Alright, quick confession before we start: I’ve never watched one full episode of American Horror Story. For the past six years, Ryan Murphy’s twisted haunted house of grotesque (but cable friendly) imagery and low-key subtext about deep-rooted U.S. values has breezed right past me. Not that I’m not aware of American Horror Story, as the anthology series, with its shifting themes and loving tributes to horror movies of the past has become nearly omnipresent in pop culture. Every time I’ve heard the craziest thing American Horror Story has done in a season, I walk in on my friend watching Jessica Lange singing “Life on Mars” in a circus tent and become the meme of the guy blinking his eyes in disbelief.
So with AHS being as popular as it is amongst TV fans, why shouldn’t it take a stab at satirizing the most culturally divisive time in American history? Cult is the new installment/season/session/dissertation of AHS explicitly taking place in present day America, now led by part-time horror movie villain Donald Trump. In fact, the debut episode is both titled and takes place on Election Night 2016. The show jumps between seemingly two extremes: we have Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) in long hair dyed blue, and he’s so elated at Trump’s election that he humps his television and covers his face in grinded up cheese puffs to match the skin tone of his new leader. On the opposite spectrum, we have Ally (Sarah Paulson) in her eggshell-colored sweater watching the results in absolute horror, surrounded by her high-brow liberal friends, her wife Ivy (Allison Pill) and her young son Oz (Cooper Dodson), who hopes that his two moms won’t have to split under the evil new leader.
Newly motivated by Agent Orange in Chief, Kai attends a City Council meeting with plans to use fear as a means of security. To further prove his unhinged psychoses, he throws urine-filled balloons at a group of construction workers while singing racial slurs at them. They beat him for being the jerk-off that he is, but they don’t see a mysterious figure videotaping the beatdown on a cell phone.
Meanwhile, Ally visits her therapist Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) explaining her fears over the new president with very little sympathy for anyone else but her and her beige sweaters. Ally also has an extreme phobia of clowns (with It back in theaters, who doesn’t these days?) that are not helped when she finds a comic book of Twisty the Clown in Oz’s bedroom. On top of that, she tries going to the grocery store and ends up running into a Trump supporter at the cash register! Oh, and a group of masked clowns having sex by the watermelon aisle or whatever, but a Trump supporter, oh no!! The police find no evidence of the fornicating clowns at the supermarket, so Ivy is starting to get worried.
To ease the stress, she and Ally hire a new nanny for Oz named Winter (Billie Lourd), who looks like the runner up choice for Lydia in Beetlejuice and just so happens to be friendly with Kai. While friendly at first by mentioning that she quit school to work for Hillary Clinton, Winter seems to want to scare the blonde out of his shaggy hair by showing him deaths and murders online. Oz gets to see what that looks like first-hand when he sees a group of masked clowns drive up to the house across the street and violently murder the residents. Despite having Winter and Oz be the only witnesses to the crime, the investigating police detective (Colton Haynes) finds it highly illogical. Despite not wanting to believe it, Ally then wakes one night to find a clown right next to her.
With last week’s preamble laid out, the second episode threw in some good ol’ fashioned American paranoia to move things along. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” opens with the previously mentioned clown next to Ally chasing her throughout her house. When she finally finds Ivy, the clown is nowhere to be seen. Ivy is starting to become more and more concerned for her wife, unsure if she’s telling the truth or if her phobias are starting to make her unravel. Regarding the grisly murders across the street (deemed as mere “tragic deaths” by the local news), the victims were a local town councilman and his family (the same councilman that initially scoffed at Kai last week…coincidence?).
Oz, still a bit shaken from the events, makes a pinky swear with Winter for her to take his fear from him. With that, she allows him to go across the street with the very new neighbors, the Wiltons: there’s beekeeper Harrison (Billy Eichner) and chatty Meadow (Leslie Grossman) who obsess over Nicole Kidman and are pretty relaxed about moving into a house where a horrible death occurred not days before. But the Wiltons aren’t exactly your everyday couple, one reason being that Harrison is gay and that Meadow doesn’t like to be touched due to a past case of skin cancer. The two explain they made a pact when they were younger to get married if they didn’t find a significant other and Harrison is even given one night a week to go out on the town and *ahem* enjoy himself.
