American Horror Story: Cult will surprise you. FX’s hit horror series has established a well-earned reputation as a taboo-shredding genre free-for-all over the years, but it’s not the salacious shock factor that thrills in Cult. There are certainly elements of that campy glee in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk‘s seventh American Horror Story installment, but this irreverent election-inspired batch is the most American, most horrific, and most story-driven American Horror Story the duo have ever produced.
Despite the carnival of killer clowns and trypophobic tongues that dominated the marketing campaign, Cult is less interested in the indulgent visual splendor we’ve come to expect from the series, and is focused instead on creating a psychological state of persistent paranoia and fear rooted in the national panic fuelling our current political discourse. American Horror Story has always traded in fear, but never before has it so thoroughly investigated the sensation of fear itself, rooting it in a recognizable, realistic set of circumstances. Cult introduces us to an amplified and (even more) absurd version of the divided America we live in right now. Much like The Purge, with which the series shares a fair amount of DNA, Cult feels like America once removed; it is just beyond the realm of reality, but it’s still in the bloodline — the skewed reflection is too close for comfort by far.
The series opens on the night of the election; a pivotal, propulsive moment in our national crescendo toward panic and divisiveness. Glued to the election coverage, alternating between disbelief and horror, we meet Ally (Sarah Paulson), an intensely phobic woman who is literally “triggered” by the election in a severe struggle with her mental illness. When Donald Trump is announced President-Elect of the United States, Ally screams, and sobs, and presses her face into her palms in agony. It’s extreme and dramatic, but again, only a few shades removed from the real-life experience of many American citizens, who met Trump’s election with shock, incredulity, and yes, horror.
If Ally’s reaction is amplified, the “other side” is even more absurd. Running opposite Ally’s descent into fear is Evan Peters‘ Kai, an alt-right-adjacent angry white man who greets Trump’s election with euphoric, TV-humping enthusiasm and sets out to start of a revolution. Kai not only embraces the fear, he feeds on it; it gives people like him power, and he sows the seeds of conflict and paranoia jubilantly by building a cult of devoted followers, appealing to their base instincts and desperation for belonging. Kai believes the human race loves fear above all else and only when the masses are terrified will the powerful truly reign. “Above all humans love fear,” he intones as he sets the wheels in motion on his path to power and political office, “Fear that over time we have honed and polished and built up brick by brick until it stands before us every day as tall as the Trump tower.”
The metaphors at work here are fabulously blatant, and each new bit of allegorical thrust is even more brazen than the last. In addition to humping his flat screen, Kai celebrates Trump’s election by grinding up Cheetos and plastering his face in the orange dust. So yeah, Murphy’s analysis of post-Trump America is about as subtle as… well, Donald Trump. But Cult is boosted by its cast, who do enough heavy lifting to create characters under the in-your-face symbolism.
It seems redundant to harp on about Paulson’s prodigious talents at this point, but Murphy presents her with an immense challenge in Ally, who begins the season screaming and crying and rarely has a moment to stop amidst the insanity. She’s not an entirely likable hero — a blatant exaggeration of “the left” who is constantly triggered by the world around her, crying out about Merrick Garland and giving gauche monologues about how the world “righted itself” after “Barack’s” election. In a delicious bit of character detail, Ally assumed Hillary’s victory was a sure thing and threw away her vote on a protest vote for Jill Stein; an especially hot-headed and arrogant decision considering the season is set in Michigan, a key swing state. If you think Cult is going to be a liberal rant, you’re sorely mistaken — it comes in swinging at all sides. But for all Ally’s faults, Paulson keeps us on board through every new panic attack and moment of self-righteous indignation with her sheer force of talent.
Peters is also on his A-game for Cult, delivering his best performance in the history of the series. Kai is chilling and magnetic. It’s easy to see how the desperate and furious could spring up around him and cling to his words like gospel. Through Kai, Murphy is investigating how pathetic men create powerful cults of personality and the way they shape the world around them, but he’s also a fascinating character in his own right. Evans will also be playing a number of cult leaders throughout history including Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Andy Warhol, but the four episodes provided to the press are refreshingly focused so those thematic tangents will pop up later in the season.
Filling out the cast are Allison Pill as Ally’s wife Ivy, a level-headed woman and Ally’s rock. Ivy previously helped Ally recover from a post-9/11 bout of agoraphobia but finds herself questioning her wife now that they have a child to care for. There’s also Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as the new neighbors; an unconventional married couple with their own set of problems, who are quick to judge and turn on their neighbors in a liberal panic. And then there’s Billie Lourd as Kai’s sister Winter, a character I still can’t figure out. A hardcore millennial feminist who dropped out of Vassar to work on Hillary’s campaign, Winter lands a gig as Ally and Ivy’s nanny and quickly begins desensitizing their son to violence and murder. She’s a bit of a mystery and a wildcard at this point and there’s a thrilling ambiguity whenever she’s on screen.
As for the horror elements, they’re incredibly effective but tuned in a different key from the standard AHS scares. The series is creepier than it has been in years and it’s not because of gross-out gore or shocking depravity. American Horror Story has disappeared down a wormhole of its own iconography in recent years, leaving grounded stories of human horrors behind in favor of Covens and Freakshows built out of vampires, aliens, and the undead. The series has become such an exercise in stylish genre pastiche, it’s easy to forget that the most effective and disturbing storyline ever crafted for the series was born out of the too-familiar reality of school shootings. Twisty the Clown may appear in Cult (bad news for clowns, if you thought IT was going to be your only image problem this year, strap in), but the killer clowns are only the icing on the cake, and the cake is pure paranoid terror at every turn.
Murphy is pressing on a very raw nerve, and he’s not exactly surgical about it, but he’s not being sloppy either. At least, not yet. In the first four episodes, Cult shows more narrative, thematic, and character coherence than we’ve ever seen from American Horror Story. While Murphy still retains his kitchen sink flair for Cult, it’s noticeably toned down and the restraint only bolsters the impact of the show’s phobic influence. Leaving behind the supernatural, Murphy centers Cult on mundane fears; clowns, claustrophobia, home invasion, murder, real-life threats that introduce a new kind of unease to the typically outlandish series.
And then there are more complex and intriguing matters of fear at play: xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and perhaps most interesting, the fear of losing your own grasp on sanity and reality in a world turned upside down. Many Americans will feel no stranger to the sensation of the ground shifting underneath you in the past few months, the growing panic that the world has canted off into Dr. Caligari’s wrong angles. The show hinges on the paranoia of breaking with normalcy and the searing anxiety of walking through the world you no longer recognize. Well, that and creepy fucking (literally) clowns. “I’m just so scared now,” Winter says. “Everyone is,” Kai retorts. That, right there, is the crux of the show.
And maybe that’s what makes it such a fascinating piece of work. It’s perhaps our first true Trump-era piece of pop culture. Many looked to The Handmaid’s Tale in that light, but that show was created before the election and before the full scope of Trump’s discombobulating leadership style became clear. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” has become a common refrain as American politics spiral further and further into chaotic upheaval, and Cult captures that sensation perfectly, with an added dose of panic. The metaphors may be a problematic mess (I’ll wait to see the whole series before making any judgment), but there’s a crackling energy to Cult as it explores the consequences of a society desperate to assign blame for consequences we don’t even fully understand yet. Cult mines satire out of a real-life farce, and finds terror there too.
★★★★ Very good
American Horror Story: Cult premieres on Tuesday, September 5 on FX.