Toward the end of “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” Kai (Evan Peters) confesses to Winter (Billie Lourd) that while he’s gotten far on charisma and fear, his cult can’t go any further without a deeper philosophy. The emptiness of Kai’s accomplishments, the need for something more, serves to self-define American Horror Story: Cult itself. The show’s greatest successes have come from its performances and the real-world traumas from which it’s blatantly taken inspiration. But the strength of the standalone flashback that occupies much of this episode—the rise and fall of Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham)—speaks to the weakness of the overall season.
Taken on its own, the Solanas-centered portion of “Scumbag” is terrific, as it sets up a clear conflict in 1968 between Solanas, a radical feminist, and Andy Warhol (Peters), the obstacle standing in her way. “You know women can’t be serious artists,” says Warhol, casually dismissing her as he prepares to direct a golden shower scene for his latest Factory show. With just a few words and short scenes, writer Crystal Liu makes a strong case for Solanas’s frustration with men. She’s humiliated even while trying to earn money to buy ammunition for her gun, stiffed by a john who thinks he’s entitled to her body at the rate he can afford, not what she charges. When Solanas reads from her SCUM Manifesto to her flock of mistreated women—and a few auxiliary men—it’s not hard to follow why they might turn to violence.
This is what’s still missing from the present-day sequences: the sense that Kai has been genuinely humiliated by the world, or that he’s uniting with people who all want the same thing. Solanas has the Society of Cutting Up Men, and a plan of “couple busting,” in which her cult will kill a thousand men and women in order to drive women away from men. Kai hastily proposes the acronym FIT (Fear Is Truth) as a motto for his cult, because he’s very much tapping into the generalized anger of his followers. That might work for his power-coveting purposes, but it doesn’t explain why people as seemingly smart as Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) would buy into his promise of “equal power” or why Ivy Mayfair-Richards (Alison Pill) would work alongside a MAGA enthusiast like Gary (Chaz Bono). That’s why the Solanas flashbacks weaken Kai’s narrative: She outs the petulance of his movement. There’s plenty of post-election childishness to be skewered, but beyond the criticism of white liberal women in “Neighbors from Hell,” Cult isn’t really digging deep.
Cult suggests that it might actually address the hollowness of Kai’s movement when Bebe Babbot (Frances Conroy), cowled like a stylish Grim Reaper, approaches Beverly in the parking lot outside the WBNR studio, suggesting that Meadow’s piss-poor “assassination attempt” on Kai was fake. At first, Beverly’s having none of it: “I don’t go for that theatrical bullshit,” she says, which is ironic given all of the carefully staged murders she’s been a part of. But she soon realizes where Bebe’s coming from when she visits the recently elected (and Eric Trump-retweeted) Councilman Anderson and finds him essentially surrounded by white-supremacist “volunteers,” men who acknowledge her presence only with derisive laughter. This treatment exposes the (intentional) lie of Kai’s promise to her of “equal power.” Frustrated, she introduces Bebe—who claims to be Solanas’s former lover—to Ivy and Winter, and the four set about murdering Harrison (Billy Eichner), leaving his dismembered body in a scum-covered lake.
The revelation that Bebe and Kai are working together to agitate the other cult members, to make them angry, seems like one more unnecessary twist. Bebe could be behind Kai’s movement or, more likely, Kai is appropriating the radical feminism of SCUM for his own selfish plan for world domination. We’ve seen Beverly struggle under the oppression of white men, and it’s rousing to see her and Ivy reclaim their agency by doing away with Harrison. But it’s frustrating to find that Beverly is still unwittingly under Kai’s thumb, right down to the way in which Kai targets Harrison by falsely claiming that he’d proposed “Men Lead, Women Bleed” as a possible slogan for their cult.
By contrast, the flashbacks between 1969 and 1973 demonstrate a younger Bebe (Lyla Porter-Follows) as full of agency: She fights alongside her SCUM comrades for something, and when an emasculated man attempts to co-opt their movement (a clever, revisionist theory of the Zodiac Killer), she kills him. Kai’s cult is fighting for something different in each episode, whether that’s under-committed members in “Holes” or for the national spotlight in “Mid-Western Assassin.” Again, there’s plenty of room here to send-up Trump’s distraction politics, but Cult isn’t landing the punch.
That’s why Dunham, absolutely unrestrained as Solanas, steals the episode. Solanas is given to us in full—not trivialized or written off as a madwoman, but as a complex artist struggling to be understood on her own terms. She’s a woman first, a cult leader second, whereas Kai isn’t really anything at all. Regardless of whether you empathize with Solanas’s actions, you can at least understand them. When the woman at last breaks, abandoned even by Bebe, the show isn’t hiding anything. A hallucination of Warhol and a malfunctioning typewriter are the objects here: Solanas is the subject who acts on them. The disdainful pity and casual cruelty on Warhol’s—and by extension every man’s—face is crushing, but at least she has the power to directly lash out against it, against those who refuse to recognize her.
After that maelstrom of emotion, it’s underwhelming to have to again watch her modern-day analogue, Kai, blankly stare at Beverly and hold back his true plans even as he quietly reminisces with his sister, performatively holding his mother’s corpse’s skeletal hand. It’s not that Peters is an ineffective actor; just look at the spot-on restraint he brings to Warhol. It’s that the show’s writers are intentionally holding back for effect, turning what should be raw emotion and outrage in response to the election into a series of carefully allotted twists, many of which are at the expense of Cult’s women. Instead of leaning on the past to give significance to the present and borrowing from the horrors of the news, it’s time for Cult to present its own case.
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