American Horror Story’s twisted frivolity is the point, at least for many of its fans. Which is fair enough—not every work of entertainment needs to make Big Points about the world today, even if the show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, demonstrated how deftly they could do just that with American Crime Story, and (in Murphy’s case) with Feud. But building an entire series around the biggest, and strangest, story in recent history—the political ascension of Donald Trump—implies that some larger excavation will be going on. In an interview with the FX CEO John Landgraf in August, Murphy explained that the new series would explore the cults of personality that can arise when people feel most afraid. What it ultimately focused on, though, was anger, and what it exposed was its own limitations.
The issue seems to have been in the conception—Murphy and Falchuk have long wanted to structure a season around the subject of cults, and the populist movement that built around Trump seemed like a dynamite opportunity. The first episode presented the two polarized faces of America via a brother-sister pairing: Peters’s Kai, a stringy-haired alt-righter, and Winter (Billie Lourd), a Vassar student and Hillary Clinton volunteer. Adding to the stereotypes were Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill), a married couple who run a farm-to-table restaurant in their (fictional) town of Brookfield Heights, Michigan. On Election Night, Ally and Ivy were horrorstruck by the incoming results. “Oh my god, Ivy,” Ally said, aghast, at yet another realization of what it all meant. “Merrick Garland. What’s going to happen to Merrick Garland?” Kai, though, was victorious, personifying liberal fear in a handful of Cheeto dust, which he rubbed all over his face in a gruesome homage to his new champion.
The first few episodes showed potential, and they were also funny—much more explicitly satirical than previous seasons. But all too soon, AHS: Cult returned to its favorite tricks, eschewing socio-cultural analysis for shock and gore. Ally’s increasingly fragile mental state, representative of so many frayed nerves after November 8, became a target of gaslighting (she was literally being stalked and terrorized in the grocery store and at home by terrifying murderous clowns, but no one believed her). Ivy’s resentment at her wife for secretly voting for Jill Stein supposedly motivated her to join the cult that was preying on Ally. And Kai, the leader of the cult, incited his crew to commit brutal murders all over town in the hope that manipulating public fear would get him elected to ... city council. (Start small, they say, but still.)
What was even more maddening than the graphic violence, and the swift diversion into the absurd, was how smart the show proved it could be in fleeting moments. When Ivy was grabbed by her genitals at a protest by one of Kai’s goons (Chaz Bono), she froze, and later reproached herself for doing so. It was the most thoughtful and realistic portrayal of assault the show has ever offered, and there have been many. Kai’s manipulation of disaffected young men, whom he love-bombed, dominated, and imbued with a sense of purpose, played sharply on the success of all kinds of modern cults, from 4chan to ISIS, bolstered by a spectacular performance by Peters.