Review: American Horror Story: Cult Succeeds in Making Terror of the 2016 Election

5 minute read

It’d be too simple to crack a joke about how the real horror story of the new season of American Horror Story is having to relive the 2016 election. After all, aren’t we doing that every day, for better or for worse depending on how you voted?

And yet that’s exactly what Cult, the seventh season of Ryan Murphy‘s anthology series on FX which premiers Sept. 5, waltzes into. Its protagonist Ally (Sarah Paulson) is a Michigan voter who assumes her vote for Jill Stein is a safe protest against Hillary Clinton, whom she distrusts but would accept. When it turns out that Ally was wrong—along with so many of her compatriots who find themselves living in a nation they didn’t know as well as they thought—old anxieties come rearing up.

Her obsessive fear of clowns, for example, would be easy to dismiss after a few hours with her therapist (Cheyenne Jackson), if it weren’t for the fact that, well, a series of killings connected to clowns is upsetting order all around her. Jackson’s Dr. Rudy Vincent insists on trying to defang Ally’s fear, clinically calling it “coulrophobia.” But to her, the phobia seems like clearsightedness. “I feel like I’ve been vindicated,” she says. “My phobias were a perfect reaction to what I instinctively knew was true. My entire being was telling me this: The world is f-cked up. And the election made it worse.” Worse for her, that is. Ally’s a married lesbian (her spouse is played by Alison Pill) with a young son. And, while Trump might not gut LGBT rights, who’s to say he might not try to?

For others in town, the election is cause for joy. It assuages the political alienation felt by the straight, white, cisgender male who runs the grocery store (played wittily and well by the trans activist and performer Chaz Bono, who convinces you he could be someone upset to be told what the word “cisgender” even means). And for Kai (Evan Peters), an young man whose ambition seems never to have found a particular direction, it sets into motion exactly what he’s been hoping for. He wants to change society by sowing madness and fear, and sees his opening after the election. Kai’s means are supervillain-like—slaying those who stand in the way of his potential acolytes, then drawing them toward him to do more evil—as are his intended ends.

This show has plenty of scorn for both sides, though. Ally’s too-intimate reference to “Barack” and her statement that upon his election, the world “righted itself” feels only slightly less gauche than her white neighbor (Leslie Grossman) calling the Crystal Light citrus drink she serves Lemonade, referring to Beyoncé. Billie Lourd’s character, Ally’s babysitter, boasts, absent self-awareness, that her “proudest moment” was when conservative punching-bag Lena Dunham retweeted her. (Dunham is set to appear on the show later in the season.)

This is the second Horror Story season in a row to deal, at least in part, with media culture. Last year’s Roanoake styled itself as, in part, a satire. It was a story of a haunting in a decrepit mansion that, some episodes in, was revealed to have been a semi-reenacted, goosed-up reality show. Studded with great performances in the way of every Ryan Murphy show, it still came to seem more clever than good. Its take on TV was too sour to land. Murphy’s congenital cynicism serves him best in grand, operatic stories, as proven by The People v. O.J. Simpson, Feud, and now Cult. His latest show is a masterful look at the assignment of blame and a reshuffling of our society that’s yet to resolve itself.

Simpson and Feud dealt with cases that had slipped into history but that could still teach us things (about, respectively, race in the justice system and gender in Hollywood). But Cult is assaying the livest of stories. Which makes it all the more impressive that the show has found such an effective way to crystallize two very of-the-moment fears—that life is, for many protected-class Americans, going to get much worse before it gets better, and that many more Americans are rooting for that outcome. I recently winced when watching an upcoming episode of a comedy I really like, when a character opposed to Trump shouts that she hates his “tiny, tiny hands!” But I get it, too. It feels like we’re beyond anatomical jibes this far into this presidency, but it’s hard for a scripted series, or anyone, to find an angle on a target this diffuse, moving this rapidly. But Cult, imbued with Murphy’s characteristic confidence, has found a way.

Perhaps best of all, it really is a horror story. One that uses artful cinematography and remarkable performances (Grossman and Paulson are best in show) to remind sympathetic viewers of the foreboding dread that hasn’t abided since last year and to gin up pit-of-the-gut outright terror. For many characters on this show, after all, those two emotions are intertwined. Sometimes, there can be nothing scarier than living with having been proven right.

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