American Horror Story, for me, is a show that always works better in theory than in reality. It has amazing concepts and an all star cast, and yet it usually disappoints more often than not. ‘Murder House’ was promising, ‘Coven’ ran out of steam, ‘Roanoke’ was fun until the finale, and ‘Hotel’ was essentially a disaster. But the beauty of an anthology show is that every year, we all start fresh. American Horror Story: Cult will stand on its own, for better or for worse.
Cult starts with a real life horror story: the night of the most recent U.S. presidential election, where Donald Trump takes a surprising victory. Kai (Evan Peters) is a Trump supporter watching alone in his basement, humping the TV in excitement, while Ally (Sarah Paulson) is in tears across town, name dropping Rachel Maddow and Nate Silver as proof this can’t be happening. They’re both caricatures of their respective ends of the U.S. political spectrum, and they only get more ridiculous from here.
Weeks after the election, Ally is having a breakdown. She’s having panic attacks, seeing visions of clowns (including ‘Freakshow’’s Twisty, via a comic book her son was reading) and tiny holes. A very specific phobia indeed. She sees her therapist and manages to make the election results about herself, and apparently did the same thing after 9/11.
Things go from bad to worse for Ally — a simple trip to the grocery store ends with clowns having sex in the produce aisle, more clowns chasing her throughout the store, and yet another clown hiding in the backseat of her car, causing her to crash into a pole. When her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) comes to the rescue, there are no signs of clowns anywhere and the MAGA-hat wearing cashier saw nothing. Either Ally is crazy or clowns are really out to get her. Since this is American Horror Story, we already know the answer.
Meanwhile, Kai’s been keeping busy by showing up at city council meetings to argue against protection for Jewish Community Centres, saying instead that the city should use fear to control people. When that gets him politely sent away, he says “there’s nothing more dangerous than a humiliated man.” This kind of vengeful, chip on your shoulder attitude is eerily reminiscent of what we’ve seen from Trump supporters of Kai’s demographic — he’d fit right in at the tiki torch rally, let’s just say that. To further prove my point, his next move is to throw a bottle of urine and shout racial slurs at a group of Mexican men, a camera filming from a distance as they rightfully beat the shit of him.
Ally and Ivy try to have an evening out at their restaurant, but Ally breaks down again. She sees her meal as a soufflé filled with tiny, bleeding holes, and a clown creeping around the corner. Ivy doesn’t see anything and is frustrated Ally doesn’t seem to be taking her medication or trying to get over her phobias. She’s not the only one seeing clowns, though: back at home, Winter is showing Oz murder videos on the ‘dark web’ (babysitter of the year) when he hears a disturbance outside.
The gang of clowns have rolled up next door and are brutally murdering the neighbours, while Winter and Oz sneak outside to watch from the window. Winter tells Ally and Ivy that they saw nothing, and Oz made up the clown story after reading his Twisty comic. The police tell them the neighbours died in a murder suicide. Winter is the hardest character to get a read on so far. She worked for Clinton but is ready and willing to help her brother sow chaos anyway, and they seem to be targeting Ally specifically: the episode ends with a jump scare as Ally wakes up to a clown in her bed.
But what’s with the clowns? It’s American Horror Story: Cult, not AHS: Clowns. Since the story is set last November, it seems the clowns are inspired by 2016’s rash of unexplained clown sightings. It feels random, which they were, but also a little dated. That’s the problem with setting this season so close to the election: so much has happened in such a short period of time that news from a few months ago feels ancient already. Those random clown sightings were only last summer, but it feels like a lifetime ago. And can Kai and a team of clowns really be worse than real life Trump supporters, marching the streets with Nazi armbands?
As an opener, it’s one of the series’ weakest. An hour of over the top political satire (Winter says CNN needs a trigger warning, Ally dramatically reveals she voted for Jill Stein) that doesn’t seem to say anything new or biting, with clowns. It’s disappointing, especially since this season seemed to be setting itself up for something bigger: series heavy hitters Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters are finally the leads, and the best thing about Scream Queens, Billie Lourd, got brought over to the main show.
Once again, all the pieces are here for a good season of creepy and messed up American Horror Story entertainment. This could be another case of the show looking better on paper than it does in reality, but it’s way too soon to tell. Hopefully, as the series progresses there’ll be more to the story, and perhaps even the cult we were promised.
American Horror Story: Cult airs every Thursday in the UK on FOX (UK).