“American Horror Story: Cult” Is a Premature Baby Screaming in the Arms of Its Lesbian Moms

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.)

Fine, take it, I’ve got six bottles at home under my bed anyhow

“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.

Errr maybe I shouldn’t let you watch Donald Trump talking so close to bedtime

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.

C’mon baby just open up a little wider and I’ll get that spinach right out of your teeth

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.

HERE IS MY HANDLE, HERE IS MY SPOUT

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!

See, doesn’t it feel good to pirate Netflix Canada?

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.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2715 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. If you’ll allow me to make a (awful) word-play based on your last paragraph, this review was transcendent .

    Wow. Thank you Riese.

    I’m not watching the show because most horror is too much for me, but damn- YOUR WRITING. I’ve been gifted by the universe the last few days with examples of writing that challenge and inspire me to be a better writer. And this is most certainly one of them.

    I have this urge to quote your own words back to you and break down how much I loved them, one by one, but I don’t want this comment to become a book of its own, so I’ll spare you.

    And to answer your question about “interest” in weekly recaps, I would definitely read weekly recaps/reviews of the show, if you were interested in writing them.

  2. I’d love recaps/reviews of the show to continue! I have a love/hate relationship with Ryan Murphy and AHS in particular. I want it to be so much better than it is, but lacking an alternative, I keep watching.

  3. I’d definitely be interested in reading any potential recaps (more so than watching the actual TV series, despite the fact that I’m super excited that Sarah Paulson and Sarah Paulson’s magical face are playing another queer character). That is, if you’re willing to spend actual time and energy on a show you can usually barely get through.

  4. Keep the recaps coming! I want to watch this show but also am too scared to watch this show because I live alone and don’t want to worry about killer clowns in my apartment, ya know? But I still want to know what happens with literally every lesbian couple on TV so KEEP ME IN THE LOOP.

  5. I knew that this season of AHS was gonna be a mess when I saw that Ryan Murphy was going to set it around the election. One of Glee’s biggest problems was that it tried to tackle ALL the issues and they were done so broadly it was like no one had done any research.

  6. Yes, thank you. This is exactly what I needed. I’ve been looking for words for all the feelings I had after watching this episode and this, this, all of this. I’d have a much easier time watching, I think, if this was on post-Trump presidency (aka hopefully in the near future).

  7. I normally love AHS but I HATED this episode and I feel zero interest in the rest of the season (though I would definitely read your recaps if you decide to write them). I would happily watch a non-horror/non-political show of Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill as a cute married couple though. And I know this is such a small thing to focus on but it really bugs me that the main Trump supporter of the show has blue hair. It just seems so inaccurate to me, I’ve never seen anyone in Camp Trump with alternative hair colors

    • The blue hair bothered me too! I feel like they could have make a stronger point with someone less erratic. You know your typical next door neighbor neo-nazi. I think it should have shown someone who is perceived as normal and the scary part be that being a Trump loving white supremacist is getting increasingly normal and thats scary.

  8. If you build it, they will come.
    I mean, if you’re writing recaps of the show I will continue watching it. If not, I’m done.
    I lost interest in rooting for Sarah Paulson’s character when she said she voted for Jill Stein. I am not going to watch a Ryan Murphy show about someone who voted Stein in Michigan, it’s just too much for my head.

  9. The “Election night horror and disbelief on the face of a liberal” was already done so well by Diane Lockhart on The Good Fight that there’s no real reason to cover that ground again. But Ryan Murphy has always had trouble with copying off other people’s papers, so…

  10. I was so looking forward to this season and then I read that Sarah Paulson’s character has trypophobia which is a terrible trigger for me. I guess I’ll be sitting this one out but I look forward to reading the recaps/reviews.

  11. Very good review. I’ve never seen AHS, but I have friends who are fans. This opening episode does seem particularly tone deaf considering the current political climate.

    This particular passage hit me in the gut: “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. ”

    As a Black woman and single mom to two pre-teen daughters, my psychiatrist gave me the exact advice complete with an anti-anxiety prescription. (Full disclosure: my daughters live in a neighborhood and go to a school where they are the minorities because they are black but the majority of both the neighborhood and the school are Mexican, Middle Eastern,Chinese and Russian immigrants as well as Muslim families.) Maybe it’s a slight indictment of male privilege in the medical field where women are treated as hyper-hysterical no matter what. 🙁

  12. This is an excellent review, Riese! I’m glad you wrote it because I watched this last night and was trying to figure out how I felt about it and here it is! I couldn’t figure out why I was laughing at some parts and didn’t know if AHS was really mocking white liberals or white supremacists or trying to make a statement and it’s really too soon for this shit. Your review voiced a lot of concerns and critiques I could never articulate. Thank you!

    On another note, I love everything Sarah Paulson is wearing in this episode. What if I made my entire fall lookbook from AHS stills??

  13. Fam! When I tell you I turned this episode off after the first fifteen seconds. I always give AHS a shot because I’m a horror junkie, but life is too short and precious for me to spend any of it looking at 45’s face. Even if it meant getting to see Sarah Paulson’s face, too.

    Anyway, Ryan Murphy’s proved year after year that he has no idea how to handle race, so I definitely don’t want to see him try and tackle the election. Judging from this excellent recap of the first episode alone it seems like he’s already Missed The Point.

  14. I will not be watching this show (I don’t do horror at all, or Ryan Murphy anything anymore since Glee) but I’d definitely be interested in reading weekly recaps from you, Riese, if they’re all as well-written as this one.

  15. Ryan Murphy is so. fucking. misogynist. I haven’t watched this garbage since Coven and it’s a real shame as so many awesome actors are involved- which is the only reason I stuck Coven out but then I couldn’t do it anymore. And the thing with the kid makes me want to vomit.

  16. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the first episode. On the one hand, as a person who suffers from depression and anxiety disorders, I know the election triggered a lot of my fears and anxieties. I also know that I’m a functioning adult that takes self care measures so I don’t completely lose it when that happens. I felt like she was characterized as a liberal white woman who completely lost her shit over the election. I’m a liberal middle aged white woman. I got triggered but I also got pissed and uncomfortable. Then i got busy in my community. I know it was one episode and this show often shifts in directions I don’t expect. Plus, Sarah Paulson is the shit, so I’m giving it a chance.

    The violence is problematic. Violence, rape in particular, shouldn’t be entertainment. I think The Bold Type showed how it can be brought into the conversation without being sensationalized. But my thoughts and feelings when I see it on tv are very complicated. I have been discussing it with my therapist for years. As a survivor with PTSD it brings up all kinds of shit. I wonder if it really does normalize violence. I don’t think there are clowns running wild in the neighborhood so I don’t know.

    I have friends that think I should just not watch news or go on social media. In the true spirit of my families “if you deny it it’s not real” philosophy. But denial doesn’t make it go away. So maybe the show having us talk about it is a good thing.

    I vote for recaps just so I can hear another person’s point of view on this stuff.

  17. The kid being forced to look at the murders was hard for me to watch and I’m really hoping this story ties together and makes it worth it. Keep the recaps up in case next time I don’t make it thru. I really liked last season so I’m hoping this one gets it together. For the culture. Sarah Paulson took a shitty script and killed it tho thank goodness for her

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