Almost everything in “Mid-Western Assassin,” including the scenes from the mass shooting that bookend the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, plays a bit too much like a thesis presentation. Todd Kubrak’s screenplay carefully explains every motivation, and Bradley Buecker’s direction dutifully offers up the visual corroboration. Worse, that thesis is fraudulent, the result of cherry-picking data—that is, careful editing—so as to mislead viewers.
To the extent that all this reflects the cult’s manipulation of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) by Meadow Wilton (Leslie Grossman), that’s understandable, but the episode goes above and beyond in this deceit. From the look of distrust and devastation on Ally’s face as she hangs up on her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), it’s clear that all of Meadow’s truth-telling about the cult has had its desired effect. Given Meadow’s importance to the plot of Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), why complicate things by forcing Meadow and Ally to escape Meadow’s husband, Harrison (Billy Eichner), and his lover, Detective Jack Samuels (Colton Haynes), on three occasions? At a certain point, it doesn’t seem as if the cult is trying to convince Ally so much as it seems as if the writers are trying to convince skeptical viewers, making Meadow jump through so many hoops that we become convinced that she’s being sincere—just so that they can later reveal that this was part of the plan all along.
Ally’s circumstances—the things being done to her—feel somewhat overwrought, but Paulson’s commanding performance at least brings a clarity to Ally’s reactions to them. When Ally once more sets about locking the windows, fortifying herself, it’s not in a blind panic, but with a calculated calm. When she arms herself this time—with a butcher’s knife and a can of mace, not a baseball bat—it’s with determination, not fear. Afraid as she is of clowns, she’s more afraid of being wrong, of actually being crazy, and the opportunity to prove herself right (by saving Meadow) overrides her Jill Stein-voting guilt with a greater need: validation. “Look me in the eyes and tell me this is fear,” she tells her psychiatrist, Dr. Rudy (Cheyenne Jackson).
It helps that Ally’s scenes are presented in an action-packed, narration-free past-perfect tense. By contrast, the account of Meadow’s sexual awakening at the hands of Kai and the deep devotion this inspires in her (“If you already believed in something, there wouldn’t be any room for him”) is undermined by the overdubbed explanation that accompanies this flashback. Grossman’s portrayal of Meadow’s growing confidence as the character metamorphosizes from isolated housewife to valued murder-team member to jilted, take-no-shit lover should be heartbreaking. But the play by play of everything going on her psyche ultimately renders her trajectory banal: “I hated feeling helpless, hated myself for being so weak, trapped by feminist expectations.” Worse, while Meadow’s self-assessment is accurate, the language she uses to explain how she once anesthetized herself with entertainment to avoid dealing with the world is simply too clever for her character.
Almost everything in the latest episode of American Horror Story plays a bit too much like a thesis presentation.
Such thinly veiled op-eds, delivered as impromptu, out-of-character monologues are even blunter in the hands of new characters like Sally Kepler (Mare Winningham), Kai’s write-in rival for the city council seat. Winningham does her best to flesh out Sally’s motivations for running: She’s a concerned citizen unable to stay silent in the face of people like Kai and Donald Trump, the “flies that the garbage has drawn.” But this character exists only as a one-dimensional obstacle for Kai to overcome. She’s the representation of an idea—Kai even calls her “the last of the intellectuals”—and when Ally shows up like a madwoman at her doorstep, seeking her help in blowing the lid off the cult, she hardly bats an eye. “This is the kind of shit that happens whenever the patriarchy is threatened,” she says, lecturing Ally on how ’60s culture produced Charles Manson and how Janet Reno in the ’90s led directly to David Koresh. Even when Kai overpowers her (and as Ally hides in the bathroom), Sally can’t help spouting high-minded rejoinders: “Killing me is not going to stop the march of progress!” It’s only when Kai pens a suicide note for her on Facebook, threatening to co-opt her voice, that she actually panics, her language at last reduced to less-scripted, monosyllabic pleas.
The most powerful moment in “Mid-Western Assassin” is its opening, not because the depiction of a mass shooting is sadly and especially resonant in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre last week, but because the camera remains fixed on a hyperventilating Ivy as people are shot down all around her. There’s no plan for her in this moment, just the invisible, omnipresent horror of an unseen shooter and the desperate attempt to find safety. That’s why it feels like a betrayal to realize, as the episode later loops back around to the shooting from Ally’s perspective, that there’s actually a plan at play here, and Kai simply hasn’t shared it with Ivy, the audience surrogate.
Everything in that opening scene, from the fingernail polish on the hand squeezing the trigger to Harrison’s warning to Ivy, and even the casting of the would-be hero who gets gunned down trying to save Ivy (he’s meant to look a lot like Dr. Rudy) is all too carefully calibrated to mislead viewers, to keep them from guessing that poor, devoted Meadow was the shooter, instead of simply allowing that horrible moment to speak for itself. At best, this speaks to how we, as a culture, so quickly politicize tragedy and use it for our own purposes, but in an episode already so filled with thesis statements, this last one feels like the straw man that breaks the camel’s back.
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