After years of trying to conjure up a universal boogeymen with which to tap into the primal fears of Americans, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have landed almost effortlessly on target. “Election Night,” the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult, knows exactly how to trigger us; in fact, that’s the modus operandi of the show’s central antagonist, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). This anarchist’s most terrifying moment isn’t when he rubs blended orange Cheetos all over his face in a send-up of Glenn Beck’s mocking of Donald Trump, or the thought of him donning a three-faced clown mask to terrorize his fellow Americans, but when he calmly walks into a local city council meeting, clad in a suit, to suggest that government allow fear to reign. “Haven’t you been watching what’s been going on in the world?” he asks.
Like Roanoke’s splattering satire of reality television and fear-as-entertainment, Cult benefits from its proximity to reality. The first few minutes of the premiere episode are composed of newsroom footage of the lead-up to the last U.S. presidential election, featuring a deadening cut from Hillary Clinton’s horrified “You can’t just say whatever pops into your head if you want to be the president of the United States of America” to a white title card that simply reads “November 8, 2016, Election Night.”
For all the screams that have been elicited by American Horror Story, the guttural one that’s slowly ripped out of the throat of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) as she learns that Trump has been named the president-elect may be the most resonant. She isn’t facing some mystically unstoppable monster; what threatens her and her wife, Ivy Mayfair-Richards (Alison Pill), is an actual, active percentage of the voting public (including, as we’ll later find out, Ally herself, since she and 40,000 others voted for Jill Stein in a state—Michigan—that Clinton lost by only 10,000). As her precocious son, Ozzy (Cooper Dodson), puts it, “I don’t want you to not be married anymore.”
Despite being strongest when rooted in the political present, Cult’s first act of violence occurs in a fake-out fantasy sequence that features Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), one of the antagonists from Freak Show. The moment is, at best, a distracting introduction to Ally’s fear of clowns (or coulrophobia) and her son’s morbid obsession with them. At worst, Twisty’s imaginary murders make the actual violence committed by a pentad of clowns against Ally’s neighbors (Tim Kang and Nanrisa Lee) seem performative.
The episode’s best sequences blur the line between rational and irrational fears, where an overwhelmed Ally appears to lose her grip on reality. Director Bradley Buecker, a longtime Murphy collaborator, captures one such moment when Ally goes to a generic supermarket: fluorescent, familiar, safe. Ally, triggered by the cashier’s (Chaz Bono) red MAGA hat and her own thoughts of isolation—exacerbated by the store’s late-night emptiness—begins to feel unsettled by ordinary things. Buecker keeps shifting between close-ups of Ally’s increasingly taut features (Paulson’s microexpressions are superlative) and wide, distant shots of the empty aisles. He slowly distorts these familiar images, first adding a static-y crackle to the whine of the PA, and then panning up from the wheels of Ally’s shopping cart, which have stumbled upon a shattered watermelon, to the sight of two masked clowns fucking over the fresh fruits. The camera practically swoons as Ally blindly gropes for the nearest shelf, which seems to be lurching farther away from her.
Whereas this moment gloriously throws audiences off-balance, the remainder of “Election Night” isn’t so effective. First, Ally’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), needlessly explains that these manifestations are likely the result of Trump-related anxiety. Later, triggered this time by Trump tweets, Ally encounters a masturbating clown while attempting to have a romantic evening with Ivy at their restaurant, the Butchery. It’s almost the same scare tactic as before, only this time it’s devoid of subtext. And the episode’s final revelation—that those clowns might actually be real, part of a cult employed by Kai—takes the sting out of Ally’s suffering, making her an actual victim, and not just someone unable to adapt to societal changes.
As for Kai, he’s too vague of a villain, at least at this point, operating neither with the truly inexplicable sadism of the boys in Funny Games nor with the targeted violence of the titular murderer of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. Whether Kai’s humping the television as it announces the electoral results or casually lobbing insults (and a piss balloon) at a bunch of immigrants, Peters’s portrayal lacks real menace, almost as if he seems to be holding back. Right now, Kai scans as a blue-haired wannabe version of the Joker, or as a local politician calls him, a real-world 4chan troll. His sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), states that he’s the scariest man she’s ever met, but this episode doesn’t come close to conveying why that may be true.
At one point, Winter, having improbably been hired as a nanny by Ally and Ivy, forces Ozzy to watch snuff videos on the darkweb, suggesting that such extreme violence will serve as an inoculation for his mind—a vaccine to fear. Exposure therapy is real, but it’s also intense and targeted, and this episode’s random acts of violence, including the final shot of a clown in Ally’s bed, don’t confront fear so much as exploit it, and in doing so trivialize it for shock. Anything can be scary given the right context, but a story that’s about anything ceases to be a story. At that point, it’s just stock footage of life itself.
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