For better and worse, the horror on American Horror Story: Cult is all text and no subtext. Take the title of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which isn’t some abstract nod to our needing to face the fears lurking in the darkness of our lives, but a reference to the blackout that leaves Ally (Sarah Paulson) in a panic. The show isn’t content to simply talk about the red-meat hate speech of the right; it literally hangs it out in the open after Roger (Zack Ward), a bigoted sous-chef, is found affixed to a hook in the Butchery’s kitchen freezer.
The horror of that scene is a bluntly effective display of people’s drive to weaponize themselves against the sad realities of Trump’s America, and it’s the pulsing wound at the heart of Cult, where nothing is sacred or held back. As Ally’s new neighbors, Harrison and Meadow Wilton (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman), put it: “Lay it all out there, you know? Radical, fearless honesty, Facebook, Twitter, blah-blah-blah, everyone look at me.”
The subject of Cult is the sheer impossibility of getting any distance from the visceral oppressiveness of what Trump’s election has wrought. In “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” even if Ally unplugs from the internet, as her psychiatrist recommended, people like Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) are right in her face, drawn out of the shadows in the wake of Trump’s victory, smugly throwing lattes (or worse) at those they disapprove of, whether it’s a group of hard-working migrant workers or a pair of smiling lesbians. Emboldened, Kai himself decides to run for office—attempting to fill the seat of the city council member he likely had murdered—and through that outlet gets even closer to Ally, callously showing up at her door to ask for her political support.
Kai is monstrous, of course, but what’s interesting—democratic even—about his showdown with Ally is how he outs her awfulness. The difference between them, though, is that Kai is honest about what he wants, whereas Ally is oblivious to her hypocrisy. Kai blatantly lies to her, using false Facebook facts to scare her into voting for him, and when that fails, he menacingly toys with her a la Scream’s Ghostface, using cliché horror-movie quotes in an attempt to get inside her home: “Can I use your phone? My car just broke down.”
There’s something almost sincere about Kai’s insincerity, which makes some of Peters’s restraint in “Election Night” seem more charged in retrospect. Kai wants you to see beneath his mask. Ally, on the other hand, doesn’t even realize she’s wearing one: “I am interested in reaching out to people, making contact with other human beings, building bridges, not walls,” she says, all while standing behind the reinforced gate that she’s just installed. “Are you going to burn this metal down and build a bridge?” sneers Kai, fists wrapped around the bars. He’s most frightening because he’s right.
Even Ally’s name serves as a knock against this sort of half-assed “safe” and “convenient” liberalism, because she most certainly doesn’t act like an ally of people of color and other minorities. Her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), is the one who insists to Detective Samuels (Colton Haynes) that their employee, Pedro Morales (Jorge-Luis Pallo), couldn’t have possibly killed her sous-chef; to her, he’s family. Ally, on the other hand, rushes out to pick up a gun from her new neighbors—a knee-jerk act for which she feels embarrassment, because it exposes how easily she’s triggered. Later, she demands that her psychiatrist, Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), not tell Ivy about the gun. Paulson reveals Ally’s selfish, narcissistic heart to the audience while simultaneously ensuring that the character remains blissfully oblivious of it.
Ally is at her worst by the end of the episode, having completely succumbed to fear. Manipulated by her son and his nanny, Winter (Billie Lourd), into believing that the power in their neighborhood has been cut by terrorists, she goes into full-on survivalist mode, firing her gun without warning at the person at her backdoor. That this stranger turns out to be Pedro, there at Ivy’s behest to bring over some blackout supplies, only underscores who Ally truly considers to be her family when push comes to shove.
Ally’s downfall tells a strong, clear story, as Cult sees her trapped in a social-horror movie of sorts in which the victim is the fragility of liberalism. But this episode feels flimsy whenever it isn’t directly supporting this central theme. Winter’s casual seducing of Ally is a crucial part of an obviously larger plot to destabilize and ruin her, but the sequence is also artlessly, generically executed, and it’s unclear what point, if any, the episode is trying to make about how easy it is to razz a liberal. The same goes for the show’s introduction of the Wiltons and their ominous cache of oil drums. They have a clear connection to Kai (they taped and edited the footage of him getting beaten up by migrant workers to make the incident look unprovoked), and Harrison, a beekeeper by trade, makes a good point about how hives (or cults) make for a “perfect” and unified community. But they just seem like chattery provocateurs, and while that at least feels natural from Eichner, Grossman seems too intentionally ditzy as she rants about melanomas.
Pull back even further and it’s hard to tell why Cult even needs its killer clowns. The most generous reading of their presence, two episodes into the season, is as a bloody reflection of our country’s present-day political circus. So far in the world of the show, there are “real” clowns—the ones who drive around in an ice cream truck and commit real-world murder and mayhem—and there is Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), who confusingly appears beside the three-faced clown in a night terror that Ozzy (Cooper Dodson) is having. One of the biggest strengths of this season of American Horror Story is the way in which it makes our collective nightmare into a reality. But Twisty, a literal comic-book character at this point, turns the reality of murderous, home-invading clowns right back into a dismissible dream.
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