American Horror Story Takes On The Cult Of Personality
Lesbians, Cheetos, killer clowns, Alt anarchists and enraged women. What could go wrong?
Warning: Do not read if you haven’t seen the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult, "Election Night," which aired September 5 on FX. The following contains spoiler details.
If the 2016 election and subsequent Inauguration of Donald Trump sent you into a spin, the seventh season of FX’s American Horror Story: Cult is the show for you. Smart, arch, violent, superbly written and acted and very gay, Cult taps into the current Zeitgeist with an unerring, near-surgical precision that is gutting.
The current cultural and political divide is laid out deftly, from Election Night through the aftermath. As Trump continues to hold campaign rallies in white states with his white base while the West Coast burns and a series of hurricanes wreak havoc, we have Cult to explain how personalities supersede sense when people feel desperate and all our bigotry comes to the fore.
Previous seasons of the series have had historical openers, usually of classic horror. Cult has a different kind of horror prologue.
The first ten minutes of Cult were almost unbearable to watch.
Scarier than Trump? Probably not
"I am running for president of the United States!" announces Donald Trump.
"I am running for president of the United States!" announces Hillary Clinton.
A video montage follows from their respective campaigns: Hillary at rallies warning against Trump’s racism and xenophobia while media focuses on her emails. Trump ginning up racism and xenophobia at his rallies. There’s that amazing clip of Trump asserting, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's like incredible."
It’s an eerie prescience, that then-off-hand declaration of Trump’s, as ten months later no matter how egregious Trump’s actions–nor how they impact the very people who voted for him—his base support remains stalwart.
Cult then cuts to Election Night, November 8, 2016. A night that for many of us will live in infamy.
A blue haired Evan Peters
A solitary millennial with blue hair, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), watches the vote count unfold on Fox News from his basement apartment. He is literally on the edge of his sofa, getting increasingly more agitated. Fox’s team, laughing and joking, declares Trump the 45th president of the United States, winner of the most "unreal" and "surreal" election in American history. Kai intones, "The revolution has begun."
He’s excited. The realization of what’s to come—or what he expects—washes over his face. Kai jumps up, yelling, "Fuck you world!" Then he runs to his big flat screen, literally humping it while chanting "USA! USA!"
Alison Pill and Sarah Paulson
In another part of the tiny Michigan town, population 10,000, where AHS: Cult is set, it’s a far more somber night. A group of friends—a lesbian couple, their young son, his Latina nanny and their straight Asian neighbors sit stunned as the results come in. Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill) are anxious. Ally won’t stop talking. Their neighbor, Chang (Tim Kang), says there have to be more votes to count, it’s not over yet.
In a near-parody of how that night played out in my house and other lesbian homes throughout America, Ally declares,"I won't believe anything until I hear Rachel Maddow say it, she's the only one I trust."
And then it IS over. Pennsylvania, which hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election in 28 years, is called. For Trump.
"It's the politics of fear, it always works," says Chang, who heads the town council.
Ally begins to scream. Ivy tries to calm her. "Go to hell Huffington Post!" Ally cries, "Fuck you Nate Silver!" she sobs as she slides to the floor crying. "Oh God, how could they have been so wrong about this!"
The details continue to pour in. Clinton has lost Michigan by less than one half of one percent of the vote—a mere 10,704 votes. She’s lost the presidency by a tiny margin of 77,000 votes. How could this happen?
Chang is pacing. He yells at his wife,"Look at our friends on the couch and tell them that they might not be able to maintain their rights as a married couple because you were too busy playing on Etsy to go vote!" From the kitchen we hear the young boy, Oz, ask with fear in his voice if they will still be a family.
The chilling reality of all the complicity in enabling the Trump win begins to take hold in the room. Third party votes lost the swing state for Hillary Clinton, as they did in the other two states that gave Trump the Electoral College: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Chang is talking about protest votes and how wrong they were when Trump was in play. His anger is barely controlled as he says, "You want to know who to get mad at for this? Our own state of Michigan. She's losing by 10,000 votes. That's the size of this town. And who is at 40,000 votes and counting? Jill Stein." (Stein tallied 51, 463 votes in Michigan while Clinton lost by 10,, 704. Clinton lost Wisconsin by less than half of one percent of the vote—22,748 votes. Stein received 31,072 votes or 1.04%. In Pennsylvania, with twice as many Electoral College votes as Wisconsin, Clinton lost by 34,292 votes or .04% and Stein received 49,941 votes or .81%.)
