Horror Story: Cult, in this week’s episode in particular, and what some would say happened in the 2016 presidential election.
“Mid-Western Assassin” introduces Sally Stifler (Mare Winningham), a woman who publicly declares her intention to run against Kai as a write-in candidate for city council. Given her left leanings, her declaration that she once interviewed Barry Goldwater for her school paper, and her matter-of-fact way of stating her opinions — “People like Mr. Anderson and Mr. Trump are not the garbage. They are the flies the garbage has drawn,” — Sally is clearly meant to be a Hillary Clinton–esque figure. It’s not long before Kai eliminates her by breaking into her house, posting a fake suicide note on her Facebook page, and then killing her.
As we learn at the end of the episode, Kai also is responsible for recruiting a thoroughly brainwashed and smitten Meadow (Leslie Grossman) to act as the mass shooter in the opening sequence. We watch as she puts a bullet in Kai that doesn’t kill him, but will presumably elevate him into a sympathetic national figure, and then she and Ally struggled for the weapon just before Meadow shooting herself in the head. With the gun in her hands as the police swarm around her, Ally has been framed for the shooting.
That’s a lot of variables that need to line up perfectly in a chaotic moment. But the setup of Ally, like the murder of Sally, is more relevant for what it symbolizes than its verisimilitude. (Actually, that’s true of this whole show.) The message is one that society tells us over and over again, every time a harasser gets to keep harassing, or even worse, gets elected president. It’s echoed chillingly in what Kai says will happen once Ally starts telling everyone about the cult: “When it comes out of her mouth, the truth can hide in plain sight,” he says. “Nobody will believe what a crazy woman says.”
It’s a bracing statement to hear, especially after a day spent reading more and more astonishing stories about the damage Weinstein has done.
Does all of that justify including a mass-shooting sequence in a horror show? I am not sure, if only because American Horror Story: Cult has threaded a lot of provocative and timely ideas into its story, but it doesn’t always seem to pull them in a meaningful direction. I don’t think I’ll be able to say for sure until I’ve seen the entire season.
That said, if upcoming episodes find a cohesive way to say that this country’s misguided response to gun violence and its shuttering of women’s voices have made all of us vulnerable and less safe, I’m willing to concede that what happens at the beginning of “Mid-Western Assassin” may have served a worthwhile, if not quite noble, purpose.