*WARNING: SPOILERS FOR AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 7, EPISODE 2*
Those who have carefully followed American Horror Story – through Freak Show and through Hotel – may be struck by how subdued Cult has been so far.
Things are bound to escalate, certainly, but it’s been interesting to see how far the series has double-backed on itself, responding so actively to the critical backlash to Hotel (however much you may actually agree with it) and ensuring the “horror” has been firmly put back in American Horror Story.
Last year’s Roanoke kicked things off with a little old fashioned haunted house play; with Cult, the series goes Rosemary’s Baby, as Sarah Paulson’s Ally becomes the stereotypical woman driven to hysteria by tortures either real or imagined. It’s up to the audience, of course, to decide the truth.
However, American Horror Story’s use of classic tropes is thankfully never without subversion; one simple, but effective, change here is to have a same-sex couple at the centre of the horror. For once, it’s not the same old embattled wife and protective, disbelieving husband.
When Ally wakes up to find a murderous clown in bed where her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) should be, it’s Ivy who becomes the force of logic, grabbing a kitchen knife and investigating the bedroom, all as Ally clings fearfully behind. She sees nothing, of course, and the paranoia starts to drive its usual wedge between the couple. “I don’t know what’s real anymore,” Ally sobs. “What we have together – this is real,” Ivy attempts to calm her with.
It doesn’t work, so much. These terrors are changing who Ally fundamentally is as a person. Cult’s message becomes increasingly clearer now: fear is the ultimate manipulator. Indeed, the show’s second episode surprises with an incidental parallel to very recent events, as Kai (Evan Peters) goads a group of immigrant workers into an attack, utilising the video footage to claim he was assaulted out of the blue; all particularly relevant to the way white supremacists attempted to alter the narrative of Charlottesville in their favour and paint themselves as victims.
The footage provides Kai with the perfect springboard to run for a seat on city council; the seat left vacant, in fact, after Councilman Chang (Tim Kang)’s murder. “Vote for the man who can take your fear away. They’re out there,” he declares. The question is for our characters, who is “they”?
Certainly, the Wiltons – Harrison (Billy Eichner) and Meadow (Leslie Grossman) – seem suspicious, despite their superficial normalcy. They love Beyoncé! They fear global warming! They thought Nicole Kidman was transcendent in Big Little Lies! All about the most normal opinions a human being can have. But, then, why can’t Ally shake the feeling something is up?
Perhaps, it’s in Harrison’s bizarre theory that “a hive is the perfect natural community, because every single member of the hive is completely committed 100% to a singular task.” For when that task is the fear of, and demonization of, a particular group of people, the sentiment has a horrifying and perverse way of coming true. A demagogue can build an entire movement purely on the basis of fear.
And what exactly is Kai’s sister Winter (Billie Lourd) up to? She’s gainfully employed as the babysitter to Ally and Ivy’s son Oz, but her recreation of Kai’s “pinky-to-pinky, flesh-to-flesh” truth game seems an awful lot like an initiation of some sort. Her motivations, for now, seem vague beyond the preface of wanting to sooth Oz’s night terrors, but it seems clear she must be a part of whatever conspiracy is currently afoot.
For Ally, it’s been a full-frontal assault. Her sous chef Roger (Zack Ward) is bloodily murdered, while the cops immediately point the finger at Latino cook Pedro (Jorge-Luis Pallo). The incident pushes Ally over the edge. Or, at least, one of the edges. There a certainly bound to be many more. A change summed up in the line: “My phobias were a perfect reaction to what I instinctively knew was true. The world is f*cked up, and the election made it worse.”
Ally is so convinced now of her own interpretation of the world, that nothing else begins to matter. Her old morals start to shift: she’s given a gun by the Wiltons despite having been adamantly against the idea before. She installs bars all around her house. When Kai comes to her door and spews a bunch of anti-immigrant “facts” he poached off Facebook, she’s quick to confront his lies; she doesn’t, however, realise the increasing irony that her own fear is transforming her more into Kai than she’d ever like to believe.
When the neighbourhood is plunged into a blackout, she immediately believes Harrison’s wild assertion that this is an eight-state wide terrorist attack, despite her previous deep distrust of him. The paranoia reaches its peak when she attempts to make a run with Oz across the street. She opens the door, sees a figure, and shoots. She’s just killed Pedro, who only stopped by to give her a helping hand.
American Horror Story airs Tuesdays at 10PM in the US on FX, and airs on FOX UK the following Friday at 10PM. Season 6, Roanoke, is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.
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