The harrowing post–Election 2016 tale about a Trumpist cult leader who’s seduced, then betrayed, people from the margins is the kind of cathartic story we need to process right now.
[Warning: Spoilers abound]
To say that Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series, American Horror Story, has been (ahem) uneven, for the past several years, would be an understatement: The first two seasons (Murder House and Asylum), and certain snatches of the third (Coven), offered piercingly trenchant observations about the venalities, bigotries, and atavistic knack for savagery that are so uniquely expressed in American culture (it’s telling, for instance, that the hyperstylized skull-face make-up that Murder House’s teenage sociopath, Tate Langdon, wears when he shoots up his school, has become a popular Halloween costume in its own right). The later seasons, however, have lurched, brutally and stupidly, through horror-show staples—the freak show, the glammed-up vampire, the found-footage slasher flick—without mining their extremities for anything meaningful. So, when the entertainment rags announced that this seventh season, AHS: Cult, would focus on the 2016 presidential election and its gruesome aftermath, I wasn’t exactly enthused.
But I saw something powerful in the first images of Evan Peters’s character, Kai Anderson, leader of the titular, proto-Trumpian cult, with his face smeared in Cheeto dust. The balls-out cartoony nature of the image is compounded, complicated, by the primal and predatory: Kai’s eyes, sharp with a lizardly menace, gaze out from a mask of cheap, processed foods—his expression turns the cheapest of Trump jokes (ye olde Cheetolini), into a far darker, more pointed assessment of why, exactly, the raw anger that powers Trumpism has appealed to so many people (and not just the kind of #MAGA mouth-breathers you’d expect). Surprisingly, AHS: Cult has proven to be not only one of the best installments of the series itself, but the smartest, most adroit take on how the hell we ended up in our national soul-sickness—and it doesn’t just go after the cult of the Exalted Orange One; it masterfully pillories the liberal complacency that brought us here as well.
The wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-weren’t-true hyper-grotesqueries of our current social and political reality—the naked displays of racial hatred; the burn-the-witch misogyny that didn’t just seize men on the right, but supposed Leftist male “allies” as well, in the rapture of collective masculine grievance; and, of course, the fact that cruelty and willful stupidity has not only been elevated to the presidency, but has become a definition for patriotism itself—practically mandates an artist like Ryan Murphy, for whom over the top is but a starting point, to parse it. The relative simplicity of the central storyline—Kai starts a cult of killer clowns/ethno-national supremacists (one could say they were one and the same) to terrorize his small Michigan town, ride that fear to a sweet spot on the City Council that will launch him to the Senate, and from there, to the presidency (hey, if The Donald can do it)—lets the show delve more deeply into the force that animates each of its main characters: rage. At a world that was promised to them at birth, now deigning to consider the feelings and ambitions of people who aren’t white and male. At a world that still gives too much of its power and resources to white men, however unworthy they may be.
Even Kai’s rage, the bedrock of the cult erected in his image, is initially formed by factors that are understandable, if not outright condonable: He grew up under the oppressive eye, and smothering thumb, of his dead-beat, bullying father—until his exhausted, infuriated mother killed Daddy Dearest (and then herself). For a time, he has a genuine empathy for the downtrodden and abused, like when he liberates the people who’ve been kidnapped and tortured by a fire-and-brimstone preacher running a “Hell House.” However, Kai’s righteousness soon finds an outlet in the alt-right, a worldview where anger makes might, and might makes right, every single time. Where people are divided into victims and snowflakes, and the strongmen (and they are always men) who must rule over them. Though we think of the typical Trumpkin as a bumpkin, Kai is so scary because of his uncanny intelligence. Peters is at his best (in an already Brando-caliber performance), during the cult initiations, in which the future devoted must admit their deepest, truest feelings over a pinky swear; his interest is an electric eel gliding through dark water, it’ll brighten your world for a moment before it shocks you dead and devours you. But, as the show draws to its conclusion, and Kai is getting the power, the control, he swore he always wanted, his anger has become less strategic and contained, spiraling out with a paranoid sloppiness that aligns with the histories of the cult leaders (David Koresh, Jim Jones, Charles Manson) he feels a spiritual kinship to, and with Trump himself, slurring through speeches and rage-tweeting at 3 a.m.—because that power, that control, is too much and yet not enough.
