As a society, we’ve come to rely on rules to protect us and rights to give us a sense of power. If there’s a disturbance coming from the home next to our own, we know that there are authorities who we can alert. And if our government takes an action that we find undesirable, we can petition against it. Perhaps the biggest psychic trauma, then, experienced by many people in this country after Trump’s election to the presidency—a trauma that’s the focus of American Horror Story: Cult—is the realization that those rules and rights don’t feel as sacrosanct as we thought they were.
Ally (Sarah Paulson) finds her world turned upside down in “Neighbors from Hell,” as the methods she once used to assert herself and feel empowered are now turned against her. Her accidental killing of Butchery employee Pedro in last week’s episode has made her the target of the liberals with whom she once protested. They swarm the restaurant owned by her and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), holding placards calling for justice and labeling Ally a “lesbian George Zimmerman.” Her new neighbors, Harrison and Meadow Wilton (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman), exaggeratedly turn their backs on her, rubbing salt in the open wound when they show up at Ally’s home wearing sombreros, angrily throwing Taco Bell coupons through the bars of her front door, calling out the very white privilege she lamented in “Election Night.” It’s a charge she can’t easily dismiss, given the pass she gets from Detective Jack Samuels (Colton Haynes), the sort of closeted bigot who’s all too happy to defend an affluent white woman against a poor brown male, one he’d already convinced himself was guilty of the murder that occurred in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”
Whether she realizes it or not, Ally invokes that privilege when she confronts the drivers of a mysterious truck that drives through her neighborhood late at night. She believes herself to be entitled to an explanation from people whom she assumes are carrying out an unsanctioned government experiment, and she’s almost run over by the truck—she leaps aside at the last minute—in the belief that the world will stop for her. That’s how she’s been raised: to believe that the government and all of its apparatuses work for her. But she’s not given the opportunity to have an open debate with her tormentors. They offer only stony silence, and when she pulls off one of their gas masks, she finds another one underneath—one modeled after the bloody smiley face that keeps getting graffitied at gruesome crime scenes around the neighborhood, and which has marked her own home as a target.
On an emotional level, the escalation of these assaults on Ally make sense, but they leave some intellectual holes. Between all the strange murders in the neighborhood, the graffiti scrawled on Ally and Ivy’s home, the trolls doxxing the two lovers with raunchy sex ads on the internet, and the trespasser who blew up the family’s new pet guinea pig in the microwave, it seems pretty obvious that Ally is being targeted. The clowns might’ve been in her head, but these are real violations. It seems odd, then, that when their son, Ozzy (Cooper Dodson), accidentally clicks a virus-carrying link on his laptop that loads video footage of his nanny, Winter (Billie Lourd), fingering Ally in the bathtub, Ivy doesn’t consider the source. Yes, Ally has betrayed Ivy’s trust by keeping Winter’s actions a secret, but the video comes from a site called Scared2Death and was made using a camera hidden inside their home. Ivy’s look of hurt and betrayal feels visceral, but in the context of the show, if Ivy distrusts Ally enough to remove herself and Ozzy from the home, it probably should’ve been after Ally shot an innocent person in front of him. Then again, as Cult all too happily keeps reminding audiences, strong emotions make people do crazy, often nonsensical things.
Much of what’s worked on the season thus far has been specific to Ally, the way in which scenes stayed locked into how things were directly affecting her, leaving us to question how much was real. “Neighbors from Hell” too readily pulls back the curtain on the larger conspiracy against her. The opening sequence, in which Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) congratulates a woman on overcoming her fear of coffins, only for clowns to later that evening seal her and husband into caskets, leaving them to slowly die in the “safety” of their home, strongly suggests that Dr. Rudy, who’s also Ally’s psychiatrist, is in league with the clowns. Likewise, flashbacks make more obvious the connection between Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) and both Harrison and Meadow, as they both do that cultish pinky-swearing confessional with him. One particular throwaway scene, in which the Wiltons reiterate their venomous thoughts about Ally by phone, serves only to indicate that the detective—who’s chummily sitting beside the Wiltons—is colluding with them. And then there’s Ivy’s casual confirmation that the blackouts may have been caused by a terrorist attack, which suggests either that the clowns are part of a larger, more organized group, or that they’re incredibly opportunistic.
“Neighbors from Hell” was written by James Wong, who’s perhaps best known for Final Destination, a film that often blunted its horror with a series of Rube Goldberg-like deaths. Having tapped into something raw and real with the post-election trauma so many feel, Cult must now be careful not to cheapen its warnings against blind fear and rage by turning them into overly elaborate entertainment. American Horror Story can’t convey how terrifying it is for the rules we rely on to no longer be in place if Cult, at the same point, relies on the familiar conventions of horror movies to do so.
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