Meanwhile, a dispute between two staffers at the restaurant Ally and Ivy own gets racially heated quickly before Ivy has to break it up. One night, the restaurant’s alarm is tripped and Ally goes to investigate. She then finds the manager that made the racially insensitive comment to the Latino worker hanging from a meat hook dead. When the detective from the last episode comes by to investigate, he’s unsure if Ally did it or if it’s another hallucination from Ally. Once more, the detective asks about the immigration status of the Latino employee, named Pedro, to which Ivy states that he’s American. Ally, still shaken and unequivocally paranoid, decides to borrow a gun from Harrison’s impressively large gun safe that he says he’s been filling up ever since Barack Obama first took office. Why? “It’s the only thing that will make you feel safe again.” She shows off her new gun to Dr. Vincent, who is concerned that she’s not taking her medication and is coming slightly undone.
Meanwhile, Kai is something of a local celebrity after the video of him getting beat up goes viral. He uses this to cook up some fear mongering against illegal immigrants, likening them to rapists and criminals (sound familiar?) and announcing his candidacy for city council. His blue hair is now in a bun, he wears a suit and a bowtie, and seems ready to be a man of the people. Conveniently enough, he makes a stop at Ally’s house to discuss his candidacy. Kai, who last met Ally after dumping a latte all over her in the last episode, sees the new bars on her windows and gate at her door as a sign of the fear seeping into Ally’s soul and how his madness might be justified. Later in the night, Ally’s home stressing with Winter looking after Oz and Ivy at the restaurant. To help ease the heebie jeebies, Winter runs a bath for Ally and even makes time to help her wash up (yes Ryan Murphy, we’ve all seen American Beauty). Then the lights go out, Winter runs home, and Ally calls Ivy in a panic, to which Ivy sends over Pedro to check on her and bring some supplies. Ally finds her fusebox has been cut and starts seeing those creepy clowns stalking throughout the house. As she thinks one is right at the front door, she pulls out her gun and shoots, only to discover that it was actually Pedro.
So first question is the obvious one: How is Cult doing so far at its satire of Trump’s America? So far, not too bad. Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk (who both wrote “Election Day” and co-wrote “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” with Tim Minear) seem to understand when to use subtlety in certain places to properly shove it in audience’s faces later. The best contrast of that is between Kai and Ally: both characters seem to be extreme caricatures of the left-wing liberal luxury and the unhinged right-wing uprising. But Murphy and Falchuk aren’t playing favorites, splashing the real flaws in this culture clash intermittently. In Ally’s case, one of the big reveals from “Election Night” is that she didn’t even vote for Hillary (Jill Stein got that honor), bringing up how her outrage and paranoia against Trump’s America might be her own fault. Not that she would mind that since the attention is all on her. Any decision she makes is seemingly in her own defense without the concerns of Ivy or Oz. It’s all blind paranoia and Ally seems to want to do nothing but crawl into her ever-shrinking comfort zone. It makes sense that Sarah Paulson should go from playing one of the toughest women seen in American culture (Marcia Clark in Murphy’s American Crime Story) to almost the polar opposite in Cult. She’s fragile, unstable, and somehow so stubborn in her belief in the madness surrounding her that it’s surprising it took her two episodes to start packing heat.
On the polar opposite end of spectrum is Kai, played with shocking effort by Evan Peters. With “Election Night,” it would be easy to write him off as too extreme for the show’s message to have any kind of impact to it. He comes off more like a thug for Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. But with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” his plan starts to crystalize and the parallels to Team Trump start to become more clear. He sees people’s fear as a means to power and control. If he can tell people what to be scared of, who knows what else he can make them do? He seems to embody the actual title of Cult even with his ties to the creepy clowns kept vague. Peters seems to have been given two different kinds of direction between the first and second episode: the former being a wacky cartoon caricature to put in the TV ads and the latter being more composed and interesting.
In its first two episodes, Cult has both performed its unnecessary fan service to the horror junkies (the random use of Twisty was sudden and could easily be cut out) and service to its overall story. If it wants its satire to be successful, it should stick to subtle and not shove its blood and guts in the audience faces.