The secret ballot that we use to cast our votes on election day is a rare opportunity for us to express our political views without risk of public opprobrium. “11/9,” the strongest episode yet of American Horror Story: Cult, taps into the power of the voting booth to allow us such a freedom, drawing back the curtain not just on the political choices of the show’s central characters, but on their innermost thoughts. In the process of an extended flashback, “11/9” also peels back the masks of the season’s antagonistic clowns, providing these menacing murderers with rich backstories: It turns out that they’re not just manifestations of our fears in the wake of Trump’s election, but victims of a system that the president simply inherited.
The context that animates the characters’ decisions throughout “11/9” is a large part of what makes the episode so unsettling. Meadow Wilton (Leslie Grossman) tells her husband, Harrison (Billy Eichner), that people are too uninformed to vote and should have to pass a test; feeling that the Emmys are more in her wheelhouse, she writes in Oprah as her presidential pick. Serena Belinda (Emma Roberts), a coldblooded reporter who plans to suck as many dicks as it takes to get onto the Today show, tells her audience that she’s voting for Hillary Clinton but eagerly and unsurprisingly votes for Trump on election day. Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton cleverly uses an overhead shot to demonstrate the literal divide between red-curtained Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) and her wife, blue-curtained Ivy (Alison Pill); the former agonizes over her earlier conversations with Ivy but is ultimately unable to vote for a candidate she distrusts and so she fills in the bubble next to Jill Stein’s name, whereas Ivy, already living in a blissful bubble of the imagined future, smiles as she easily, proudly votes for Clinton.
Even this opening sequence’s most over-the-top moment, of a bleeding Gary K. Longstreet (Chaz Bono) pushing his way to the front of the voting line and then giving a literal stump speech as he holds up his severed hand (“Welcome to Trump’s America, motherfuckers!”), ends up being far more than it seems. Gary’s a misogynist—we see him grab Ivy by the pussy when they clash on opposite sides of a pre-election rally—but that doesn’t excuse the righteous retribution exacted upon him by Ivy and the devil on her shoulder, Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd), she meets for the first time at said rally.
The two abduct him from the grocery store in which he works and handcuff him to a basement pipe, promising to call the police only after the polls have closed, making a woman his new commander in chief. After learning of this from Winter, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) turns the scenario into something right out of a Saw film, asking Gary what he’d give up for the chance to be free: “How humiliated are you?” The scene is a gory exaggeration but one that can’t easily be dismissed. After three episodes of watching Ally’s liberal nightmares come to life, here’s its conservative flipside—a reminder of how far both sides will go when they feel their ideals are being attacked.
Cult is using the Michigan community at its center as a microcosm of America, so each time that “11/9” pulls back to reveal a character’s backstory, it feels as if we’re being implicated in the mistreatments that pushed said character over the edge. Take, for instance, Beverly Hope (Adina Porter), who we’ve taken for granted thus far as an exposition-providing WBNR reporter. In this episode, she’s revealed to have very real hopes and dreams, and face daily obstacles as a black woman who’s unwilling to put out for her lecherous, racist boss, Bob (Dermot Mulroney), but has no one who will take her side against him. She feels further unsupported in the field, and in a ripped-from-the headlines twist, Beverly has been plagued by vulgar, opportunistic citizens who interrupt and trivialize her hard work by jumping in front of the camera to yell “Grab her by the pussy!” When she finally snaps, hitting a skateboarding punk with her microphone, we callous Americans, who consume suffering for entertainment, dehumanize even her righteous anger, which is edited and AutoTuned for YouTube.
Kai is the first person to treat Beverly as a real human being, and she cries not at his kindness, but because she’s been so hardened by the world that she can’t bring herself to believe in his violent promises to tear down the system and erect something that provides her with equal power. As it turns out, Kai isn’t just a figment of Beverly’s impotent rage, but something akin to a real-world Tyler Durden. When Kai and his clowns murder Beverly’s rival, Serena, she finally sees a way to beat the game that’s been rigged against her.
Kai offers a similar promise to Harrison, a put-upon personal trainer with serious self-esteem issues. Harrison, who married his “fag hag” in a sign of defeat, now lives a largely sexless and pleasureless life, and is easily flattered by the idea that the virile and confident Kai wants him to embrace his inner strength. One immediately gets the sense that Harrison was always the last one picked in gym class from the way he lets his boss, Vinny (T.J. Hoban), bully him by forcing him to clean up jizz from the steam room simply because he’s gay. Kai doesn’t just extend Harrison a helping hand at a point where the man has lost his home, his dignity, and quite possibly his job. Kai chooses him. More importantly, Kai supports him, helping Harrison to cover his tracks after the latter beats Vinny to death with a free-weight.
If it still seems difficult to imagine why someone might so readily turn to Kai, consider the case of Harrison’s wife, Meadow. She catches the two in the act of bloodily disposing of Vinny’s body—sawing off the head and hands to prevent identification—in the bathroom of the cheap motel room where Harrison and Meadow now live. Viewers will likely find this act horrifying, because of how much we’d stand to lose if we ever found ourselves in such a situation, but Meadow, like Harrison, no longer has a moral compass. Consider this: She’s so pathetically desperate, so low, that her offer of sex to two sleazeballs is rejected. They’d rather just give her the drugs gratis than sleep with her. Here’s a woman who just needs a little affirmation, or at least the distracting balm of television, and Kai gives her both, later praising her sketches of the clown masks they’ll use to most likely commit murder.
By portraying these characters as victims first, “11/9” manages to imbue its eventual villains with a level of empathy that’s new to American Horror Story, and, given the nature of our often black-and-white political climate, valuable to viewers. It’s worth noting, too, that Kai’s not the enemy of this episode, but something close to its hero. He’s not the one harassing Beverly, driving Harrison and Meadow to rock bottom, embarrassing Gary, and making Meadow and Ivy feel unsafe. America’s indifference is to blame for that, and on Cult, Kai’s brand of violence and murder is just a bloodier form of voting.
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