I didn’t get the screeners for American Horror Story in time to recap this week’s episode, so instead I’ve written a review. I’m planning to recap the season, pending your expressed interest. Please note that this review contains light spoilers for Episode One, “Election Night.”
When early press revealed that this season of American Horror Story would center a Michigan lesbian horrified by the election of Donald Trump, I pounced on the story like a Michigan lesbian horrified by the election of Donald Trump (because that’s what I am). But my reaction to that trailer was perhaps more indicative of the same misguided desire I imagine Ryan Murphy & Co had when they outlined the season, which was to feel some level of control over this terrifying, profoundly confusing and culturally fascinating moment in human history by turning it into an appropriately alarming visual narrative. Or maybe that wasn’t their motivation at all. Maybe they just wanted to infuse a floundering franchise with new life by leaving aside historical settings in favor of the current moment. Maybe the role misplaced fear played in the 2016 election was too ripe to pass up for a horror series which, by definition, investigates the difference between warranted and unwarranted fear.
Whatever the reason, the result is surprisingly apolitical and unsurprisingly tasteless. See, we’re still living in this moment. This moment still hurts and is inspiring genuine, warranted fear every day. It’s simply too soon to be fodder for a franchise and a creator that has always been more about presentation than substance — the look of the thing, the danger of the thing, the feel of the thing, the delicious camp of the thing. There’s a lot that works in American Horror Story: Cult, and there’s some damn fine acting and some unraveling mysteries worth sticking around for, but I’d argue that those parts could thrive even without the Trump plot. Thus, much like actual life, Trump’s presence in the show casts a dark shadow over an otherwise viable existence AND ALSO OVER LESBIANS.
What we get instead is a satirical send-up of the right-wing’s sadistic bigoted murderers and the left-wing’s “special snowflakes” with a story that manufactures horror for said snowflakes while mostly failing to address that most Americans don’t actually need serial-killing clowns to feel tangibly afraid to live here, now. It’s a bit on the nose to see a well-off white woman who voted for Jill Stein fighting possibly-imaginary demons with a bottle of Rosé in a supermarket staffed by Chaz Bono boldly sporting a Make America Great Again hat. (Although I eagerly anticipate its inevitable Saturday Night Live parody.)
“Election Night” opens with a jarring compilation of news clips from November 8th, 2016, before introducing our primary characters. The first are Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards, a lesbian couple living in a very large home in a medium-sized unnamed Michigan town with a very small and very cute child.
That’s why we’re all here, right? We’re here for the lesbians. Why are the lesbians here? I think ’cause we’re stereotypically ultra-liberal and therefore easy to make fun of! Especially when you make us well-off instead of economically marginalized as is more often the case! But uh, at least we’re the stars of the show and Ivy is giving us some mild soft butch representation? Sarah Paulson’s Ally is unraveling majestically, unable to differentiate between real fears and possible hallucinations, all tremors and impulse and erratic parenting skills. Paulson remains, as always, captivating. Allison Pill’s Ivy fails to develop any discernible personality, though, besides apparently a desire to dress and do her hair exactly like Ellen DeGeneres. There’s not much chemistry between them, at least not yet, or any signs of what their relationship looks like when it’s actually functioning.
We see Ally and Ivy’s Election Night party devolve into cursing Nate Silver and interpersonal spats between attendees, like the City Councilman whose wife was “too busy on Etsy” to vote. Ivy attempts to calm her hysterical wife while their son, Oz, sits blankly in the kitchen wondering what all the adults are freaking out about. His nanny holds him close, telling him everything is okay, but it’s already implicated that it’s not going to be okay, not for her, at least: she’ll flee her position without warning, fearing a crackdown on undocumented workers. It’s a rare moment of socio-cultural self-awareness for an episode that trades heavily in White Feminism.
“It’s the politics of fear,” a party guest declares. “It always works.” Here we have the story’s conceit: fear as humanity’s most primal and essential motivator.
