“We love fear more than we love our children,” perennial weird boy (and problematic on-screen crush) Evan Peters insists in the first episode of American Horror Story’s seventh installment. As always, his eyes are bulging out of his head. For this year’s aesthetic, as a mysterious “4chan guy” named Kai Anderson, he’s sporting electric blue hair tied up in a top knot and screaming about his own ascension amid Trump-enabled chaos.
His sermon about the power and grandeur of fear doesn’t find a receptive audience in his Michigan suburb’s city council meeting, largely because he’s arguing against added security measures at a Jewish community center in the wake of the 2016 election. He’s fully crazy, and concludes his speech muttering, “There is nothing more dangerous in the world than a humiliated man.”
That’s the bulk of the stage-setting for American Horror Story: Cult, which stars Peters as a creepy, underestimated, self-proclaimed genius who feeds on information about the phobias of others. He’s not so much infatuated with Trump as with the “they were afraid” excuse so often used to forgive the decision of Trump voters. Afraid of what? In Kai’s mind, it doesn’t actually matter. Everyone’s afraid of something. He’s going to drive this ‘burb to the brink of madness.
[Light spoilers for American Horror Story: Cult below]
This is the first season of American Horror Story to incorporate true events in real time. Previous seasons have leaned on shared cultural knowledge like gory urban legends or well-known historical events, and a few have taken place in the present day, but none have ever done both. That new ground automatically rejuvenates the conceit of a show that, in my eyes at least, had long overstayed its welcome. It also seemed like a cheapish ploy to re-create the success of last year’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which was critically beloved and massively popular, in large part thanks to the salience of its subject matter. In an oral history (seriously) of the most recent season of Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost told The Hollywood Reporter, “It's been harder in the past couple of years at SNL because the culture's so fragmented... Whereas politics right now is probably the closest we've come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time[.]” He went on to say that SNL’s dizzying ratings made him feel like a “war profiteer.”
Capitalizing on the same opportunity, AHS: Cult is a parody of Trump and Clinton supporters alike. On Election Night, Kai puts a bag of Cheetos in a blender and then coats his skin in the paste, sitting reverentially in front a mirror and murmuring about the revolution in a fugue state. On the other side of town, ostensible liberal Ally Mayfair-Richards (AHS alum Sarah Paulson) screams at the TV in despair, yelling “fuck Nate Silver!” and then weeping weakly while she admits she actually voted for Jill Stein. Her wife, Ivy, played by The Newsroom’s Allison Pill, vows never to bring it up. Then there’s a creepy nanny named Winter, played by Scream Queens’ Billie Lourd, who “dropped out of Vassar” to work on Clinton’s campaign and just wants to know where she’s going to be able to get an abortion in Trump’s America. (That last one is a bit of a cheap shot, as is her complaint that CNN didn’t show a trigger warning before reporting the returns.)
Filling out the cast — and American Horror Story casts are always full to bursting — we have Emma Roberts as a peppy striver at the local news station, the thorn in the side of an experienced political reporter played by AHS: My Roanoke Nightmare’s Adina Porter; Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as the unhappily married militant liberals next door; Cheyenne Jackson as the town’s “tune it all out” preaching psychiatrist; and, for some reason, John Carroll Lynch reprising his season 4 role as the tongueless, knife-wielding Twisty the Clown. My guess there is that the parallels between Twisty and the Zodiac Killer come back into play with a joke about Ted Cruz? Why not! And there’s still plenty of other absurd simulacra to come: Cher, whose emoji-heavy Twitter account has become a gleefully retweeted presence in the online #resistance, is set to make an appearance later this season. As is Lena Dunham, a lightning rod for critiques of white feminism and the butt of a joke in the pilot: Lourd’s character aces a babysitting interview saying, “The proudest moment of my life was when Lena Dunham retweeted me. I got almost 6,000 followers just from that.”
FX golden boy Ryan Murphy teased the political timeliness of Cult for months before its debut, flip-flopping for most of February and March on how literal an interpretation of the 2016 election it would be. The show didn’t start filming until May, and by then it seems he’d decided not to pick a poison. It’s both literal and not. There are explicit references to liberal comforts like HBO’s Big Little Lies and conservative delusion drawn from Facebook, but there are also killer clowns. The clowns (seemingly led by Kai) start picking off neighbors pretty early, leaving behind bloody smiley faces and fear that leads to chaos. Fear makes characters hallucinate, buy guns, put bars on their windows, take pills, turn on their spouses, and, uh, ignore their children.
AHS has always been easy to criticize as tactless, messy, glib, and pointless, and those assessments have been fair as often as they haven’t. They’re somewhat fair for Cult as well, which treats the death of a Latino man as a punchline about white liberal hypocrisy, then moves on to the next ridiculous bit of gore: a hamster exploding in a microwave. (You could call that the point, though AHS has such an uneven history with regards to intent and watchability that it truly doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.) But so far this season, the spaghetti sticks to the wall often enough to keep watching. Going door to door in episode 3, more or less to terrorize his neighbors, Kai stops at Ally’s and seethes through the bars: “Why would you need a knife to answer the door? You gonna melt all that metal down and build a bridge?” Peters is the most terrifying actor currently working in television. And if you’re a well-to-do white liberal who’s “afraid” without much skin in the game, he’ll make you squirm.
Above all, what’s alluring about AHS now is that it is trash. Maybe that’s cynical, but American Horror Story has never been about the bright side. This is TV that does nothing but toss our world back at us in its most concentrated, ludicrous form. It’s sick, like pulling off a scab; it’s also familiar, like pulling off a scab. It’s TV from which there is nothing much to learn and no narrative satisfaction to hope for, no dots to connect and no puzzle box to unpack. It’s the purest form of vapid entertainment — the type that lets us talk about ourselves for hours while saying nothing at all. AHS: Cult is good TV because it doesn’t need to say anything. It just needs to gesture at all the right reference points. You’ll be scared. I mean, this was always supposed to be a show about the worst things a person will do when they’re American and afraid.
Cult opens with a news montage, clipping together news anchors describing the country’s vague “palpable fear,” Clinton insisting that she “gets it,” and Trump boasting about how he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote. If Cult makes any argument at all, it’s that shooting someone on Fifth Avenue would have made his win even easier.