Major spoilers for the titular season below!
American Horror Story: Cult (recently available on Netflix) doesn’t open with the edgy supernatural murders that usually accompany the anthology series’ prologues. The whole season is wholly bereft of magical elements. Rather, Cult starts with a familiar and emotional moment: Election Night 2016, when Trump’s victory sent millions reeling. Liberal characters grieve while a mysterious basement-dweller cheers on the president-elect. AHS has briefly touched on politics before, but this intro tells us that Cult is an explicitly political season. Despite good points here and there, however, executive producer Ryan Murphy and his crew deliver a largely cliché, half-baked take on the Trump era.
Cult’s premise bears some similarity to that of the first season (retroactively titled Murder House), in which a family living a comfortable suburban existence is assailed by vicious forces. But Cult lacks the haunted-house mysticism of Murder House. It instead focuses on a lesbian couple, the anxious Ally (Sarah Paulson) and the businesslike Ivy (Allison Pill), whose marriage is strained by the election and by Ally’s crippling phobias. Also, there’s a sinister cult of clown-mask murderers who keep offing the denizens of their small Michigan town. The cult is led by the aforementioned basement-dwelling mastermind Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). Kai spends most of the season secretly killing people and using the ensuing panic to fuel his political rise. He frequently ruminates on the nature of fear-driven politics, pretty clearly serving as a Trump stand-in.
The first few episodes set up some political stereotypes: Ally voted for Jill Stein, is concerned about trucks releasing mysterious chemicals in the neighborhood (another trick of Kai’s to stir up fear) and refuses to take anti-anxiety meds. Ivy is a diehard Hillary supporter furious with Ally for not voting for HRC. Kai’s sister Winter (Billie Lourd) is a millennial feminist with admirable anti-sexist views. Kai himself is superficially a Trumpian nationalist, but in private has no politics beyond manipulation of the fearful. Sally, a rival politician (Mare Winningham) says Kai is a “reactionary” and not a “real conservative”, though I’m skeptical such a distinction exists in the Trump era. Sally is a voice of reason telling people that statistically the crime wave fueling Kai’s rise doesn’t exist. He immediately has her murdered. Thus begins the seasons’ consistent theme that emotion, not material reality, matters in politics. More on that later.
The second act gets confusing, though more compelling: Virtually the whole neighborhood is revealed to be part of Kai’s cult/movement, from Ally and Ivy’s neighbors Harrison (Billy Eichner) and Meadow (Leslie Grossman), to local neo-Nazi cop Jack Samuels (Colton Haynes). Ivy is revealed to be a member, and Ally even joins briefly out of self-preservation. These twists are fun, but if they’re supposed to prove that people of all political stripes can fall victim to the politics of fear, they’re not terribly convincing.
After Kai fakes an assassination attempt on himself (something Joe Arpaio actually did, incidentally), his popularity soars and his movement becomes more explicitly fascist. A number of gun-toting white men join up, the female members of the cult are literally relegated to the kitchen, and everyone begins to call Kai “Divine Ruler”. One thing that Cult nails is the consequences of the transformation of fascism from a fringe doctrine to a mainstream ideology: Many of its early supporters are cast aside, and much of its political doctrine becomes secondary to the adoration–extremely homoerotic here–of the leader.
The season takes a baffling turn when it flashes back to Valerie Solanas’ 1968 attempt to kill Andy Warhol (also played by Evan Peters). Lena Dunham portrays Solanas, a mentally ill misandrist who founded SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. In AHS lore, SCUM is responsible for the series of murders falsely attributed to the Zodiac Killer. Back in the present, Bebe Babbitt (Frances Conroy), Solanas’ aging, widowed girlfriend, teaches the doctrine of misandry to the disillusioned women of Kai’s cult. Her ideology is presented as equivalent to Kai’s. It’s here that Cult‘s political commentary breaks down into vague moralizing.
