In so fervently, even humanely, leaning into Kai’s (Evan Peters) madness as it once did into Ally’s (Sarah Paulson), “Charles (Manson) in Charge” manages to get back to the inspired lunacy of American Horror Story: Cult’s first few episodes and reclaim a sense of purpose, one that puts character development on a level playing field with political provocation. The flashbacks are no longer misleading or disconnected and the aesthetics are, while still dissonant, lush with meaning, as in the framing of bodies and use of mirrors that stress both Kai’s fraught connection to his sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), as well as his psychic break from reality.
The writing-directing team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Bradley Buecker also collaborated on “Election Night,” which featured the bizarre sight of clowns fucking one another atop a row of watermelons. Here, there’s the blissful absurdity of seeing Charles Manson (Peters) cut his way through the zombified body of Kai’s conciliatory brother, Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson): “If you’re going to hallucinate someone, it should be me.” The full purpose of the extended flashbacks in “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag” are finally understood, as a through line is traced between the project of the SCUM Manifesto and the war against the present-day patriarchy that’s incited by Kai with the help of Solanas’s old cohort, Bebe (Frances Conroy).
Now that audiences can see all of the delusional demons egging Kai on, his actions (ironically) make a lot more sense; they’re the result of several different and often warring intentions. Bebe sincerely sought to use Kai as a martyr, a vile but charismatic man in the mold of Donald J. Trump who might “impregnate” women with enough rage to make them overthrow the pussy grabbers of the world. But in the process of emulating Trump’s supremacist bona fides, Kai attained a power so real that he wanted it entirely for himself, and somewhere along the way he snapped, genuinely losing himself.
The episode manages to get back to the inspired lunacy of the season’s first few installments.
The episode opens with a flashback to the final presidential debate of 2016, offering answers to mysteries about Kai that Cult has almost stubbornly kept secret up to this point in the season. Kai, bottom-feeding on 4chan forums, rebukes Winter’s friends from Vassar: “The world isn’t this progressive happy place you think it is.” In turn, one of Winter’s friends calls Kai out: “It is all about shame and humiliation for you assholes,” she says, using angry, young, girlfriendless Kai as a model of the alt-right. People are desperate to be noticed, to be taken seriously, and they’re violent when they’re not.
A counter-protest against Kai’s fascist-sounding rally leads to him getting maced (shades of Richard Spencer), and the readily available carton of milk that’s poured over him is the only suggestion throughout the sequence that the attack may have been planned on some level. Elsewhere, and a little more unforgivingly muddled and redundant, Kai attempts to spin the murder of Gary (Chaz Bono) as something against leftist radicals (or “woke warriors”), but this sequence of events says less about false flagging than it does about the lengths that Kai will go to in order to fulfill his craziest desires.
“Charles (Manson) in Charge” takes a few too many shortcuts for the sake of expediting things heading into the final episode. Beverly (Adina Porter) reappears on camera as a broken woman, speaking more slowly and avoiding eye contact with Kai; while she eats at the Butchery, she flinches at every sound and makes no move to attack Winter or to flee when Winter offers her a way out. Her betrayal of Winter, similar to Ally’s turn against Rudy, leads Kai to murder yet another one of his family members; we’re literally told by Bebe that Beverly has been broken, when it might have been more poignant had we been allowed to actually comprehend the full scope of Beverly’s broken-ness. And the episode’s final revelation is rather jarring: Speedwagon (Cameron Cowperthwaite) turns out to be the mole inside Kai’s organization, which thrusts a blank slate into an oddly prominent position for the finale.
For the most part, however, “Charles (Manson) in Charge” does an effective job of re-railing the series, especially in the way that it focuses on Ally. Not content to have avenged herself on Ivy, Ally now plants evidence incriminating Winter that leads to Kai murdering his sister. The episode neatly shows the exact moment in which Ally decides to do it. She and Winter are repainting the cult’s ice-cream truck (hiding it in plain sight, a metaphor for Ally herself) when Winter makes the mistake of asking about Ivy. Ally is angry because Winter isn’t sufficiently remorseful about breaking up a marriage, and because she underestimates, like Ivy before her, Ally’s strength—her capacity to kill. “What makes you think it was Kai?” Ally asks, cocking an eyebrow and making clear that she’s engineering Winter’s own demise.
For all the cleverness of Cult’s political commentary, what works best in this episode is the charting of a simple story of revenge coming full circle. Kai once sought to drive Ally mad, and he might even have succeeded. But in planting surveillance equipment and destroying Kai’s most loyal followers, Ally is the one who’s driving Kai to a place far more insane than he’s ever been to. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the most accurate reflection of post-Trump America that there is: a vicious circle of people who feel pushed to the brink, bringing others right over the edge along with them.
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