This review contains spoilers.
Kai Anderson is a master manipulator. Since well before the Presidential election that kicked off the drama of Cult, he’s been collecting followers a person, a piece at a time. Every person Kai has collected within his little group of followers has come via a different method. For each one, he’s managed to figure out just how to reach out to them by painstakingly researching them, both online and face to face, and tailoring his argument to that individual.
Granted, Kai’s general patter is roughly the same. He’s all about turning fear and anger into power. He makes himself into whatever the person he’s speaking to needs when they need him. Generally, that takes the form of validation. He recruits angry, powerless individuals and offers them the opportunity to be something greater, to join in with something bigger than themselves, and crucially, to tap into the reserves of hate, anger, and frustration that have kept them chained and turn those wells of feelings into, well, whatever Kai needs in that particular moment.
One of the universal truths about the people Kai is recruiting to his cause is that they all feel otherwise overlooked. The election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was, essentially, an election between small groups of people who felt maligned by forces beyond their control. Some were oppressed minorities. Others were traditionally powerful groups feeling their power eaten away by forces beyond their control. Men, women, heterosexual, homosexual… Kai Anderson has an argument for every group that allows him to bridge the gap between whatever they believe and whatever he wants them to believe.
One of the aspects of John J. Gray’s script that works the best is that universality between all of Kai’s cult members. They all share one signature trait that makes them easy pickings for the cult leader in the making. They all feel like they’ve been passed over or forgotten in a world that has little need for them. Harrison is disrespected at work and demeaned for being gay by the thuggish gym owner. Meadow is both unemployed and unloved at home. The one who seems to have things most in hand, Beverly Hope, is recruited by Kai because he offers her the one thing she will never have: equal power in his new world order.
That’s the crux of what Kai offers all of his people, a chance to regain some real or imagined lost agency. He’s willing to do things for others, even when it’s not something he’s particularly into, and when he does finally convince his charges to act, he’s willing to go to any extent to help them get away with whatever they need to do to feel power again. He helps Harrison to kill his abusive boss. He takes care of Beverly’s biggest rival at the TV station, Serena Belinda (a wonderfully acidic Emma Roberts), and no doubt he has plans for the man keeping Beverly (Adina Porter) down, anchor Bob Anderson (Dermot Mulroney, also delightfully cruel).
In a way, that’s the whole argument people made for the election of Donald Trump, and Kai’s willingness to turn people’s fear into his own power—explained fairly beautifully during Kai’s coffee date with Beverly—is what is going to help him build that power base. Hence, killer clowns, killing a reporter and a cameraman during a remote shoot, and generally terrorising Ally and Oz. How Ally fits into his plans remains to be seen, but having Harrison as muscle, Winter and Meadow as assistants and infiltrators, and Beverly as a mouthpiece makes complete sense. Kai’s building an Ocean’s 11 of evil, and each member of the group has a different purpose.
Kai is used as something of a central point for the episode, which focuses mostly on how he uses himself and other people to gain his followers. Even Ivy finds herself the unwitting subject of Kai’s manipulation via Winter and Gary (thought it appears that Gary isn’t acting on Kai’s behalf when he assaults Ivy to set off his own mutilation). Evan Peters is doing some really good work this season, and while he usually is solid on the show, he’s especially magnetic as this cult leader. His scenes, particularly when playing off of either Adina Porter or Billy Eichner, are all really satisfying to watch. I continue to be really impressed with how solid an actor Billy Eichner is, and how well he underplays the character of Harrison.
Gwyneth Horder-Payton exercises similar restraint when handling this episode’s violence, which is significant. The murder of Serena and the cameraman is a graphic reminder of a real-life murder of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, who were killed on live television by a disgruntled coworker. In this case, the murderer isn’t a co-worker, but they are murdered on behalf of a co-worker by a crazed cult leader. It’s interesting to watch the initial clown approach from well out of frame as Serena records, only to have two other clowns step into frame right about the time the murder begins. The camera provides an interesting limiting perspective in this case, allowing us to see only what the cameraman is focused on and not, say, the broader scene.
It’s a good contrast for the immediate aftermath of the clown attack, which features the three knife-toting creeps butchering Serena and her cameraman with repeated, loud stabs. The initial action—the killing—is handled fairly quietly, and it’s only a few smaller shots afterward—showing the desecration of the corpses—that leans graphic. It’s an effective scare, followed by some nice icky gore (which is repeated later when Gary saws off his own arm, which contrasts with the effectiveness of his surprise stump arm unveiling in the cold opening of the episode). There’s brutality, but there’s also some restraint.
American Horror Story is a show that could easily lean into all its excesses, and yet it still doesn’t, for the most part. It is heightened to the point of camp, but walks back a few steps before giving over completely to hysteria. Picture a good episode as Mommie Dearest as directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. For Cult, it appears that Ryan Murphy and company have found the right tone to make this kind of dark comedy work without taking too much away from the serious or potentially serious real-world results of the Trump Presidency.
There’s focus, and direction, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of unnecessary side plots (yet). Murphy and Falchuk have a target, and they’re taking square aim at it, which means the barbs and darts are landing more efficiently than usual. It can go off the rails at any moment, but for now, Cult seems to have a direction in mind and is sticking to it.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan has a fairly good record of showing up to vote in elections, both national and local. However, he’s not going to saw an arm off to vote for anyone. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.