In so fervently, even humanely, leaning into Kai’s (Evan Peters) madness as it once did into Ally’s (Sarah Paulson), “Charles (Manson) in Charge” manages to get back to the inspired lunacy of American Horror Story: Cult’s first few episodes and reclaim a sense of purpose, one that puts character development on a level playing field with political provocation. The flashbacks are no longer misleading or disconnected and the aesthetics are, while still dissonant, lush with meaning, as in the framing of bodies and use of mirrors that stress both Kai’s fraught connection to his sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), as well as his psychic break from reality.
Billie Lourd (#1–10 of 7)
“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.
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.
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.
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.