Which brings us to another part of town, Evan Peters’ blue-haired Angry White Male Kai Anderson, who is literally dry-humping the television, overcome with delight by this turn of events. His sister, Winter, played with dead-eyed, calculating barbarism by Scream Queens screen-stealer Billie Lourde, is on the phone with a friend who’s attending a more depressing election night party. Apparently, Winter took a year off from Vassar to campaign for Hillary and is complaining that the results were announced without a trigger warning. Wink, nod, nudge, groan. But Winter subsequently joins forces with her brother, and gets a job as the Mayfair-Richards’ nanny for undoubtedly nefarious reasons.
Kai is emboldened by Trump’s win to bring his sideshow views into the open air, setting him up to be a cult leader who can pull it together in public only because in private, he puts Cheetos in a blender and then rubs them all over his face. It’s his bombastic speech on the value of fear to city council, presented in protest of a motion to provide the Jewish Community Center with more police protection, that alone seemed to hit the note it pitched for in “Election Night.” When rejected, Kai storms out of the meeting, threatening, “There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man.” Indeed.
So we have, on one hand, the idiotic, bloodthirsty bigots rising up to claim Their America, voiced by Kai. On the other; the apparently neurotic, privileged liberals devastated by Trump’s win even though some of them, including Ally, voted for Jill Stein. I guess this keeps it light, as much as blood spewing from exposed jugulars can ever be part of something “light,” but it also keeps it a bit frivolous and confusing and inappropriate. The focus on economically successful white people enables a comfortable distance in which campy maximalist storytelling can exist, but it also obscures and minimizes genuine marginalization, including that faced by lesbians and all queer folks and especially that faced by people of color. The paint hasn’t dried yet on Trump’s administration, it’s not ready to be hung, or to be a focal point of an entire series. But, again: it could if we yanked the story out of 2017 and placed it somewhere else, even in the lead-up to the election rather than in the aftermath.
On that note, Ryan Murphy’s really good at helping viewers discover new things about themselves, such as “things they do not want to view on the teevee.” I’ve actually not made it through an entire season of American Horror Story since “Asylum” ’cause I’m generally not entertained by graphic rape, cheerful dismemberment, corpses swinging from ceilings and filthy sadistic clowns. About 45 minutes into “Election Night,” when Winter forces Oz to watch snuff films online and then carts him across the street to spy on a gruesome murder, I was ready to sew myself into a mattress. Turns out I’d rather not watch a young woman attempt to desensitize a small child to actual murder!
Trump’s election inspired real fear in a solid chunk of this country, but Ally’s fear is presented as largely conceptual or imaginary, brought on by psychic distress rather than genuine concerns for her safety or the safety of others. She waxes poetic about Barack Obama to her psychiatrist, crediting him with providing the fertile ground upon which her relationship with Ivy could truly blossom. Nobody embodies the “people handling a threat that doesn’t actually threaten them” thoroughfare quite like Ally’s psychiatrist, who prescribes an anti-anxiety medication and suggests she do as he has done and stop reading the news altogether. It’s a scathing indictment of white liberal privilege, but it’s not clear if it’s meant to be an indictment at all. Closing your Twitter account and avoiding apocalyptic headlines might protect a white cis hetero male psychiatrist, but it certainly couldn’t protect an undocumented immigrant, an inmate abused in a Phoenix prison or a trans woman of color from being impacted by Trump’s beliefs.
The world says jump and Ryan Murphy says “how high concept.” We know this. We’ve seen Glee, notorious for shoehorning serious Issues Of The Week into otherwise goofy narratives or retconning characters for 43 minutes to make a ham-fisted point and then returning to regularly scheduled programming. Murphy is an ambitious and unpredictable showrunner, and when his big dreams succeed, they’re spectacular, and when they fail; it’s abominable. As New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2012, he is “willing to risk the ridiculous for a shot at the transcendent.” The American Horror Story franchise generally evades Murphy’s fraught relationship with The Now by setting itself in the past, molding new stories out of concluded ones… until now.
Regardless, if this season turns out to be a bust, y’all better not blame it on the lesbians. We’re doing our best out here and there is a killer clown in the produce aisle, I swear it.