AHS has a penchant for treating its characters more as archetypes than fully individuated human beings (even Peters can’t transcend the fact that his Freak Show character, Jimmy Darling the Lobster Boy, is just a sentient version of Brando’s leather jacket). However, this tendency works to great effect in Cult, since it is more interested in the broader cultural forces and impulses that facilitated Trumpism than in the more personalized, granular experiences of living under it—unlike Asylum, which had richly realized characters like Lana “Banana” Winters and Sister Jude, whose suffering made the viewer achingly attenuated to the horrors of institutionalized (literally) homophobia and sexism. In Cult, a character like Ally Mayfield-Richards (the incomparable Sarah Paulson)—with her myriad of seemingly ridiculous and debilitating phobias (like clowns and holes) that keep her sequestered in a house that she has literally fitted with barred windows, away from anything that could upset her (or anything at all)—is an ideal stand-in for the “liberal snowflake.” Paulson endows Ally’s perpetual terror with viscerality and pathos (though one could reasonably argue that using mental illness as a metaphor is inherently problematic, even destructive), but the show doesn’t absolve her from her role in creating the America she so desperately fears: As a “purity leftist,” she couldn’t bring herself to “trust Hillary Clinton” and voted Jill Stein in a goddamn swing state—something her wife, Ivy Mayfield-Richards (Allison Pill), a Clinton supporter, can’t forgive her for.
Ivy’s lingering rage over Ally’s purity posturing leads her into Kai’s cult because she wants to “burn down” a country that has emboldened both the priggishness of Trump voters and the prissy obliviousness of Stein voters. This urge to scorch the earth may be understandable—and we see its real-world equivalent play out in the ways that even well-intentioned people on the Left continually relitigate the 2016 primary—however, it allows people like Kai, like Trump, to plant their own seeds into the ground that is left singed but still fertile. Cult may be far more explicit about the Trumpian wrath of Kai’s devotees—the more surface-level malevolence of the killer clowns becoming the anonymous army of brownshirts who threaten his fellow councilmembers and enforce obedience upon the women in the cult, Sons of Jacob-style, is about a clear a metaphor for Trumpism’s lasting impact as I’ve seen (first, the Trump voters are just variations of your bitterly racist but supposed “harmless” uncle in yet another dispatch from the heart of Trumplandia; then, they’re killing protestors and installing federal judges who will hear cases about reproductive justice for generations to come). But the show also sees Trump’s election as the seismic shift that cracks the volcano of women’s long-repressed anger, and sends that lava scorching through the streets.
With an eerie, but electric, prescience, AHS: Cult introduced a new plot thread—where the women of the cult, exasperated by Kai’s failure to deliver the co-equal power he promised them, try to rise up and rebel—at the cusp of a cultural groundswell of vengeance against powerful men, and against men in general, who have preyed upon women; the sexual harassers and abusers, the bullies and the enablers, finally named and shamed and suffering, for once, some real goddamn consequences. The match that struck the spark of this crackling indignation and call for justice was, in many ways, the election of the pussy-grabber-in-chief. In a spooky sort of meta-textual conversation with current events, Cult reimagines Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham, never better) as the leader of a feminist cult that takes the premise of her S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto quite literally, committing a series of spree killings that eventually a man calling himself the Zodiac Killer (who is not, surprisingly, Ted Cruz) will take credit for. Solanas’s story, as narrated by her former lover, Bebe Babbitt (Frances Conroy), is about a woman driven to do destructive, despicable things because she has been so chronically demeaned, discounted, and dispirited—and, after all, isn’t that the same excuse that these dispatches from Trumplandia pieces make about Trump voters?
