Our fears may never change, but they harbor the potential to change us. In the latest season of the anthology series American Horror Story: Cult, viewers find individuals, on both sides of the political aisle, as recipients and the wielders of fear. After a tumultuous 2016 political season, AHS capitalizes on the primal emotions of its audience to offer up a commentary on the extremes camps in which well-meaning people may find themselves heavily entrenched.
The first episode of Cult finds people in various emotional states after the election of Donald Trump. Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) and her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), are wrought with anguish, while Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is startlingly invigorated by the news. Ally finds herself falling back into old bouts of paranoia and phobias including intense hallucinogenic episodes involving killer clowns. Later Kai, inspired by the Trump victory, finds himself seeking to change the world in his town, while his sister Winter (Billie Lourd) begins to babysit for the Mayfair-Richards’ son, Oz.
Given the current political climate, it may be difficult for some viewers to discern the earnestness of the show based on this first episode. The extremeness of the views presented are so far downfield, one may be, according to Poe’s law, unable to discern them from the viewpoints being parodied. But after careful watching, it becomes abundantly clear that AHS is effectively mocking both political avenues.
These facts makes the first episode intriguing as it likely will stray more from the innately political lens and shift to, as its name suggests, the more sinister aspects of ideological enshrinement—the cult. But, at least in this first episode, it illustrates the problem with extreme, deeply emotional views.
Inside a supermarket, Ally overhears a muffled portion of one of Trump’s speeches. To the cashier, Ally expresses she cannot believe what he is saying, to which the cashier replies, while taking out and sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat, that he is glad someone in the country is speaking their mind—the horror. But the genius of a scene like this is that it illustrates the enshrined, predisposed behaviors into which both parties fall. Neither acknowledges the content of what is being said during the speech itself. Each adopts an assumed, predetermined behavior—undying outrage or undying support. Now that is ideologically horrifying.
The acting is superb in conveying these ideas. Paulson, as Ally, really embodies dread in her scenes. Her ability to be perceived as psychologically stable, only to be completely turned into a rambling madwoman really captures a slew of emotions. Her despair is so extreme to be pitiable, and yet so intense to be comic.
On the other end, Peters, as Kai, strikes a different note of psychological instability and madness. His eyes scream insanity—as many of his of AHS characters have—while presenting his character as outwardly unassuming and pathetic. The character then straddles the lines of pathetic and comic, as he hurls urine at Mexican migrants, who then beat him, or attends city council meetings only to be harshly mocked.
In another respect, the shot composition of this first episode really hammers home the idea of horror. Several quick pans into Paulson’s face, slightly off-kilter camera angles, and intense ringing sounds helped supplement the obvious clown jump scare laden throughout. The world is shot as a dark, unforgiving world and, from the perspective of the characters, this is perfect.
AHS rarely sticks to one topic for too long and this political excursion is likely to open up more doors into unexpected realms. But for the time being, the premier episode of Cult served its purpose without dividing an audience over tired political lines.
Featured Image By FX