This review contains spoilers.
7.10 Charles (Manson) In Charge
Some have been critical of Ryan Murphy’s tendency to use the same actors over and over again. I haven’t been, but I can see why some complain about it. If you have, say, Jessica Lange, you’re going to try to give her things to do, whether or not it actually fits the characters. Sarah Paulson might vary in screen time, but she’s usually screaming and crying at some point, as she tends to be the victim rather than the victimizer. Evan Peters had a breakout first season, and he’s been in the show to varying degrees since then, usually not in the sort of character he’s playing in Cult.
It makes sense. People tend to work with other people that they know and are comfortable with, and Ryan Murphy’s creative team tends to ask a lot of actors as it is, so comfort is important. For some, this has been the biggest role they could get, so it’s not surprising to see, say, Sarah Paulson coming back time and time again for juicy leading lady parts. Others, like Billy Eichner, are trying to get established as actors rather than personalities. Evan Peters was bitten by a radioactive mummy and cursed to toil in American Horror Story for all eternity. Billy Lourd is getting established more fully as an actress after the cancellation of Scream Queens.
The actors and crew all have their reasons for coming back, but from a narrative standpoint, the recycling of actors has made Cult a better show because it places the viewer firmly into the head of the show’s crackpot center, Kai Anderson. He’s been popping pills for most of the season, and with every sweat-soaked minute of ranting and raving, Kai’s loose grasp on reality becomes a little looser until he’s imagining his cult’s devoted followers as four murderous flower children out for blood on the orders of himself, AKA Charles Manson. Is it really all that surprising that when he gathers his blue shirts for story time, he puts the people from his cult into the roles of being the members of the Manson family on a fatal creepy-crawl onto the house on Cielo Drive?
To watch American Horror Story’s take on the Manson Family is a whole lot of fun. Kai is the person telling the story, and it’s colored by Kai’s personal philosophy. The girls are all women in Kai’s life (Winter, Ally, and Meadow take on the roles of Linda, Sadie, and Patty Krenwinkle, respectively) and the ringleader of the girls is Tex (as played by Billy Eichner AKA Harrison). It’s one of two spectacularly brutal moments in the episode, and the girls are perfectly placed in their roles in Kai’s fantasy. It’s also nice to see Lily Rabe back in AHS, playing a perfect version of Sharon Tate. It’s brutal and horrifying, and the fright is offset perfectly by Kai’s giddiness at taking Manson’s ideas and turning them up to 11.
Evan Peters is absolutely spectacular, as Kai and as Kai’s hallucination of Charles Manson. Charlie is really, really funny, and Evan Peters is clearly having a good time playing dual roles, especially when Charlie pops up to say something funny. Again, it’s nice contrast to the episode’s A plot, in which Kai—growing paranoid from drug use—is certain that the government is after him and that he’s being recorded at all turns by a mole in his midst. Charles Manson is correct when he says there’s a mole, but rather than turning his attention to his male followers, Charlie via Kai’s misogyny turns the attention to his female followers, and specifically to the last true follower he has, Winter.
Peters and Billy Lourd have great chemistry on screen this episode, and there’s no moment more horrifying than watching Kai strangle his only real loyal follower to death in a fit of sobbing rage. It has such impact not because it’s graphic—the Manson murders do the graphic bloodshed, led by a cackling Sarah Paulson who truly needs to be a villain next season—but because it’s not. It’s emotions, it’s sobbing, it’s rage, and it’s the very quiet crumple of a windpipe beneath thumbs. Bebe’s death was a moment of black comedy; her head explodes all over Kai and Ally cracks a joke. Winter’s death is tragic, because it’s the last lingering thread of humanity Kai has.
Slowly but surely, Kai is isolating himself from everyone he actually knows, and everyone who actually knows him. Winter and Gary were two of the few links to the old cult life; surrounding Kai now are nicknames like Heart Attack and Speedwagon, not actual people. The other person he knows from the old days, Ally, has turned into some sort of super villain and Beverly is completely broken at the hands of Kai and not much use to anyone at the moment. And, let’s be honest, a woman he tried to drive mad and a follower he broke aren’t a blood relative, especially not a little sister.
There’s a lot happening, but the focus is on Kai at all times. Even when Winter is trying to talk Beverly into leaving, the script from Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy keeps the attention firmly on Kai. The brutality and sadness is balanced out by the usual allotment of dark comedy, with Kai’s hallucinatory Charles Manson being really funny at times, particularly when he reminds Kai that he’s not Charles Manson’s ghost, because Charles Manson is still alive and in prison. There were several moments after which I needed to collect myself from laughter, because there’s just so many little darkly comic touches sprinkled throughout the script to lessen, but not abate, the terror created in large part by the cinematography and Bradley Buecker’s handling of the actors.
Most seasons of American Horror Story seem to lose their way for a few episodes, but Cult seems to be bucking all the usual trends of the show. It’s tight, there’s not a whole lot of logical inconsistency, and there’s a nice balance in terms of tone. Perhaps the multiple shows Ryan Murphy has on the air has given him outlets for his various instincts and is keeping AHS from being too cluttered? Whatever the reason, Cult (barring a huge melt-down in the last episode) is probably the most consistent and well-plotted version of American Horror Story since the first.
If this has something to do with the AHS shared universe, then I’m 100% on board with that. Let’s have witches fighting demon babies fighting vampires fighting ghosts. Let’s have alt-right fascist murder clowns fighting space aliens and Rubber Man. Maybe we can even have Bette Davis square off with OJ Simpson or the Versaces versus the Royals? Make it weird, Ryan Murphy and company. Make it weird.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan highly, highly recommends the You Must Remember This podcast season called “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.” It’s sheer brilliance. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.