Ivy: the epitome of comforting
Ivy is holding Ally as Chang rants and we see a look on Ally’s face. She is devastated.
Show creator Ryan Murphy is stating some cold facts about people voting against their own interests in this scene. The complicity of non-voters and protest voters in enabling Trump’s ascendancy is laid bare.
Murphy, who is openly gay, told Variety season seven of the AHS franchise was "fueled by his own anxiety over the election, which fueled much discussion in the writers’ room. I’ve loved this season because the writers’ rooms have been so volcanic and emotional," he said.
At a recent press event for the debut of Cult, Murphy was forthcoming about what the election and Trump’s presidency had done to him personally as a married gay man with two young children.
"One of the things that I personally experienced after this election was a wild increase in my life in anxiety," said Murphy. "I think a lot of people can relate to that, no matter what side you're on, because there seemed to be such a painful discourse going on, and everything seemed to be at Mach 4 level. You could feel it in the news. You can feel it now when you watch it. We're on the brink of nuclear war one week, and then, the next week we're on to something else equally extreme. I want to lean into the escalation of fear in our culture."
Underscoring Murphy’s point: The day AHS: Cult premiered, Trump announced he was rescinding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the Obama-era executive order protecting children of undocumented immigrants from arrest and/or deportation. The move would force at least 800,000 people to, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained, "self-deport" to countries from whence their parents had brought them as children, but where they hadn’t lived since.
After the scene at Ally and Ivy’s home, the drama cuts back to Kai. He has poured a bag of Cheetos into a blender and then spreads the bright orange crumbs across his face in a caricature of Trump, who many call the Cheeto president for his orange-spray-tanned visage. Kai walks into his sister’s room, his wide Trump grin on his face.
Kai’s sister, Winter (Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher and grand-daughter of Debbie Reynolds) is distraught. She’s taken off a year from Vassar to campaign for Hillary. She can’t believe Trump has won. She’s numb.
"She was supposed to win, is this really happening?" Winter is saying to a friend on the phone as Kai enters. She chastises him for making fun of her, then admits, "I'm just so scared now." "Everyone is," Kai responds, with his eerie Cheeto faced smile.
They make a pact. What that pact is will be revealed over time. (These two have a somewhat incestuous relationship a la Game of Thrones. She is in his thrall. They pinky promise a lot and she does all his bidding.)
A series of increasingly more disturbing events take place. Ally is falling apart. The restaurant she and Ivy own is being run solely by Ivy while Ally rants in therapy about her mounting fears and paralysis since the election.
Ally isn’t merely a lone snowflake, though. In June the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported that Trump’s election was, in addition to throwing the nation into turmoil, making people sick.
Ally represents millions, especially women, who have been unmoored by the election results.
But Ally has a secret, which is revealed on her first day back to the restaurant. Ivy is doing her best to control her anger at Ally, who has let all of her responsibilities go. She hasn’t been to the restaurant in a month, voiding the agreement she and Ivy had where Ivy would be the chef and Ally would be the face of the restaurant.
And there’s more. In a scene that portends what’s to come, Ally begs Ivy not to tell their friends that she voted for Stein. "You forgive me, don’t you," she asks Ivy, not long after wondering in a moment of real white woman privilege what has happened to their nanny, who has not returned since Election Night. Was she deported, Ally asks, seemingly oblivious to her own role in Trump’s election.
Ivy is exasperated. Ally tells her when she got into the voting booth she just couldn’t vote for the first woman in 240 years to make it to the nomination of a major party. Instead she decided on a protest vote for an incompetent candidate she knew nothing about.
Same thing, right?
"As much as I hate him, I couldn't trust her."— Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) September 6, 2017
"We only needed 10k votes & you would have been one of them."
