This story contains spoilers through Episode 1 of American Horror Story: Cult.
Your fears are all founded, horror stories always say. The monster really is under the bed. That closet does contain a killer. The glint in your child’s eye is a demon.
Or, as in the case of American Horror Story: Cult—take whatever nightmares, whatever worst-case scenarios, that the election of Donald Trump planted in your mind. They’re all coming true.
The seventh season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX anthology series may mark the first mass-market filmed fiction to tackle the Trump era head-on. Tuesday night’s premiere episode opened on the evening of November 8, 2016, spiraling into a riff on the way fear, perception, and plain cruelty shape public life in this moment. As is often the case with Horror Story, the show has hit on an intriguing high concept, and its first few episodes are compulsively watchable. As is also often the case, incoherence and overreach threaten to topple a premise already teetering on the edge of exploitation.
Sarah Paulson heartily plays the brittle Ally Mayfair-Richards, a mascot for liberal panic. The first horror scene of the show takes place at the diversely attended election-night viewing party held in her and her wife’s tasteful, Crate and Barrel-ized home. As it dawns on Ally that neither The Huffington Post nor Rachel Maddow nor Nate Silver can reverse what’s happened, the music rumbles ominously and Paulson shrieks as if her fingernails are being removed with pliers. Her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), tries to console her with breathing exercises. Their young son, Oz (Cooper Dodson), clutches his stuffed animal in the other room and listens to her screams. Early on, the show seems to ask, What is the adult world’s present hysteria doing to the kids?
On the other side of the national divide is Kai (Evan Peters), a basement-dwelling, internet-dwelling rageball who humps the screen when Fox News announces Trump’s win. No, these characterizations aren’t subtle, and the show could afford to cut its share of on-the-nose punchlines by half. But this is American Horror Story, and pushing clichés past the breaking point is part of the point. You’d be right to roll your eyes at the sight of this stringy-haired misanthrope munching on cheese puffs. Yet, tired becomes inspired when Kai puts those puffs in a blender and smears the resulting orange slurry on his face so as to mock his liberal sister Winter (Billie Lourd) with hideous Trump drag.
Winter, it turns out, is a Vassar student who took a year off to try and help elect the country’s first woman president. At first it seems like the show is overloading itself with caricatures—like when she asks a friend why CNN didn’t include a trigger warning with its election results. But swiftly it becomes clear that Winter isn’t that into safe spaces: She’s actually conspiring with her ideologically opposed brother. Kai is a self-styled revolutionary with a touch of the Joker, fomenting fear to cause change. Winter’s interest in that plan? Not immediately clear. But when she shows up to babysit Oz, she gets to quick work corrupting the kid by exposing him to the darkest parts of the internet.
Much of the first episode follows Paulson’s Ally in a post-election psychological spiral. Debilitating phobias of clowns, blood, and little clusters of holes have flared back up thanks to Trump, she tells her therapist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson). In one of those supremely questionable creative choices that only Ryan Murphy would make, an early sequence essentially recreates a frightening scene from 2014’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, even going so far as to re-feature John Carroll Lynch’s melty-faced Twisty the Clown. It eventually becomes clear that the sequence is just a visualization of what Oz’s reading in a comic book—but his young imagination makes the horrors leap off the page. So too does Ally’s anxiety. One glimpse at the comic-book cover and she’s in full-blown freakout.
Ally’s sightings of gruesome clowns around town—a reference to the rash of creepy carnivalesque encounters around North America last year—provides one of the big political metaphors of the show. The horror itself isn’t novel: Everyone has squirmed through psychological thrillers in which the main character might be delusional, and few slasher narratives are more familiar than that of a threatened heroine not being taken seriously by those around her. But by the premiere’s end, it seems obvious that at least some of these clowns are real, and that the real intrigue is in the allegory. Is Ally’s tendency toward mistrust protecting her from a greater threat? Or is it just making her a target?
As for one of the greatest liberal fears about Trump’s election, Cult indulges in it fully: Yes, the results of November 8 did empower terrible people to do terrible things, the show says. Kai commits a hate crime against a group of day laborers and then has his subsequent beatdown by the laborers filmed, presumably to gin up anti-immigrant sentiment when the tape is released. He also menaces the town mayor, and glimmers of Peters’s American Horror Story Season 1 character, a disaffected school shooter, shine through as he glowers, “There is nothing more dangerous than a humiliated man.” The horror story here is that Americans really are being gaslit, and that some of the people who cheer Trump are fueled only by resentment and do want to see the world burn.
But there is also, oddly, a comfort to the show as its pulls the viewer into its funhouse version of reality. It’s so outrageous, so parodic, that the nightmare it presents feels just like that, a nightmare—unreal, something from which the viewer will awake. Perhaps it discounts the seriousness of real-world hate crimes to have them rendered cartoonishly here. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the first major pop-culture processing of the political era is entirely rooted in white, liberal anxiety. But perhaps, it’ll turn out, the show’s Cheeto-caked villains will make a useful point of comparison for our world’s recent sources of fear—the bogeymen, as well as the real threats.