The concept for Tuesday night’s premiere of American Horror Story: Cult is so on-the-nose it can only be called brilliant.
Depending on which social media and political echo chamber you call your own—and it’s not too hard to surmise which one series creator Ryan Murphy resides in—it’s been the inescapable refrain of liberal Americans in the months since Donald Trump was elected president: “It’s like a horror story!”
Well, Murphy thought, why not literally make it one?
A Ryan Murphy allegory about our divisive political state is the kind of tagline that could send some people screaming for the hills. But Cult is a great reminder of how Murphy, who co-wrote the premiere with frequent collaborator Brad Falchuck, is a master of using genre to make a point. “Election Night,” as the episode was called, makes that point with a sense of humor that you have to believe reflects a self-awareness on Murphy’s part.
But whatever you thought of the idea of an American Horror Story that doubled as a meditation on a Trump’s America—and we still groan while just typing that—if you saw Tuesday’s premiere of the seventh American Horror Story installment, you know that its opening scene was kind of fantastic.
(Plus, as we all have lived and learned by this point, when it comes to American Horror Story, it’s best to relish the triumphs of the beginning then put stock in a logical end.)
In the last year, you couldn’t change a channel without stumbling on a TV show that had a point to make about American culture in the wake of the election. Certainly the comedy world has risen to the occasion to both use humor to educate viewers on issues and, as always, take the piss out of politicians. But seeing the idea of Cult in practice after Tuesday’s premiere actually proves it as inspired and refreshing: using satire and terror to comment on politics.
The opening minutes of the episode uses news footage from the most unbelievable moments of the campaign—“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters—and scores it with the classic eerie horror music that we all know to the point of parody, building it to a deafening screech before cutting to series villain Evan Peters (an alt-right-adjacent zealot named Kai) watching Trump being named the winner: “The revolution has begun.”
While Kai celebrates, we meet our liberal protagonists, Ally and Ivy, a lesbian couple with a young son played by Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill, respectively. Cheesy thriller music builds while Ally spirals into a breakdown as it becomes clear that Clinton mathematically is out. “I won’t believe it until Rachel Maddow says it!” she yells. “She’s the only one I trust!”
Ivy moans, “How is this happening?” A neighbor at their results-watching party deadpans, “The politics of fear. It always works.” When the race is officially called for Trump, Ally lets out a banshee wail of pain and starts screaming like a lunatic: “Oh go to hell, Huffington Post! Fuck you, Nate Silver! What’s wrong with CNN for not giving us a trigger warning before giving us the results?”
It’s hilarious. It turns out that there’s a genius that hadn’t yet been tapped in turning election night and our conversations after it into a C-level pulp horror film. The results-watching party builds with the suspense of a slasher film: Whose insufferable political discourse will be what makes them the first person killed? More, it’s smart to open with the cheeky tone of the genre homage to introduce the more intense and headier conversations the show will have.
At first blush, it might have seemed that the series was just going to full-throttle go after Trump and his supporters, but these opening moments are a more damning indictment of obtuse liberals—I believe “snowflakes” is one word to describe them—who wallowed in self-pity and indignation after the election.
“This is just like what happened to me in college after 9/11,” Ally whines, explaining to her therapist, played by Cheyenne Jackson, that her post-election ennui is rekindling her phobias, causing her to hallucinate murderous clowns, and making her too depressed, anxious, and afraid to leave the house. His advice: Get off social media! Sweat your anxiety out at the gym!
It’s a brutal and actually rather eye-opening satire of liberal white privilege (standout detail: we learn that Ally, who lives in the swing state of Michigan, actually cast a protest vote for Jill Stein) instead of the incessant Trump-bashing most people anticipated—though there’s certainly a lot of that, too.
At a press event ahead of the Cult premiere, Murphy told reporters that he’s certainly heard the assumptions of what the show’s politics would be, and that they were wrong.
“People have the wrong idea already about what it's going to be,” he said. “People in the Rust Belt who have loved the show [are tweeting], ‘I’m out. I can’t believe that you’re tackling this.’ They don’t understand that every side on our show gets it just as much. The white privilege that Sarah and Alison [’s characters] deal with is satirical as well.
“I think a lot of [the assumption] is because of people knowing my politics,” he continued. “I’m an out, gay man. I’ve had the president of the United States at my house twice. I’ve always campaigned on the Democratic side and that has gotten some degree of publicity. So, I think that when people see that this is what it’s going to be about, presume something.”
What the show explores is the question of how Trump got elected, and how the country became so divisive.
While other seasons of Horror Story set out to make you squirm with grotesque imagery about things that go bump in the night, Cult is more concerned with the horror that lives in plain sight: our hatred for those who think differently from us and inability to get out of our own heads.
In turn, the show invites us into Ally’s head as she spirals, in one pivotal scene even hallucinating that she’s being attacked by clowns at the grocery store—clowns that began chasing her after they finished having sex in the produce aisle. (This is still American Horror Story, and thus still suitably deranged.)
Ally’s resolve is weakened as these visions terrorize her, which, combined with her horror over watching things that are happening in the country—support to build walls, deport immigrants, roll black civil rights—force the most horrifying question of all: Am I the one who’s going crazy?
Meanwhile, through the character of Peters’ Kai, we meet a previously anonymous man be emboldened by the election of Trump, passionately cheering “fear is currency!” as he gains fortitude from the polarized, splintered community in which he lives.
Kai is xenophobic, racist, violent, and a fear monger capitalizing on the cult of personality that we’ve seen rise as idealists on both sides bicker about their differences. Throughout the season, Peters will play six different cult leaders, including Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Andy Warhol, exploring why, at different times in the country, the disenfranchised rallied around these kinds of figures.
Of course, attempting to comment on a politically splintered society while drumming up scares with creepy, copulating clowns is as ambitious as any season of American Horror Story thus far.
Future episodes introduce Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman as a hilarious married couple with their own secrets, a murder investigation (led by Colton Haynes), and also a dizzying array of new plot points that distract from what works the best about this standout first episode: the crippling battle between politics and paranoia.
There’s a grotesque righteousness to the things that Ally and Ivy say. It’s ostensibly meant to send a chill up the spines of liberals, if that happens to be you: Is that how I sound? And if you’re not of that political leaning and still hoping to be scared? Well, send in the clowns.