Four episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
Last season’s American Horror Story: Roanoke gave us one of the most clever and inspired stories in the Ryan Murphy anthology’s up and down history that goes back to its game changing first season in 2011, when it helped kick off the horror television renaissance. The sixth season was a fun ride that first capitalized off the true crime genre boom and then halfway through turned the season on its head with a tongue in cheek send up of reality television. The format was fresh and unpredictable and wholly enjoyable. It’s too bad, then, that the season fell down hard with a deflating and completely unnecessary finale episode.
Unfortunately, American Horror Story: Cult picks up right where they left us, getting off to a slow start of recycled scares and telegraphed story beats, but not without some encouraging bright spots that leads to it eventually finding its footing, giving hope for a strong finish. Cult takes place during the election just last year and as the first episode begins, with a reminder of the disastrous outcome, two questions immediately popped into my mind: Is this too soon, and do I really want to spend my “escape” hours reliving this disgusting and sadly on-going trash fire?
If you’re looking for something that’s going to distract you from the current state of affairs in our country, then this certainly isn’t it. Worse still, the dialogue in the first episode plays like a Facebook message board’s greatest hits, hitting every hot button issue in rapid fire succession as if to check them off a list. This scattershot attempt at social relevance lacks substance behind it and really detracts from what’s set up in the later episodes.
Early on we spend a lot of time with lesbian couple Ally and Ivy (Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill), who are devastated by the Trump victory. The election results serve as a catalyst for Ally’s multiple childhood phobias to reactivate, which in turn leads to hyper paranoia. Ally starts to hallucinate with a mean case of coulrophobia – that is, the fear of clowns. If clowns do in fact creep you out, then prepare to be sufficiently terrified, as the first few episodes are drowning in them (with really cool designs and visuals, to boot). A particular super market scene is especially scary and off the walls crazy.
Ally’s mental breakdown begins to affect her wife and their little son but also sets up a woman on the edge vibe for Sarah Paulson, who unsurprisingly performs valiantly as she has since Murder House. The question of what events are hallucinated and which are real also creates a fun mystery for the audience to sift through. But for the better part of three episodes, the writing suffers from a lack of creativity, where it seems like it’s just scene after scene of Ally’s phobias messing with her head and bringing her to tears. Ally is always crying.
In fact, it’s not until episode four, a boundary pushing flashback chapter focused on the machinations of the young season’s best character so far, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), where Cult really hits its stride and shows flashes of American Horror Story’s greatness. Kai, an internet smart, shaggy blue haired thirty-year-old, is empowered by the election results with a terrifying urge to use the heightened state of fear to wage chaotic war on the world. He represents the scary reality we’re dealing with now in America, the evil that’s seeping out of the cracks in the wood flooring now that Donald Trump’s president.
This is where Cult reveals itself for what it is and lives up to its namesake – an examination of the power of fear and the way it can control your life. Kai Anderson preys on the broken, using his dead cold stare and chilling remorseless words to take hold of their anger and desperation and weaponizing these people for his own agenda. Evan Peters, a series staple who has appeared in more episodes of American Horror Story than any other actor in its ever growing ensemble, is superbly chilling. His Kai Anderson resembling a frightening and poisonous mix between Charles Manson and the Joker.
You’ll have to sit through a few lackluster episodes before American Horror Story: Cult becomes truly enjoyable, but if you’re a fan of the show, it’ll be worth it. Seeming to have found itself with episode four, it’ll certainly be exciting to see if the season can continue its upward trend from here.
American Horror Story: Cult suffers from a slow start but is reinvigorated by a standout fourth episode. Evan Peters is also ridiculously good.