Ivy is about to object when Kai walks by—the one and only time we see them in the same scene. He jostles them on purpose, spills coffee all over them and when Ally protests, he yells, "Enjoy your latte, bitch!"
Throughout the episode there are clowns. Scary, violent, predatory, hyper-sexual clowns. Ally has a lot of phobias and while she continues to go to therapy, she refuses to take her medication. Her fears are getting out of control. She sees clowns everywhere. She heads to the market, has a brief conversation about the election with a worker there (Chaz Bono), thinking he must be on her side. But he isn’t—he proclaims his relief Trump has won and puts on his red #MAGA hat.
Clowns are following Ally. They’re having wild clown sex with smashed watermelons in the produce section. A three-faced clown with penis noses rides on a scooter through the store, gunning for Ally. At the checkout counter is a creepy female clown. Ally tosses bottles of rose and screams, but there is no one in anarchist Trump/clown world to help her. She runs out of the store and in her anxiety, crashes her car. She calls Ivy who calls the police, but they find nothing.
Things aren't going well for Ally
A few days later, Ivy has lovingly prepared a special meal for Ally at the restaurant, in the hopes they might have sex later. But as Ivy returns to the kitchen and Ally watches her meal turn into something Hieronymous Bosch prepared, another clown appears, this one masturbating furiously from a booth nearby.
I wouldn't want her in the mood later.— Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) September 6, 2017
I'd want her packing.
And I'd be wearing a clown mask for emphasis.#AHSCult
Throughout Cult the rise of the new order is previewed in small yet ever unnerving ways. Oz reads violent comics with murderous clowns. He then watches murder videos online with his incredibly creepy new nanny—Winter—who Ally and Ivy have hired thinking she’s a lesbian and because she worked for Hillary. (She may be a lesbian—that’s not entirely clear. But she’s been unhinged by the election, and in ways far more disturbing than Ally.)
When Oz is initially upset by the brutal violence in the videos on the dark web, Winter asks if he’s been vaccinated. He nods yes. She tells him this is like a vaccination against the horrors of the world.
Or prepping a serial killer.
The character who will upend this town is Kai. He speaks—in a suit, blue hair pulled back in a discreet man bun—before the town council about the need to refrain from giving the Jewish community center police protection. Burn it down, is his suggestion. Kai wants a revolution and says as much.
Where have we heard that before?
Kai’s speech is deeply unsettling. Change delivers a vicious take-down, telling Kai, "I'm glad you 4Chan guys feel empowered to join the rest of us in civil society now that Papa Bear Trump is telling you it's okay," sneering at Kai emerging from his "parent's basement."
As Kai leaves he mutters something. Chang asks him to repeat it.
"There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man."— Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) September 6, 2017
Ryan Murphy nails it.#AHSCult
Kai’s statement reminds us—and is meant to—of Trump and his resentful tweeting. But it is also meant to remind us of the blurring between the Bernie Bros and the hipster Alt Right. Which means there’s no easy answer about who is a villain and who is, well, your brother.
American Horror Story: Cult is not for everyone. It’s dark, it’s violent (though not nearly as violent as last season’s Roanoke), it’s sexually provocative (though not nearly as much as Hotel was). Ally is, thus far, an unlikeable character, redeemed by Ivy, who is adorable with her sexy pixie haircut and her soft butch affect. Winter concerns us, Kai rivets us.
In Cult, Murphy guides us into the dark terrain of our own most visceral fears.
Clowns (Twisty from Freak Show returns with wild abandon and knives) are a metaphor for those fears but by no means an end in themselves. And Trump is, in Cult, a straw man for what we do wrong in this world–whether it’s hanging on Etsy and missing the vote, or buying into the worst misogyny and casting a protest vote enabling actual fascism or taunting immigrants or lying to ourselves and each other. The lines between what’s authentic and what isn’t blur radically in Cult. And they tell us something not just about how we got to Trump, but how our Kardashian-loving, celebrity-crazed culture skews perspective on Good with a capital 'g' and Evil with a capital 'e'.
Cult could be Murphy’s best work. But be prepared to squirm.
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