This review contains spoilers.
Way back in Murder House, I praised American Horror Story for the show’s penchant to introduce some kind of plot contrivance, then immediately follow up on it. There weren’t a lot of dragged-out elements; something was introduced, then it was followed up on, and that was basically how most of the season went. Pay-offs weren’t delayed, but there was a continual process of setting up dominoes, then toppling them, and setting up more dominoes that drove the first season forward all the way until the ending (which I maintain was satisfying, particularly given how some seasons have sputtered to a halt).
Cult hasn’t been quite as crisp as Murder House was in that regard, but one thing I can’t complain about is the way that Cult brings up, then pays off the idea that Ivy is part of Kai Anderson’s murderous cult. She’s been behaving unsupportively the entire season, but that could have been explained as simply dissatisfaction with married life or just exasperation with dealing with a mentally ill partner. However, last episode featured Ivy and Winter—who apparently knew Ivy well before getting a job as the babysitter—getting involved in some suspicious shenanigans involving imprisoning and beating Gary. As we discover after the opening segment involving Beverly getting dressed down by Bob (Dermot Mulroney), Ivy’s apparently been involved with the cult all along, and she’s been a participant since the very beginning.
That’s one of a couple of good misdirects this episode, courtesy of director Maggie Kiley. They’re usually simple moments: a scene with Ivy riding in her car talking to her son turns out not to be Ivy taking her son back from supervised visitation, but Ivy talking to her son over the phone while riding in the car with Winter on their way to do something that the news media won’t be able to push under the rug like the murder of Serena. Another killer misdirect is when Ally goes across the street to investigate Harrison and his mysterious duffel bag, only to discover that Harrison is with Detective Samuels romantically and that Meadow is still alive, at least until someone drops a bag over her head and drags her off while Ally huddles behind the couch.
Ally isn’t all that much of a protagonist. She’s far too damaged, at least for the moment, to stand up against the cult, despite showing flashes of toughness (she goes over to Harrison’s house with a bat this week, she’s previously sourced a gun to protect herself, and she’s clever enough to use Oz’s telescope to spy on the neighbours). Given that her wife, her neighbours, her nanny/love interest, and her therapist (another great reveal) are all plotting against her, it’s not surprising to see that she’d be vulnerable to the point of abject terror, because Kai’s cult knows her greatest fears and can use those against her. Taking away her son only adds to her torment, and it gives Sarah Paulson an extra bit of emotional turmoil to wring out of her performance.
Certainly she’s lost her family and everyone’s against her, but Ally is a difficult protagonist to root for, simply because she’s by nature a difficult person. After all, as Ivy frequently complains, she lodged a protest vote for Jill Stein, and I’ve no doubt that she’s exasperating to deal with, especially given the trouble their business is in. Her story is certainly much less satisfying than that of Beverly, who shines in this episode. She’s furious and betrayed, and when she gets her revenge by unmasking and revealing her face to Bob before she delivers the coup-de-grace via hatchet to the skull, it’s kind of a celebratory moment. Sure, she’s a murder who let professional problems drive her into the arms of a dangerous cult, but I can’t think of a single person who hasn’t felt the urge to throttle an employer or coworker at some point in their employment history, and it’s definitely more satisfying than the brutal murders of Bob’s gimp and RJ the cameraman later in the episode.
One of the strengths of Cult is also one of its weaknesses. There’s not really a central character as such; we get a couple of different characters to focus on at any one time, and the weak protagonist is balanced by a very strong antagonist in Kai. Evan Peters is doing great work, as usual, but it’s when Kai squares off against his equal number in Beverly that the show becomes most interesting. Kai brought her in not by promising her love or sex or revenge, but equality: Bev is going to get an equal seat at the table with Kai, and she’s making the most of her opportunity.
I can’t help but feel like Kai’s confession session with Bev is another example of the cult leader’s manipulative tendencies. Kai says that his parents are dead, and his brother (the familiar Doctor Rudy) helped deal with their dead bodies by locking them in the upstairs bedroom and soaking the corpses in lye. The tale, Kai’s abusive father and grief-stricken mother dying in a murder-suicide, is a shocking one, and when Kai breaks down it feels very authentic as Evan Peters brings Crystal Liu’s script to life in voice over and flashback. It’s the kind of broken tale that is often told by charismatic killers and cult leaders, which is what makes me doubt the authenticity.
Beverly seems to believe that she’s getting the truth about just what makes Kai tick, but I don’t necessarily trust what’s being seen. Would he let someone in like that? It doesn’t seem like something he’d do, and I have no doubts that Beverly is going to pick holes in his story if there are holes to pick (shout-out to the makeup department for the grotesque wounds and CGI bugs in Ally’s neck). Certainly, he’s going to have to work harder to fool Beverly than he had to trick Meadow or Harrison, but as she points out, Kai’s told everyone a different story about who he is and where he comes from. Just because Kai draws in his brother and sister doesn’t mean that this tale is any more truthful than any of the others. Kai isn’t the type to put up with dissension in the ranks, and I doubt he’s the type to expose himself if it doesn’t benefit him in some way.
Every good leader needs a right-hand to keep the people in line and do the dirty work. Charles Manson had Susan Atkins, and Kai Anderson has Beverly Hope. If Winter serves as the soft power of the organisation, comforting Ivy and the like, then Beverly is the spine keeping all the members of the body functioning in sync with one another.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, 11/9, here.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan would not want to get on Adina Porter’s bad side, because she has a steely glare that could weaken the most formidable of knees.. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.