This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 7 Episode 1
What could be more American Horror than American politics? Over the past six seasons, American Horror Story found frights in all the usual scary places. They lived in haunted houses, vacationed in haunted hotels, found healing in haunted asylums and whiled away the hours at haunted sideshows. The often-returning troupe of players moved in to the mundane terrain of reality TV, frightening enough by itself, and got caught up in a witch war. American Horror Story: Cult, season 7, finds itself on another horrific battlefield, the political arena, where the scariest night is “Election Night,” the title of the premiere episode. All tricks and no treats, it makes Halloween look candy-ass.
Most of the things that scare people today start in Washington, regardless of political affiliations. You don’t have to be scared of the opposition to find something disconcerting coming off the Beltway. It might be taxes, it might be a law that makes something you like illegal, or a war in a foreign land you wouldn’t be caught dead in, much less die. The pens that sign the bills are swords with the might to smite multitudes. People who find an affiliation aren’t in mere competition with the other side, they believe, in their hearts, that the decisions made by them have serious consequences which could affect their lives and deaths. They get scared. They look for protection, leaders, great gurus who can take their minds not just off things, but away, far, far way. Left and Right, it’s all a brainwashing cult to team AHS.
The episode opens with a brief montage lead-in to 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump promises veiled threats. Senator Hilary Clinton is so untrustworthy and entire town’s worth of voters chose a third party also-ran, throwing away their vote as Kodos might say on The Simpsons. The vile bile grows as aggressive hatred appears to take over the country until people wake up in a broken dream that is half the country’s worst nightmare. To others, the revolution has begun, although we can’t trust that until Rachel Maddow tells us. The fears come in dashed hopes. The Cheato is in charge, and the clowns who put him there are empowered. The theme music is a patriotic death march.
The election has personal consequences for Ivy (Alison Pill) and Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) who aren’t sure whether their marriage will still be recognized under the nation’s swing to the right. This is a very real fear for them, one that Ally internalizes until hidden traumas come to the surface. Paulson keeps her restraint on a very long leash. Her eyes ooze as much invisible terror as Ivy’s spinach soufflé oozes blood.
Trigger Warning: We get the return of the grinning Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) from American Horror Story: Freak Show. His antics are now legendary enough to warrant his own comic book series. It’s nice to see clowns make good. He certainly makes an impression on Oz (Cooper Dodson), Ally and Ivy’s extremely impressionable son.
Get off social media and tune into the world, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) prescribes to Ally. He’s not dealing with the problems of the world. He’s going to the gym. This is the same attitude that put Jill Stein ahead in the local elections. When everything looks bleak, everything is an anti-psychotic placebo. It is fascinating to watch the doomed political fantasia play out on the faces of everyday people in brightly lit supermarkets. Ally’s breakdown is beautiful surreal ugliness in the wine aisle. Those masks are wonderful, and absolutely apolitical.
Humans love fear, proclaims Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), who wasn’t afraid to dry hump Trump on a big screen TV. The town council is voting on hiring more cops to protect the Jewish center, but Kai says they are making a mistake. The people want safety and it doesn’t have to come cheap. Fear is the political currency that buys electoral security like the Patriot Act. Let the people be scared so they’ll let the ones who aren’t scared make all the decisions. That’s real power. He makes sense. Fear drives the country, on the news, whatever bleeds leads. Ultimate fear is total control. Kai has the makings of a good cult leader. All he needs are some clowns to take down the status quo. Kai baits Mexican day workers with an off-key rendition of “La Cucaracha,” complete with personal water balloons. Someone gets his subsequent beating on film, which he will probably use to vault himself into office on a platform of fear.
Billie Lourd, who played Chanel #3 on Scream Queens plays Kai’s sister Winter. She is not happy about how the election is going to affect her choices, and less happy about cleaning the Cheeto filled blender. She makes a pinky swear with her brother to suck it all up and be a nanny for the local liberal lesbians, who happen to live around the corner from the leader of the town hall opposition. They are very close siblings who can share anything, regardless of where they sit on the political fence, or wall. In a twisted bonding version of the truth or dare game, Winter admits the most pleasure she ever got in life was when she agreed to anal with her boyfriend. There was blood involved.
“Have you ever seen a real dead body,” Winter asks Oz, who she’s noticed can be a little clownish. Here we see Indoctrination as vaccination. She serves killings with cookies in an effort to strengthen the kid up. She gets into his head to the point where she either suggests seeing an ice cream truck full of clowns kill his neighbors to undermine his believability, or she actually primes him to catch the incident live. Either way, she is a great recruiter with spooky eyes. She knows what she’s doing, she went to Vassar. And while her blog might not have been enough to put the first woman president into the White House, her harsh love bombs are enough to blow the kid’s mind.
The big picture triggers irrational fears that make sense. The episode included the word fuck on basic cable, which denotes a loosening of standards some people might find uncomfortable. But not as uncomfortable as the cult at the center of the show make us. The clowns really do rule the night. They are an untapped source of power for those who might wield them. Hidden like Ku Klux Klansmen, their dirty masks, cloaks and sexy maid Halloween costumes bring them into a dark focus as a unified force. The very cops who declared the couple’s death on the block as a murder-suicide could have been wearing those masks. Conspiracy theories abound in small towns.
American Horror Story thrives because of its atmosphere, and it is thick even when the air is thin. The supermarket freakout evokes the subway chase thriller The Warriors above ground and in full fluorescent light. Spike TV’s The Mist tried to mine goosebumps in a mall, which has dark cavernous corners. But a psychotic break in such a recognizable set evokes both empathy and distance. The audience knows it can’t happen. The lady is crazy, otherwise she’d be home watching the president make America great again. The cameras are focused, nothing is hidden.
Shot through a blind in a kid’s bedroom, an ice cream truck in the middle of the night holds an ambiguous allure. Who doesn’t like ice cream and clowns? It’s a perfect midnight snack that is oddly disturbing. This is where the fractures start to make sense. Oz is an imaginative kid, and nothing spurs the fantasy images than partially drawn blinds and subversive desires in ghastly masks. Reminiscent of Rear Window, we intuitively trust the kid, which means his mother Ally might not be too far off her meds. The clowns are real. The clowns have always been real. Maybe Ivy went to Clown College.
“Election Night” captures the paranoia of its title with a promise of fear as a campaign pledge.
“Election Night” was written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, and directed by Bradley Buecker.