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.
Sarah Paulson (#1–10 of 33)
It takes less than 30 seconds for “Holes,” the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult, to reference its title. WBNR’s Bob Thompson (Dermot Mulroney) might be a pervert, but he’s not wrong to ream out Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) for her recent on-air editorializing and fear-mongering: “There’s all sorts of goddamn holes in your stories!” And throughout the episode, Crystal Liu’s screenplay goes about addressing the holes that Cult itself created with the revelations from the flashback-filled “11/9,” but the answers here aren’t only unsatisfyingly blunt, but only raise more questions, to the point that the show’s narrative up to this point has been retconned.
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.
As a society, we’ve come to rely on rules to protect us and rights to give us a sense of power. If there’s a disturbance coming from the home next to our own, we know that there are authorities who we can alert. And if our government takes an action that we find undesirable, we can petition against it. Perhaps the biggest psychic trauma, then, experienced by many people in this country after Trump’s election to the presidency—a trauma that’s the focus of American Horror Story: Cult—is the realization that those rules and rights don’t feel as sacrosanct as we thought they were.
For better and worse, the horror on American Horror Story: Cult is all text and no subtext. Take the title of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which isn’t some abstract nod to our needing to face the fears lurking in the darkness of our lives, but a reference to the blackout that leaves Ally (Sarah Paulson) in a panic. The show isn’t content to simply talk about the red-meat hate speech of the right; it literally hangs it out in the open after Roger (Zack Ward), a bigoted sous-chef, is found affixed to a hook in the Butchery’s kitchen freezer.
After years of trying to conjure up a universal boogeymen with which to tap into the primal fears of Americans, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have landed almost effortlessly on target. “Election Night,” the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult, knows exactly how to trigger us; in fact, that’s the modus operandi of the show’s central antagonist, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). This anarchist’s most terrifying moment isn’t when he rubs blended orange Cheetos all over his face in a send-up of Glenn Beck’s mocking of Donald Trump, or the thought of him donning a three-faced clown mask to terrorize his fellow Americans, but when he calmly walks into a local city council meeting, clad in a suit, to suggest that government allow fear to reign. “Haven’t you been watching what’s been going on in the world?” he asks.
“Curtain Call” ends American Horror Story: Freak Show on an unsurprisingly dour and haphazard note, reveling in the show’s most annoying ongoing assertion: that the freaks are “just like everyone else.” No, they aren’t. A man with flippers for hands who’s lived in a circus all his life fantasizing about joining conventional American society isn’t like a man born into that society unquestioningly with the privilege to take it for granted. These are profoundly different emotional experiences, and, if this sounds like over-literal nitpicking, bear in mind that American Horror Story goes to great efforts to congratulate itself on its “other”-friendly symbolism. The freaks are clearly meant to represent a great variety of minorities, and their often boring “magical negro” cuddliness is meant to attest to the inherent unifying decency of the human species regardless of variation.
Freak Show, which is now all but certain to go down in the record books as the weakest season of American Horror Story so far, helps to confirm an unofficial rule about the series at large: The more a season actively utilizes its chosen setting, the better it is. Asylum explicitly, cannily exploited the fears we have of a mental institution, positioning it as a convincing, disturbing barometer for social ills. Murder House played with most of the haunted-house-movie tropes, adding a dash of kink to a genre that, as of late, too often resists it. Coven, the first really uneven season, appeared to be driven by clichés that are more routinely associated with superheroes (particularly the X-Men) than witches. And Freak Show, apart from the occasional ghoulish flourish, really needn’t be set at the titular grounds at all, as much of its conflicts, such as they are, derive from isolated betrayals and killings that are often accompanied by the obligatory speech about freaks’ rights. A freak show is a potentially great setting for a horror series, but it’s hardly mattered here, as we’ve rarely seen a performance of the show, and backstage shenanigans are essentially nonexistent.
After “Orphans,” a surprisingly confident and empathetic outing that will almost certainly go down as the best episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show, “Magical Thinking” finds the series resorting to its usual bag of boring, hyperbolically over-plotted tricks. As with a number of prior episodes, a lot of stuff happens in “Magical Thinking”—a major character is introduced out of nowhere, a series regular abruptly dies, a game-changing business deal is brokered—to weirdly little effect. There’s a fatuous rat-a-tat ticker-tape vibe to this series: bam, bam, bam, then nothing. One could be kind and call the plot progression “free associative,” but that freedom of association only leads us down an avenue of busy repetition. As “Orphans” memorably showed us that less is more, even on a historically “more, more, more” kind of series like Freak Show.
“Blood Bath” is another of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s housecleaning episodes, in which a bunch of characters are killed to remarkably little effect in the services of, well, that’s debatable. To reinvigorate viewer interests after a holiday hiatus? To thin out the ranks of the major players for a season climax that’s theoretically right around the narrative bend? Impossible to tell, because, as we’ve already established, the series has no rules; it’s adrift in a manner that recalls prior seasons of American Horror Story such as Murder House and, especially, Coven. Whenever a plot thread is threatening to cohere or gain momentum, along comes a killing to render any prior information moot. This sort of upsetting of the applecart can represent an exhilarating break from the rigors of TV or film conventions if timed right, but it can also signal desperate wallowing if overindulged. Imagine Psycho if Norman Bates was killed right after Marion’s mysterious murder, and we never returned to his story, and then Sam Loomis was unexpectedly killed, and then Marion’s sister soon after him. The initial shock of Marion’s second-act killing would devolve into tedious cacophony, and Freak Show has been in that state for the last few episodes.