This is largely because Cult lacks any sort of realistic left-wing faction, or much of any leftist politics. The liberal characters hardly ever articulate any actual views, and when they do, they tend to be milquetoast. Ally voted for Jill Stein because she didn’t trust Hillary Clinton; Ivy says she joined the cult because “I hate this country, what it’s become.” Early on, Ally kills a Hispanic employee who she mistakenly thinks is breaking into her house. This is hardly ever mentioned again after it happens, and has no repercussions, which sort of trivializes the issue of racist violence. There’s also virtually no class politics in Cult, so what remains devolves into cultural signifiers. Cult isn’t actually about Ally’s or Kai’s politics but about the kind of people who hold their views.
Additionally, Cult‘s critique of liberals is rather cliché: They’re portrayed as too judgy, too mean. During a presidential debate, one of Winter’s friends hits Kai with vile insults about how his unsuccessful sex life is at the root of his politics. He responds by hitting back physically. Meadow, who lives across the street from Ally and Ivy, feels suffocated by the “feminist expectation of being a ‘boss bitch’”. This intimates a corporatized, pop-culture feminism that stifles the emancipatory potential of the ideology, a real concern. If the point is to demonstrate the sometimes-toxic nature of liberal rhetoric, then point taken. The overall implication, however, is that liberals are leading people into fascism by insulting them. But if you say mean women on Twitter caused you to join a reactionary nationalist movement, I posit that there were probably other factors too.
I also posit that liberalism is not too radical, but not radical enough. Many liberal #Resistance types aren’t actually serious about political change. They have articulated an anti-Trump position, but have little to say about right-wing foreign policy, deregulation, inequality, voting rights, climate change, and the like. Consider Robert DeNiro’s “Fuck Trump” comment at the Tonys: Cult’s writers would consider that line rude and alienating to Trump supporters. But the real problem is that “Fuck Trump” is not a political doctrine, and thus insufficient to improve things. In this context, American liberalism is more of an affectation, one unable to craft political solutions.
Regarding the extremism of Valerie Solanas: Solanas is a little-known figure, and her doctrine of man-hating doesn’t reflect much about modern-day America. Trump’s far-right politics have caused resistance in many forms, including the “#Resistance” that I personally find insufficient and sometimes even conservative, as well as the resurgent socialist movement. But there really are no SCUM-style gangs of man-murdering women in post-2016 America. The season actually ends with Ally, now a US Senator, revealed as a SCUM devotee after running on platitudes about strong, “nasty women”. Is this something that Ryan Murphy and company actually think could happen? Liberal women turning into murderous man-killing extremists? I will concede any number of flaws in modern left-wing movements, but there’s little evidence that misandry is a major one.
Of course, the above is an analysis of Cult‘s politics. The season itself isn’t too bad, but falls far short of required viewing. If you weren’t interested in the series or horror before, Cult probably won’t win you over. It’s got the usual over-the-top AHS blend of gore porn, genuine suspense, and occasionally interesting characters who act with extreme violence. It’s genuinely spooky at first, though once the identities of the clown/cult members are revealed, the season becomes more darkly comedic than actually scary. Kai in particular has some absolutely hilarious moments as he rises politically but deteriorates mentally: At one point he tells his followers the stories of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Heaven’s Gate founder Marshall Applewhite; In his telling they are all played by Evan Peters; Peters even appears as Jesus and Charles Manson in Kai’s warped imagination. Kai also directs a sex ritual using a hilariously saccharine R&B song.
Towards the end of the season, one of Kai’s followers asks if they are a cult or a political movement. Kai replies that “all politics is a personality cult”. That may sound smart to some in the Trumpian, post-fact moment, but it’s really not. Politics is not clashing personalities but the determination of who gets what, and how collective decision-making works. If discourse becomes more about personality than public welfare, we must bring politics back to reality by enacting policies that actually improve peoples’ lives. I believe our nascent socialist and pro-labor movements embody these policies. If only American Horror Story‘s creators had decided to focus on them instead.