The story catalyzes the women into an anger that is, yes, righteous, but, in certain manifestations, wrong-headed and even aligning with the oppressor. Kai’s sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), who dropped out of college to canvass for Clinton, is the show’s delightfully wry take on the White Feminist—the woman who spouts all the tidy bromides about equal rights, but only for women who look like her (while watching the third presidential debate, she remarks to her friends that Clinton’s presumed victory will be even more significant than Obama’s victory, since, like, women have been oppressed for a lot longer than any other group, ever). Of course, as a woman, Winter is vulnerable: A fellow cult member tries to rape her, and she must shoot him in self-defense. However, rather than confess to Kai, she blames Beverly Hope (Adina Porter), the cult’s lone Black woman, for the killing. Winter really believes that, even though Kai openly hates women like her, hates everything she stands for, their shared kinship will save her—until Kai’s hands are around her throat, pressing the life out of her. Just as, perhaps, the majority of white women who continue to vote Republican, believe that their shared skin-ship with the men they put into office, will save them (just skip over to The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu for spoilers about how that will turn out).
Ironically, as the show heads into its finale, Ally and Beverly (Adina Porter), a lesbian and a Black woman respectively—two tough, and dare I say nasty, women, are poised to take Kai down. Beverly, as a local on-air reporter and de facto representative of the Media at large, has traded her ethics for access; Kai has offered her a poisoned apple of power and prestige (and in a rare, vulnerable moment, a glimpse into his fragile psyche)—as long as she serves as a legitimizing mouthpiece for him (the character’s name could easily have been Schmaggie Schmaberman). And just as Trump—whose rallies and Twitter screeds made lovely chum for the CNN ratings beast—plunged his knife into the backs of the “crooked media” and the “fake news,” Kai deceives Beverly; once she’s no longer useful to him, he locks her away. However, Beverly comes roaring out of her sonambulence, determined to destroy Kai, just as CNN now does, like, actual reporting, instead of airing the Trumpster fires uninterrupted. But on a more personal, and, perhaps meaningful level, Beverly, as a Black woman, a member of a voting block that, time and time again, is too damn smart to fall for the Republican spiel, represents the real force of resistance that might actually topple Trump.
Ally’s role in Kai’s downfall is a kind of political awakening. When she discovers the cult’s role in amping up her phobias (like sending people in clown costumes to stalk her at home, or in the grocery store—hey, just because you’re a “snowflake,” don’t mean it ain’t cold outside), and her wife’s role within the cult, Ally is consumed by an incandescent, soul-obliterating rage that burns out all of her phobias (again, not the most accurate, or compassionate approach to depicting mental illness) and emboldens her quest for vengeance. She poisons Ivy, and sidles up to Kai, stoking his paranoia and breaking his spirit as he tried to break hers (she’s the one who frames Winter for supposedly snitching on the cult, thus prompting him to kill his own sister). Perhaps losing everything you valued, all that you could have hoped for, for yourself, your family, and your country, will brutally dispel the precious notion that anything (at least in politics), could ever be pure enough.
On its surface, these news twist in Beverly’s and Ally’s arcs seems like a good old-fashioned revenge quest, one that is magnified in the current battle-of-the-sexes for our nation’s character; however, in harnessing the same depth and magnitude of fury that Kai used to build his cult, they guilelessly adopt his methods, and perhaps, his madness, to take him down. Is AHS: Cult suggesting that when they go low, we should meet them at their level—if only to punch them in the balls? And if so, is this really the worst advice—given the fact that every day, the headlines are portals to the Hellmouth (courtesy of the GOP)? This season is one of the sharpest, most acidic takes on our cultural moment, and it has, shockingly, Made American Horror Story Great Again. Good horror is about crushing the coal of the human subconscious—the thick, dark, deep-earthed terror and rage and gnashing need—into a perfect, arctic diamond reflecting our terrible truths.
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