American Horror Story – Cult episode 1 review: Election Night

American Horror Story delivers its most timely episode yet by pillorying the aftermath of the last US election...

American Horror Story: Cult starts in the UK on FOX on Friday the 8th of September at 10pm.

This review contains spoilers. 

7.1 Election Night

For a section of the American population, the election of Donald Trump was a nightmare brought to life. For others, it was a victory against forces that they feel are conspiring to hold them down. Both parties are lampooned in the latest season of American Horror Story, which opens up with the real-life American horror story of the 2016 presidential election. On one hand, there are a bunch of sobbing progressives, lashing out at one another and lamenting the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, there’s a basement-dwelling psychopath and a redneck grocery store clerk who celebrate the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the prospect of making America great again.

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This is, without a doubt, the most timely variation of American Horror Story since the first season. Certainly, the other seasons have indulged in some social commentary of some kind or another, but this takes places starting in 2016, opening with actual footage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail leading up to the election of Trump as the 45th President. This is simply the inciting incident from which all the trouble arises, as ingrained fears and innate prejudices are reinforced, emboldened by the election results and create all the troubles featured in the opening episode of Cult.

The caricatures begin immediately. The left-wing side are a neurotic lesbian couple, Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill), a smug liberal man, and a non-voting wife of said liberal man. Ally is immediately troubled by Trump’s winning, to the point of having a breakdown—the smug liberal man Tom Chang only manages to yell at his wife for not voting. The right wing side is represented by an apocalyptic troll named Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) who celebrates Trump’s victory by screaming USA and humping his flat-screen TV before smearing Cheeto dust on his face and fashioning his Joker-blue hair into a faux Trump comb-over before heading upstairs to gloat to Winter (Billie Lourd), a self-harming college Tumblrina who quit Vassar to volunteer for Hillary Clinton, worries about where she’ll have her abortion, and boasts about getting retweeted by future Cult actress Lena Dunham.

Once again, Sarah Paulson is going to be doing a lot of screaming and crying. The episode opens with her having a breakdown, and she spends the rest of the episode having psychotic breakdowns, possibly hallucinating clowns, and wringing her hands nervously. That’s not to say she’s not intensely watchable; Sarah Paulson loves a good bit of scenery chewing, and her character is so overwrought by design that it doesn’t feel like overacting, but just the way this damaged person handles the world around her. She flies off the handle at everything, and her fear of clowns, holes, and fluids/blood are used impeccably well.

Once again, Evan Peters is going to take a repugnant character and make him into a sex symbol. He opens up the episode screaming obscenities and only seems to get crazier from there. He makes a deranged speech in front of the city council about the greatness of fear and how everyone’s melt-downs will only make people like him stronger, he shows off his one-on-one charisma in his scenes with Winter, and he’s portrayed as the ultimate hero of online right-wing agitators who only want to troll the world via President Trump. He’s definitely intimidating, particularly when he’s working his magic on Winter and getting her into the household of Ivy and Ally.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who wrote this episode, seem to be bound and determined to attack everyone on every side. Certainly, portraying the 4Chan crowd as dangerous demagogues isn’t going to win them any favours, but it’s not as if the upper-class liberals get off any better, either. Ally gets yelled at for voting for Jill Stein and costing Hillary Michigan by her own girlfriend, and Ally’s political obsession is ruining both her business (The Butchery on Main, in a nice nod to last season) and her relationship with Ivy. Kai and Winter’s relationship isn’t any healthier, with Kai exerting immediate control over her despite their political differences (I can’t help but feel this is Ryan Murphy’s self-aware commentary about Evan Peters’ online popularity and how legions of Internet folks lusted after his school shooter character in Murder House).

None of Murphy and Falchuk’s script is subtle, but taking every character to their most extreme does make for compelling viewing. Murphy’s stated goal of going after the lunacy of both sides is clear from the very beginning, and even his casting of transgender activist Chaz Bono as a MAGA red-hat store clerk is deliberate trolling. Kai is a dangerous troll (though Kai’s speech on fear is solidly written). Winter is deliberately warping a small child left in her care and deliberately exposing him to horrible things online while whining about trigger warnings regarding the Presidential election. Ivy is enabling her wife’s delusions. Ally needs to be on serious medication and needs more therapy than Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson at his most wonderfully vapid) can provide.

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It’s style over substance to the extreme, and Bradley Buecker’s direction matches Murphy’s script perfectly. There are multiple dolly zooms on Sarah Paulson when she’s exposed to clowns. The only direction given to the actors seems to be “Go bigger. No, bigger!” There are multiple scenes of clowns rampaging through a supermarket or engaging in horrifying sexual acts, including a clown riding a scooter while waving a knife around dangerously. There’s a shot of a bleeding souffle under a silver platter! There are enough stabbings to make Mario Bava feel inadequate!

It’s not quite colourful enough to pass for a giallo (though the Twisty comic book might be a cute nod to the late George Romero’s Creepshow), but it’s so exaggerated that it’s clearly taking cues from the psycho-sexual slashers of Italy, and it’s kind of wonderful. There are lots of incredibly tense moments, even for people who don’t irrationally hate holes in objects or clowns. The sound design, as usual, is impeccable, and every visual trick in the cinematographer playbook is used this week. Little bits of The Shining show up—clown sex, animal mask sex, what’s the difference?—and there is definitely a Clockwork Orange vibe happening, as well as something close to Halloween or The Strangers/The Purge.

The first season of American Horror Story was so much fun because it was jam-packed with references to classic horror elements, right down to the musical cues. Cult, which looks to be shifting from supernatural to more realistic horror, seems to be following that path by drawing something from every political horror film in the canon. There’s enough history of politics in horror for it to come together nicely, and the sheer nihilistic manipulativeness of Kai is going to make him a pretty great counterpoint to the aggressive malleability of Ally.

Colour me really pleased with the first episode. It’ll be nice to see American Horror Story be a little more grounded this time around. Of course, it wouldn’t be Ryan Murphy if things didn’t go off the rails by episode eight, but that’s a risk I’m always willing to sign on for. I’d rather have an entertaining train wreck than a competent bore.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan wonders just how long Ryan Murphy and company are going to continue to attack everyone on the fringes of the political spectrum. No doubt this season will be even more polarizing than usual thanks to leaning on real-life politics. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.