“Drink the Kool-Aid,” the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, opens with Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), a flashlight held under his face and his underwear-clad recruits sprawled out on sleeping bags before him, telling what could be a ghost story at summer camp. The scene is at the very least effective for infantilizing Kai and his followers. It’s a succinct expression of the blind leading the blind, which is, of course, what the makers of the show understandably believe is the governing principle of the Trump presidency.
The episode does a fine job of mimicking the look and feel of old Super 8 footage in flashbacks that reimagine Kai as famous American cultists of yore: Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, and Jim Jones of the People’s Temple. But to what end? Last week’s “Winter of Our Discontent” depicted Kai as a troll who embraces any given ideology just to mock those who follow it. “Drink the Kool-Aid” only serves to show a more extreme version of the boundary-pushing, ritualistic proposal he’d made his sister, Winter (Billie Lourd): This time, in a nod to Jones’s mass murder-suicide, he calls on his followers to kill themselves.
By this point in the series, it’s as if Kai is only being used as a means to observe how his provocations elicit reactions from those with more relatable, fixed personalities. At times, the effect is redundant, as when Kai again intimidates Councilman Perry (Joseph Will) into reluctantly passing a bill by implying—by way of glance in the direction of a visibly bruised Councilman Moyer (Martin Mathieu)—that he will use violence to get what he wants. Kai announces his intention to run for the senate during this scene, and while the show is obviously interested in conveying how Kai’s brand of fascism can land on a national stage, these scenes feel beside the point given that it’s unlikely that this clown will realize any more of his political ambitions. Then again, we shouldn’t forget what happened on 11/8/16.
The episode is at its most effective when charting the gut-wrenching effect of Kai’s madness.
“Drink the Kool-Aid” is at its most effective when charting the gut-wrenching effect of Kai’s madness on the imprisoned Beverly (Adina Porter), who willingly drinks what she believes is poisoned Kool-Aid. There’s a complexity, fueled by her backstory, to her decision: Perhaps she would rather die than spend another minute having to watch Kai trivialize the revolution she helped to start. When he jokingly reveals that it was all just a test—“Why would I kill us? I’m running for senate, and dead people can’t vote!”—she seems anguished, either at the thought of Kai marginalizing her suicide attempt or of still being alive, surrounded by interchangeably code-named men like Sandstorm and Tripod who are devoted to zapping women of their power.
But if Ally (Sarah Paulson) can reclaim her agency, then Beverly can too. At this point, Ally is as much a complicit murderer as Kai, but at least her motivations are clear. Winter continues to frustratingly waffle on her willingness to betray her brother, printing out a plan on escaping a cult from wikiHow one moment and stealing Ozzy (Cooper Dodson) away to Kai’s house the next. Ally, though, follows through on Winter’s words: “The world decided to take a huge shit on my head, so I said fuck the world, all I need is my family.” The catch is that she decided, during her three involuntary weeks in a psyche ward, that Ivy (Alison Pill) was no longer a part of that family.
The only poisoned drink in the episode is the arsenic-filled wine that Ally pours for Ivy. It’s a fitting end for Ivy, who always wanted the sort of strong, independent woman that Ally has finally become—and also a sort of warning to the audience about the nature of fear. Neither Ally nor Kai appear to be afraid of anything, but then again, both seem to be mistaking insanity (or at least immorality) for strength. Ally’s murdering of Ivy is filled with a sincerity that, in that moment, makes Cult about something immediate and specific as opposed to being an overgeneralized metaphor for American politics.
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