[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “American Horror Story: Cult” Season 7, Episode 6, “Mid-Western Assassin.”]
“American Horror Story: Cult” has been nothing if not blunt — often graphically so. Through five episodes, Ryan Murphy’s parody of the 2016 election has featured scenes of ghastly brutality captured without much subtlety or restraint.
A masked gimp is draped from the ceiling by fishhooks and then lazily gutted by a roaming cult of clowns. A former member of the insane clown posse is punished by having nails shot into his head during a markedly lengthy sequence. Even the humor is blunt, as the “Jill Stein” joke, so casually tossed in during the premiere, has been recycled so often even the most bitter Hillary haters are over it.
But Episode 6, “Mid-Western Assassin,” showed such atypical and commendable restraint that even die-hard fans have to appreciate the toned down opening sequence capturing a mysterious mass shooting.
The On-Air Version
On Saturday, October 7, Ryan Murphy announced he’d re-cut the opening to Episode 6 after America suffered its deadliest mass shooting ever on October 1. Murphy’s new version aired on FX last night, and the uncut, original version is now streaming online.
Running 45 seconds shorter than the original version, the on-air cut opened the same way: a shot of the American flag, waving in the breeze, as Kai (Evan Peters) led a rally for his city council campaign. Then a gunshot rings out and the crowd panics. The camera tracks Ivy (Alison Pill) as she runs away from the stage, pausing as Harrison (Billy Eichner) shoves her behind a fountain for cover.
He flees, but she stays, and another gunshot rings out before the cops show up and take down the shooter, who appears to be Ivy’s wife, Ally (Sarah Paulson). Right before the cut to credits, Kai is shown laying face down, perhaps dead.
While Murphy’s much-publicized re-editing may not be the most artistically gratifying sequence you’ll see this year — even the unedited version looked like it was conceived as a one shot and then cut down for time — the motivations were appropriately sensitive and practical.
The creator said he was worried watching the scene might “trigger something” for anyone deeply affected by the tragic events in Las Vegas on October 1. “Nobody talks about victims’ rights,” Murphy said. “It’s a weird sort of emotional discussion that’s never bridged.”
The Original Cut
Though victims or anyone still feeling raw from the Las Vegas shooting should steer clear of either cut, the on-air edit did do quite a bit to tone down the violence. Three onscreen deaths were cut completely: The first person is shot right in front of Ivy, and the bullet hole in his chest is briefly prominent to viewers. Another man gets shot as Ivy is knocked behind the fountain, falling face first into it, and the last onscreen death comes when a man tries to help Ivy escape and is gunned down. He’s shot again as he reaches out for Ivy’s hand.
Cutting these moments makes a big difference, but it’s worth noting the actual gunshots: In both versions, the first round fires off over the opening shot (of an American flag), but there are far more in the original cut. They’re loud, targeted, and plentiful, plus they continue throughout most of the two minutes and 15 seconds of footage, as opposed to selective use in the 90-second version. Either way, anyone even the slightest bit skittish will be jumping every few seconds, much like Ivy.
Aside from these aspects, the original cut isn’t nearly as graphic as the rest of “American Horror Story.” For one, it uses surprisingly little blood. “AHS” gets very, very bloody whenever it can, but the shooting scene featured only a few glimpses of red. When the man is shot and falls into the fountain, there’s a brief flash of the wound, but it’s over quickly and the water doesn’t turn crimson. After another man is shot trying to lead Ivy to safety, his outstretched arm is hit by the shooter, sending a faint splatter of blood onto the pavement.
That’s about it. It’s as if director Bradley Buecker never had any interest in turning a tragedy into torture porn, even before it became triggering. When the camera pans over the scene and victims’ unmoving bodies are shown motionless on the ground, there’s no blood puddling under them. Kai isn’t bleeding, either, as he lays motionless on stage.
Why “AHS” Needed the Scene, No Matter What
And herein lies the necessity of the scene, re-cutting it, and highly publicizing the edits. Even though the original version didn’t cross any lines (at least not the ones the show typically crosses), it, like the rest of the season, is designed to make a point: Gun violence is a uniquely American problem and one that continues to haunt this nation. Murphy wants to talk about that, and by doing so himself he’s driving more discussion to the issue. Editing the scene was tactful, but it also stimulated conversation around the show and the scene specifically. It’s a business and political win-win.
The progressive director said “the whole point of the piece was to be an obvious anti-gun warning about society,” and cutting the shooting scene entirely would’ve meant cutting that message. As it stands, Murphy’s point is made loud and clear.
For those who watched to episode’s end, there’s also an essential narrative reason to keep the scene in no matter what: Later, we find out that Kai staged the shooting to boost his political agenda. He’s becoming the victim; the face of the tragedy; a sympathetic figure who will be elected out of empathy and fear. “We’re a Christian country,” Kai says. “Everybody loves a resurrection.”
Though some critics have said “American Horror Story: Cult” is struggling to effectively satirize or condemn anything in its reactionary new season, the series deserves to finish what it started. The point of Season 7 — as confounding as it can be, even when expressed bluntly — is to draw attention to issues ravaging American society: fear, fake news, political bullying, P.C. culture, and so much more. To back away from the gun control debate would run contrary to everything “AHS” aims to accomplish, especially as many Americans are calling for the issue to be more politicized, not less.
“American Horror Story” may not be able to satisfy its fans by toning things down, but it hit the right chord this week — for victims, for fans, and for the series itself.