American Horror Story – Cult episode 6 review: Mid-Western Assassin

Quite understandably, American Horror Story censored itself this week in respect for real-life tragedy. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

7.6: Mid-Western Assassin

American Horror Story is a show that has never shied away from anything controversial. This is a programme where the romantic, Tumblr-approved heart-throb in the first season was a school shooter, gunned down by a SWAT team in his very own home. The second season featured a woman bearing the child of rape, then shooting said child after he storms a television taping in an attempt to gun down his mother. In every season, there’s something controversial or offensive, but at the same time, American Horror Story has never quite faced down current events so boldly, or made current events such a crucial component of the season.

Cult is taking place in the present day and it centres on the election of Donald Trump, so it’s going to touch on raw nerves anyway, even before the latest in a long series of terrible, tragic mass shootings took place. Ten days ago in Las Vegas, Nevada, a man opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 people at an outdoor concert, killing 58 and causing injury to 498 more. Bowing to pressure, or perhaps simply displaying some uncharacteristic good taste, American Horror Story made the decision to edit tonight’s episode out of sensitivity to the victims of the shooting and their family members and friends. Kudos to Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, FX, and all others involved in the decision, because I have no doubt it was the proper choice, and it will give the show positive publicity.

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Given the cut version’s emotional impact, I can’t imagine just how impactful those 2.5 minutes of excised footage were (it will be available online on the FX website). Even edited for good taste, Mid-Western Assassin was an incredible tense hour of television, and it all begins with screaming, chaos, and gunshots. Among the wounded and dead is Kai Anderson, slumped behind a podium. Holding a handgun is Ally Mayfair-Richards.

It’s an evocative image, even without the weight of current events on it. We’ve already seen Ally act irrationally. We’ve seen Ally kill an innocent person due to her panic and fear. And, like Ally after this episode, we know just what kind of conspiracy she’s struggling to fight against. Everyone in her life seems to be against her, and the fact that Meadow reveals this to her in depth this week doesn’t make that any easier for her to digest. She takes action, but it’s the wrong action, because she ends up playing right into Kai’s hands.

It’s a stellar cold opening, and watching the episode track backwards from Meadow showing up on Ally’s doorstep to the shooting is very entertaining, as we get to watch Kai’s plot slowly click into place, a segment at a time. As usual, Evan Peters is brilliant, and Sarah Paulson is good, but the episode is carried mostly by Leslie Grossman’s unusual Meadow and guest-star Mare Winningham as Sally Keffler, who steps from obscurity during a city council meeting to challenge Kai on his rhetoric of fear and declares herself a challenger. It’s interesting to see someone smart enough to realise what Kai is doing, and bold enough to speak up to him, and it creates a pleasant amount of friction within the group of followers, and it seems to plant a bit of the seed of dissent in Meadow (though Kai is really quick to snuff that out).

Todd Kubrak’s script leans heavily on Mare Winningham, and she’s a great counterpoint to Kai; she’s the intelligent, thoughtful person who seeks to govern with facts and knowledge, and Kai is an admitted callow youth who thrives on self-interest, self-promotion, and narcissism, and he’s counting on a group of beautiful idiots who only want to feel to drive him to prominence. Kai, at least as far as we can see, isn’t afraid of leaning into the truth, and he’s able to twist the things his followers tell him into ways to gain power. Meadow hears Kai repeating the same patter he gave her to Ivy, and he’s able to still somehow turn that around into Meadow going along with a whole escape/attempted murder plot. As we see with Ivy, Kai is able to dig into the truth and pull it out of others without losing his ability to use that truth to his own purposes. Even when he’s confronted in public, he’s unflinching, and he’s willing to suffer to spread his message far and wide.

Being shot during a campaign rally is great for business. Even with the edits, the campaign shooting (which opens and closes the episode) still hits like a hammer blow. The cuts, from what I’ve read, seem to be cut to eliminate some of the direct violence, and in some ways, that makes it more horrifying, because all we see is gunfire, screaming, and fleeing. It’s disorienting; only Meadow is the calm in the middle of the storm, taking measured aim and landing all the shots she takes exactly where she wants them to land. The cuts only seem to make the scene that much more chaotic, by trimming little bits off of scenes to further lend to a choppy feel.

She’s the calm in the centre of a storm, and director Bradley Buecker emphasises that in the way in which she seems to show more confidence in this one moment than she does the rest of the episode. Meadow is otherwise goofy and panicking, but here, she’s found her centre. It’s almost zen-like, controlled, and, as she puts it, the face of true love. Meadow has played her part to perfection, just like Kai wanted.

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Kai, as he’s wheeled away in an ambulance, smiles. Beverly was there to capture it all on film and ensure that the shooting goes viral. Meadow was there to make sure that Ally takes the fall. Ivy is there, sitting on a gurney and giving her story to the police. The tumblers click into place, one after the other. Kai becomes a martyr for his cause without suffering any serious damage, and Ally takes the fall in a very public fashion, thereby giving Ivy all the reason in the world to keep Oz away from her in the eyes of the law.

She doesn’t want Ally dead, but destroyed? That’s a bit of a different story, apparently. Ivy does seem to have some restraint when it comes to her unhappily married wife, but it remains to be seen if she’s going to crack when push comes to shove, or if she’ll fall in line like Meadow does.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Holes, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan will be watching the unedited version of the episode later on this week, if only to satisfy morbid curiosity. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.