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.
John Carroll Lynch (#1–10 of 7)
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.
Tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here,” an emotionally fraught two-hander between Morgan (Lennie James) and a forensic psychologist, Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), whose house he stumbles upon in the woods, is partly a tacit confirmation by the show’s creators that, with “Thank You,” they were indeed trolling audiences with the perception that Glenn is dead. Pausing all of a sudden to fill in a bit of backstory in the perpetually haunted Morgan’s character arc may seem like a cruel way to delay our grieving for one of the show’s most beloved characters, but spilling forth from the episode’s prismatic design are all sorts of ruminations about how more than just the characters within the word of the series must cope with loss.
“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.
“Edward Mordrake (Part 2)” finds Freak Show wallowing in the sort of dull, meaningless outlandishness that usually sets in right around the halfway mark of any given season of American Horror Story. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seem to forget that if everything is “shocking” and “subversive,” then nothing is, as there’s no contrast between conventionality and deviation to produce the sort of dramatic friction that’s necessary to sustain something like 95 percent of all fiction. The problem with American Horror Story writ large is that there’s never any patience exhibited, never any sense of shocks being actively prepared for. For a few episodes, this speed-freakiness doesn’t necessarily matter, as TV shows are obviously playing the long game and need to instill in the viewer a notion of the stakes from the outset. But it’s becoming clear that there aren’t any stakes in Freak Show, and that the characters, who are barely characters, are going to say and do things whenever it’s convenient, because Murphy and Falchuk can’t ever be bothered to construct a coherent scenario with which to govern their admittedly impressive sense of atmosphere.
After a premiere that logically provided us a 101 on the characters and their blossoming resentments, the second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show allows us to leisurely soak in the considerable atmospherics of Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) financially imperiled Cabinet of Curiosities. “Massacres and Matinees” opens with a gorgeous master shot of the sideshow that pans from the top of one of the tents to provide us with a full daytime survey of the grounds, which includes the nearby swamp and its accompanying water and wild grass, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a great variety of red and blue striped tents and the dusty trails connecting them, and even a pickup truck with the word “circus” painted across it. This image is lit by autumnal sunlight that’s equally suggestive of dawn and dusk, emphasizing both beauty and decay, particularly as embodied by the broken-down vehicles and the exhausted workers shuffling between tents. There’s no doubt that Ray Bradbury would kill for such an iconic and suggestive portrait of the comingling of Americana evil and innocence.
American Horror Story: Freak Show opens on a strikingly cockeyed image of a woman’s head sticking out of the bottom corner of the right side of the frame in such a fashion as to suggest an ambulatory human mushroom. Even if you haven’t seen any of Freak Show’s publicity photos, you instinctively know something’s off. The woman appears to be profoundly uncomfortable, contorted, the remainder of her unseen body walking toward the camera with dreamy slowness, a title telling us that we’re in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. In this one image, the majesty and dread that leaked out of Coven by the end of its season is restored to American Horror Story. It’s clear that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have returned ready to play.