In “Winter of Our Discontent,” Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is shown in flashbacks as an online troll, a hero to the oppressed, and a savvy manipulator, all before being reduced to a bumbling, petulant clown, a punching bag for an outraged, exasperated, and imprisoned Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) to rail against. “You’re a fake,” she tells him. “You don’t stand for a goddamn thing.” The tracing of the trajectory of Kai’s life throughout the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult is close to coherent, but we’ve known as early as the season’s first episode, “Election Night,” when he painted his face orange with crushed Cheetos, what—or, rather, who—this young man is supposed to represent. What you probably didn’t expect is that Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), who’s been terrorized by Kai’s cult for months, would one day become part of his inner circle.
And yet, more than any episode of Cult so far, “Winter of Our Discontent” makes clear how people selfishly enable maniacal individuals like Donald Trump out of a profound sense of weakness, compensating for absences in their life by chasing after a false sense of empowerment. That’s certainly the case with Detective Samuels (Colton Haynes), who hasn’t given a second thought to his dead lover, Harrison, and who loyally follows Kai because it allows him to act on his homosexual urges while pretending that he actually isn’t gay. Kai provides Samuels with emotional validation, and he doesn’t judge the detective for the Nazi memorabilia he keeps inside his home. Kai also offers him a perfect cover for his more violent tendencies, and as it turns out, there’s little that people won’t do in exchange for that.
Cult understands how Kai’s power is made possible by concentric circles of enablement, but we’ve arrived at this understanding through means that aren’t only at the expense of logic, but feel obviously engineered. For one, no credible reason has yet to be offered for why Ivy (Alison Pill) would fight alongside Kai’s new dude-bro bodyguards; Winter (Billie Lourd) has to keep Ivy from stabbing one of them in broad daylight after he sneeringly tells her that her “bangability would go way up if you would just smile,” yet Ivy continues to stay the course, going back to the kitchen.
The thinness of Cult’s logic is laid bare when Ivy, reduced to a servant in her own restaurant, questions how this “handmaid shit” even happened. The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale meticulously established, via lengthy flashbacks, exactly how society could so drastically change in such a short period of time. But that care—an expansive sense of cause and effect—is missing from Cult, where it seems as if everyone in a small Michigan town is blindly following the nearest and craziest Trump proxy in their midst.
Kai once saved Winter’s life, back in October 2015 when the two of them got too caught up in trolling super-religious individuals on the dark web and ended up trapped inside a “hell house” run by the creepy Pastor Charles (Rick Springfield). Kai ends up saving three individuals from the pastor’s wrath, including a woman chained to a gynecological table, bleeding to death from a savagely performed abortion. None of these victims were actually guilty of the sins they were accused of (the man the pastor calls a sodomite was merely volunteering at an AIDS clinic), and while Kai’s grotesque sense of justice is rooted in humane moral outrage, there’s still little credibility to the way Winter stands in the room, almost in reverence, as Kai kills the pastor.
Even Cult itself seems to have trouble taking Kai seriously throughout “Winter of Our Discontent.” The episode is abundant in massive tonal shifts and sudden cuts between scenes, all of which emphasize how radical Kai’s new proposals are. It may be easy to see why Samuels agrees to help Kai impregnate Winter with a “messiah” (just look at the way the detective ogles Kai), but how far can Winter’s sisterly affections plausibly go, especially as Kai gets every bit as creepily and ludicrously ritualistic as the pastor? The way Kai switches between the formal and informal is reason enough to balk at everything he claims to represent and fight for (“As he enters you, I will enter him, that way I will be the father, but you will remain pure and unsoiled. You cool with that?”), but his choice to score the impregnation ritual to All-4-One’s “I Swear” feels as if it should be some kind of deal-breaker.
“I can’t believe I was at the Women’s March three months ago,” says Winter as she prepares to be penetrated, every bit as dumbfounded as the show’s audience probably felt while watching this episode. It’s not hard to see why Winter might see her brother as a hero, why she might support violence in the name of a powerfully progressive cause. But the scene inside the pastor’s home also makes it clear that Winter is well aware of her brother’s trollish tendencies and spontaneity, and how deeply horrified and scarred she is by religious perversion. Winter is idealistic and driven, and she loves and wants to protect her brother, but even if she were crazy, there’s no indication that she’d ever humor this semi-incestuous ritual. But perhaps even she’s in it too deep at this point—so deep that she has no other option but to continue submitting to the illogic of Kai’s being. Hopefully she, like the show, isn’t too lost that she can’t summon the strength to mount an insurgency.
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