American Horror Story – Cult episode 3 review: Neighbors From Hell

American Horror Story has dialled down the supernatural but stayed as horrifying and unpredictable as ever. Spoilers...

This review contains spoilers.

7.3 Neighbors From Hell

There’s a rope around the neck of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), and it seems that at every turn, rather than try to extract herself from the gallows, she only manages to tighten the noose a little tighter with every episode of struggling. Her business was failing and her marriage was a wreck before she shoots an innocent man in a case of mistaken identity, but after that, things only seem to be getting worse.

Cult is operating in a world not unlike our own, just heightened to a ridiculous degree. After shooting Pedro in a case of mistaken identity, the gun-fearing liberal Ally is saved not by detective work or her alibi, but by the controversial “stand your ground” law, which states that a person in their home or vehicle is under no obligation to flee from a threat, and are allowed instead to face and eliminate said threat to the point of killing the assailant. For most Americans, it’s a law that is not without controversy, as it has been invoked in the killing of several unarmed men by armed assailants. Most famously, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Ally, thanks to the press, is now the lesbian George Zimmerman.

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It’s not exactly the sobriquet a person wants to carry around when they’re trying to save a failing restaurant (where there’s already been one murder in the meat locker). The protesting crowds have gathered at The Butchery, chanting and waving banners, and Ally has nowhere to turn to for help except for one man, Kai Anderson, who parts the crowd like the Red Sea to allow Ally access into her building once more. Somewhere between angel and devil, saviour and tormentor, Kai intercedes on Ally’s behalf with the crowd, and they disperse from around the restaurant. Kai said he’d help, and he did; what exactly will the price of his help be, and when will he come calling for it?

American Horror Story creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk promised something more grounded, more down-to-earth, and the supernatural elements of the story are all but wiped away, but just because there aren’t any supernatural elements, that doesn’t mean that the story is going to be boring or not horrifying. All around Ally, she sees forces out to get her. Her neighbours, Harrison and Meadow, walk right up to her gate and tell her she’s a racist and a murderer, despite Ally’s insistence that the shooting was an accident. Detective Samuels (Colton Haynes) asks her directly if she’s crazy, then asks Ivy for confirmation. Winter has her own set of problems, invited back into the house by Ivy only to allow Craigslist creeps in for “meetings” with the ladies of the house. Her allies, such as they are, are turning against her in record numbers or dropping like flies thanks to the attacks being conducted by killer clowns, and she’s being tormented and tugged at on all sides.

It’s no wonder her grasp on sanity is slipping. We see, throughout the episode, discussions where Kai holds hands with his target and asks them their deepest, most personal secrets. It’s insidious in application, and it gives Kai a great deal of power over his subjects; it’s an eerie parallel of the auditing scenes from The Master, which are inspired by the real-life practices of Scientology. There’s no galvanic skin response mechanism, simply Kai’s pinkie, but he’s a master at reading and manipulating people, and he works his magic on Meadow and Harrison in turn. Kai wants control of Ally, and he’s got Meadow and Harrison to help him in that task (at least for a while). Through Harrison, Kai seems to be able to get his tentacles on Detective Samuels—or he will soon enough—and guide the investigation away from the killer clowns to the mentally ill woman suffering a catastrophic breakdown.

James Wong’s script adds some extra insidiousness to Kai’s plot, thanks mostly to Ally’s perceptions of herself. She’s, as she tells Harrison and Meadow, the least-racist person in the world, and yet she shot a brown-skinned man bringing help to her doorstep. She maintains innocence against charges of malice in the death of Pedro, but later on she threatens to kill Harrison and Meadow loudly and repeatedly in front of several witnesses (not the mark of a peaceful person, that). She thinks that she can communicate to the protestors outside of her restaurant, but she lives in a mansion, drives a fancy car, and owns a successful business; she’s not quite the one percent, but she’s as close as you’re going to get in a small Michigan town that’s still feeling the effects of the downturn in the US automotive industry. Everyone around her thinks Ally is delusional, and maybe she is if the things she says are truly how she perceives herself to be. It’s hard to be a woman of the people when you’re driving around in a $50,000 SUV and put up barricades on all the doors and windows because you’ve got new neighbours. As Billy aptly points out, Allie’s version of diversity is two women hiring a third woman to raise their son, who isn’t even allowed to have a pet guinea pig (and who definitely isn’t allowed to name the pig something “cis-normative” like Mr. Guinea).

Allie is the very definition of a so-called Lexus liberal. Perhaps she is truly into social justice causes and a strong supporter, but her actions (getting a gun, shooting a guy, cheating on her wife with the babysitter, driving a giant car and living in a huge house) are the actions of a hypocrite, and even if Kai is manipulating the proceedings, Ally is doing her level best to make his job easy by alienating the only voices of reason in her life (her therapist, who might be as delusional as she is regarding his place and role in society, and Ivy).

Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton does a very good job with the performances this week, as Sarah Paulson finds yet another way to appear to be emotionally unstable and dangerous without going too far over the top. The little segments with Kai are also handled beautifully. His slap of Meadow is as surprising as it is painful, and to watch Kai disperse the crowd of protesters to Ally’s amazement and uneasy gratitude was very interesting. High praise intended for the cinematographer, particularly in the scenes of Evan Peters standing motionless in a raging mob of people; it looked both beatific and terrifying all at once. The scenes of the mysterious black tanker truck spraying chemical clouds were also amazing to look at. I’m a sucker for ground effects as it is, but to combine ground effect lighting, smoke, and guys in terrifying has-mat suits in the same scene is just making me very happy. If Sarah Paulson is in Gaslight, these guys stepped right off of the set of The Crazies.

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I’m not sure what the purpose and scope of Kai’s mission might be, but I have an idea of his methods. Certainly, he’s running for city council, and fostering an environment of fear and unease via the cult of killer clowns he seems to be directing, but he seems to be putting in a lot of effort to torture one Jill Stein voter. He also seems to be using a whole lot of resources in his crimes, particularly his efforts to destabilize Ally. He must know something the audience doesn’t about her, something that makes her important.

Perhaps her status as a member of several protected classes and her prosperity make her an ideal target, because she’s both a sympathetic and unsympathetic victim. Depending on the viewing audience’s views on same-sex marriage, lesbian adoption, non-traditional families, business success, perpetuating the eating of red meat, and her general lack of true empathy with those of lesser means and station than her, and so on, either Ally is someone who deserves to have bad things brought upon her or an innocent victim to whom bad things happen (“and if they happened to her, it can happen to you!”)

Either way, Allie makes a pretty good goat. Either she’s the Judas goat leading people astray, or the scapegoat people can blame problems on. Maybe she stokes fear and anxiety, maybe she stokes anger and resentment. I guess it can be two things.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan is way too claustrophobic to be okay with ever being put inside a coffin. Even after death! Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.