This review contains spoilers.
7.7 Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag
Going by the reaction of the Internet, hundreds of people were injured when Lena Dunham was announced as joining the cast of American Horror Story: Cult. Most of these injuries were caused by violent, forceful rolling of the eyes. I was one of the eye-rollers. I watched Dunham’s show Girls for several seasons, only to fall away from it when the self-indulgence got to be a bit too much for me. Dunham, never afraid of being controversial, has brought a lot of backlash onto herself. She makes deliberately provocative statements and shocking admissions in public, tends to blow up misunderstandings using her very public platform, and generally gets as much attention for her personality as she does for her writing, directing, and acting talents.
In many ways, Lena Dunham is the perfect fit for Valerie Solanas, a controversial figure who is best known for shooting and nearly killing artist Andy Warhol while espousing a radical form of political philosophy summed up in the man-hating SCUM manifesto. While SCUM might or might not have stood for “Society for Cutting Up Men” in real life, the American Horror Story take on the mentally unstable Solanas is definitely going to take that route, transforming Solanas from a fringe figure in The Factory to a cult-leader and the mind behind the Zodiac Killer’s violent reign of terror in San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Scumbag is one of the more interesting episodes of what is shaping up to be the best season of American Horror Story since the first, and the weight is carried by three actors in particular. Dunham, as Solanas, gets to be the force around which the SCUM forms and the inspiration for Beverly and her offshoot group of female cultists. Frances Conroy is the catalyst as Bebe Babbot, who spreads the SCUM Manifesto to Beverly and nudges the women of Kai’s cult into taking independent action (that might not be so independent). And, of course, Evan Peters is his usual enjoyable self, both as Kai and as a brilliantly fun take on Andy Warhol in the Valerie Solanas flashback scenes.
It’s a true credit to Lena Dunham’s skill as an actress that her scenes as Solanas work so well, as she’s reading a lot of the original text of the SCUM Manifesto, and it’s up to her to turn the writing of a disturbed person into the kind of ranting that attracts members to a cult, at least for a little while. Dunham is really good in the role, thickening her New York accent to fit the Jersey-born Solanas and channelling a sort of righteous fury in her performance, which is good enough that she will be in contention for an Emmy for her guest appearance. Dunham is great here, and she plays Solanas’s descent into schizophrenia without it becoming too broad, even when she’s eating pieces of paper to a decreasing number of true believers.
It’s a nice counterpoint to Bebe, particularly the confidently cool Frances Conroy version, who takes Solanas’s philosophy and runs with it even after her mentor/girlfriend succumbs to a lonely death in a cheap motel room. When Bebe shows up, she’s instantly cool and eye-catching, as she has absolutely no problem telling Beverly just how badly she’s being taken advantage of by Kai. That she’s some sort of plant by Kai isn’t really all that surprising, as we’ve already seen him manipulate Ally by using Meadow as a plant, and we’ve seen him use Winter and Ivy to bring Gary over to the cult in similar fashion. Bebe has a great story, and a feminist bent that would appeal to the women of his cult. She gives them just enough of the back story to get them to pay attention to her, and to make her a sympathetic figure, while adding in little details about her involvement in the Zodiac killing so they won’t feel quite so bad about joining her in her revolutionary crusade against men like Kai and his blueshirts.
Writer Crystal Liu is able to weave in reality and fiction quite well. The furious exchanges between Valerie and Andy Warhol are amusing in a bitter sort of way, and the liberal use of Solanas’s manifesto gives the script for “Scumbag” a resonance. It’s anger coming out of the mouth of an angry woman, and it’s that anger that would speak to Beverly, Winter, and Ivy in particular. Beverly was given a promise that was backed out on. Winter’s never been particularly drawn to her brother’s embrace of nihilism. Ivy is just looking to lash out at the world. None of them want to be used up and spit out like Meadow was, in Bebe’s view of the situation.
The episode, which hops around between the present and several periods of the past, is kept organised by Bebe’s reflection and Solanas herself, and Rachel Goldberg’s direction is deft and skilful. The flashbacks and flash-forwards never get confusing, and the shooting of Andy Warhol looks great, with Warhol dismissive and disrespectful of Solanas, and Lena Dunham’s Solanas a bubbling cauldron of fury and anger frothing up from within her. It really is a great performance, and the scene in which Solanas and Warhol take a final elevator ride looks terrific, particularly the way the ride is shot from above and we watch Solanas and Warhol slowly rise up to The Factory’s floor.
After last week’s editing, the graphic content in this week’s episode is pretty surprising, but very effective. There’s a brutality to every kill that makes the stabbings more horrifying, as if this group of women (including a returning Jamie Brewer) is trying to stab out their frustrations with the patriarchy with every kill only to find that a man takes credit for the Zodiac murders; possibly, it’s the same man who checked in for a stay at the hotel on Halloween night, further deepening the connections between various AHS seasons. It’s effective and horrifying all at once, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous, even when the dismembered, scum-soaked parts of Harrison keep getting pulled out of the lake.
From the final shot of the episode, it’s clear that Bebe’s presence is just another test of the loyalty of the cult members, but to what end? Kai, from the expression on his face, knows that Beverly is sending him a message by orchestrating the killing and undermining Kai Anderson’s law-and-order credentials. He also hints to Winter that he knows she’s secretly meeting with the girls. Maybe he’s looking to thresh out all the weak links in his group? Or perhaps, now that he’s got his personal Project Mayhem, he no longer needs the rag-tag group of followers who got him into his current position and he’s just looking for excuses to take care of them all.
Either way, the thought of Evan Peters playing Jim Jones or Charles Manson later in the season is a thrilling one. Cult, as it turns out, is one of the better seasons of American Horror Story dreamed up by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. I can’t wait to see how it ends in a few short weeks.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan was really impressed with Evan Peters in Andy Warhol makeup. He’d make a good Warhol if there ever needed to be another Warhol movie. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.