Where were you on November 8, 2016? I’ll never forget that night. I invited a few friends over to drink and celebrate the presumed election of Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States. It was supposed to be a fun night. A happy night. It became one in which my heart literally stopped for 35 seconds. Like most liberals living in a political bubble, I entered my own American Horror Story that night. Exploring the emotions that fed into and were magnified by that night, Ryan Murphy now gives us American Horror Story: Cult. Its opening shows Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) largely experiencing the same night I just described. My own personal Horror Story just didn’t lead to brutal murders and anarchy. At least not yet.
With an effective theme behind him, Ryan Murphy and team deliver a compelling entry into the Horror Story franchise in Cult. That is, so far.
Murphy’s central theme here effectively becomes “both sides are crazy.” Richards is a near shut-in, suffering from multiple paranoid fears including a paralyzing fear of clowns. Her understanding wife, Ivy (Allison Pill, new to the series), tries to satiate Ally’s continued flights of insanity while raising their super-cute moppet. On the other crazy side, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) feels less like a traditional Trump supporter as he does a total anarchist. Upon Trump’s election, Kai blends a bag of Cheetos (or the non-branded equivalent) and paints his face with it. He then makes some kind of pact with his Clinton-supporting sister Winter (Billie Lourd) who then becomes the Mayfair-Richards new nanny.
Did I mention Ally is deathly afraid of clowns? Cue all the clowns.
That said, Cult doesn’t feel exactly like all the teasers and eventual trailer FX produced. The blending of cults and clowns with the social aftermath of the 2016 election cycle felt like an odd mash-up. I mean, credit Murphy for realizing that scary clowns would be super hot in September 2017, but none of the advanced material excited me. That is, until I saw the four episodes provided to critics.
Shockingly, Cult comes across as a more thoughtful Horror Story exercise than we’ve had to date. So far. it has a great deal on its mind. It explores the aftermath of the 2016 election in addition to the malaise and social circumstances that led into our divided society. Issues of ethnicity, race, gun control, and gender permeate the initial episodes, giving us far more to chew on than we’ve had before. Gone are the camp fantasias of Freak Show or Hotel. In fact, Cult almost feels like a marriage between the Horror Story and Crime Story franchises. The combination works for me. So far.
Paulson will be back in awards contention this year with her amazing performance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this unhinged, this unsteady before. The psychological torment she undergoes feels vaguely Hitchcockian. So much so, in fact, that I’d be interested in knowing if Hitchcock’s Marnie wasn’t something of an inspiration in the season. Finally getting the best role he’s had since Murder House, Evan Peters dives head-first into Kai’s anarchic lunacy. He initially seems completely detached in the initial episodes, but by the excellent Episode 4, his plans become more evident. It’s as compelling and focused a performance, ultimately, that I’ve ever seen Peters give. He too should be in awards consideration. The supporting cast does nicely, but no one approaches the excellence of a Kathy Bates or Angela Bassett. In a surprisingly convincing dramatic performance, Billy Eichner comes closest to matching the heat of Paulson and Peters.
American Horror Story: Cult feels like a completely new experience for this franchise. Murphy smartly anchors his horror in real-world emotions. Things with which most people can sympathize rather than the other-worldly camp the series recently deteriorated into. It’s a welcome change. Plus, it gives audiences a source to channel their election-based fears. This season won’t satisfy the hardcore horror fans. There is too much discourse and quiet pauses for that despite escalating gore by Episode 4. Still, Cult could become a highlight in the series and in Murphy’s exponentially growing resume, assuming it maintains the early promise of quality. That’s a huge assumption.
But I’m in (again) and ready to go for Cult.
American Horror Story: Cult premieres tonight at 10pm ET on FX.