“American Horror Story: Cult” opens on Election Night 2016. One group of progressive-minded voters gather to stare at the results in disgust and denial, while a young man sitting in his basement restrains his jubilation until it bursts free, his hips thrusting the television set sharing the news: Donald Trump is the next president of the United States.
“It’s the politics of fear: It always works,” someone says.
It’s not hard to see how Ryan Murphy arrived at his premise for “AHS” Season 7. To say that many Americans have been living out their own personal horror story isn’t an overstatement — not with border closings, hate speech, and potential treason all enabled by the White House — but the new season manages to undermine the left’s legitimate fears and amplify the right’s monstrous traits all in one frenzied mess of an allegory.
Our lead protagonist is Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), a married mother of one who co-owns a restaurant in Michigan with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill). Ally sees Dr. Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) due to pre-existing mental health issues, but the election has exacerbated her anxiety and it’s causing her to see things that aren’t there… or are they?
Her antagonist is Kai, the TV-humping fellow who loves that fear is taking over the world and wants to use it to his advantage. Kai speaks out against police overtime at a city council meeting because, “fear is currency — it has value,” and Kai wants to get rich from fear.
The delineation couldn’t be more clear. On one side, you have the fearful, and on the other you have the person inspiring fear. All and Ivy are a modern, liberal family, and Kai is an isolated member of the far-right. Between them are a roaming band of clowns, who create widespread fear in the community because they just keep killing people.
And here’s where Season 7 starts to go off the rails: clowns. From those first moments, Murphy & Co. draw a direct parallel between the cartoonish circus performers and Donald Trump. His bright orange face and fake yellow hair are compared to the lurid makeup of a clown, and clowns end up terrorizing this small town. Trump represents fear. Clowns represent Trump.
But Trump is very real and the clowns are only really there half the time. Ally is both a scared mother trying to protect her child from dangerous invaders and a batshit crazy crackpot who sees things that aren’t there. She’s portrayed as a weak leftie whose imagination is out of control — she’s always making a big deal out of nothing, just like the “fake news” — but she’s also seen to be perfectly justified in acting the way she does. Fear is used to motivate all her choices, even when they conflict within the narrative and its metaphors. What’s left is an annoying character and a problematic interpretation of liberal hysteria.
Similarly, Peters’ mini-Trump is all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely evil. Kai is a cartoon — a clown, dare I say — and there’s no empathy given to any facet of his character, which causes two problems: For the story, he’s uninteresting. His actions are predictable, and his motivations are narrow-minded. For the allegory, he’s a simpleton’s take on the fear-mongering far-right: His appeal is transparent, and yet he’s made out to be convincing; far too convincing for an ultra-leftie like Ally.
As the first three episodes progress, Ally and Kai’s relationship deepens, but where one might expect a bloody battle between the right and the left, Murphy nurtures an odd bond instead. It’s as if he’s saying, “We’re all susceptible to fear’s power.” That both characters are flawed literally and figuratively only lends to an apolitical takeaway from “AHS.”
Perhaps the point is to show how fear makes us do things we never imagined, and Ally will eventually reach a breaking point where she fights back. But Americans are already there, and they got there far faster than the show does. Who she is through three episodes doesn’t line up with a world where people like Ally are becoming more aware, not more gullible. Even if you buy into Ally as an ignorant figure from 2016, “AHS” feels dated, and it surely doesn’t make for compelling TV.
For horror fans uncaring of political relevance or accurate representation, it should be noted that “American Horror Story: Cult” is also quite boring. The most unnerving scene turns out to be fake; it’s just a fantasy from a comic book, meant to set up attacks to come from a roaming gang of diabolical clowns. But none of the masked men and women terrorizing suburban Michigan offer any kind of personality, which makes it hard for them not to feel fake, as well.
That could be the point, considering how much time is spent on Ally’s debilitating mental state: What’s real? What’s not? What’s in her head, and what’s actually happening? Even if the potential thematic parallels to our political culture were effectively explored — how much of our national anxiety is grounded in reality rather than manufactured? — they wouldn’t make up for these questions sucking the life out of a horror show.
No clear line is drawn between her hallucinations and her reality, and that makes for a lot of lifeless thrills. As Aly screams in terror, the audience is left wondering whether she’s in danger or just flipping out. It’s all real to her, and Paulson’s dedication to this belief is commendable, but none of it’s real to the audience until the moment passes — and a delayed reaction is not what you’re hoping for here. Viewers should be gasping, gripping their chairs, or hiding their eyes, not patiently waiting to see if that clown was really there or not.
It adds up to a confounding experience that, at best, is easily forgotten and at worst is offensive to all parties. Liberals aren’t just snowflakes with imaginary fears, and the right isn’t only made up of soulless fear-mongers. The politics of fear may work, but the twisted logic in this futile exercise falls apart quickly.
“American Horror Story: Cult” premieres Tuesday, September 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.