American Horror Story: Season 7 (Cult)
The anthology series was one on the first populist format when television was in its infancy. Typically produced by a specific sponsor such as ‘The G.E. Theater’ or ‘The Alcoa Hour,’ each episode was a fully self-contained story frequently utilizing the same group of actors. Televise was still a novelty, so the idea was to bring live stories directly into the living rooms of the audience. The idea was to bring the experience of a stage play to everybody, not just to those with the proximity and financial resources to frequent the theater. This such a robust and versatile format that it has persisted in one form or another down through the decades. Arguably one of the best is the F/X series ‘American Horror Story.’ The eighth season just finished but this consideration is concerned with the seventh season. Each season has a specific theme, usually, s well-defined source of terror, encompassing familiar terrors as ghosts, witches, demons and for those who have coulrophobia, a deformed serial killer clown named ‘Twisty.’ This season is subtitled, ‘Cult.’ Several seasons it has incorporated actual people, places and popular myths or legends. This season takes place in the aftermath of one of the most divisive events in American history, the 2016 presidential election that made Donald J. Trump the 45th President. Depending upon your political inclination, that event may have been the realization of your worst nightmare. Within the context of the season’s story, the election of President Trump is a catalytic event that provides the dramatic tension driving the principal narrative. In keeping with the season’s title, cult, the divisive election would engender a covert association of individuals with nefarious motives.
Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) are a married couple who have a son named Ozymandias (Cooper Dodson), aka Oz they are examples of the growing social justice warrior movement deeply concerned with the rights of the downtrodden. Ally is hyper phobic, plagued by a myriad of deep-seated, fears that overwhelm every aspect of her life, on November 9th, 2016 the sun came up over a world that was changed forever as Hillary Clinton conceded the election. The through of Donald Trump, purveyor of shoddy merchandise and host of a reality game television show now holds the most powerful position in the world. Ivy had grown accustomed to Ally’s plethora of all-consuming fears, but the news was flooded with President Trump and his polarization of the nation, their home life was tense and increasingly distant. The artisan butchery and restaurant they owned and operated began to fail as a result of the swelling discord. Ally’s psychiatrist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), prescribes psychotropic medication to ameliorate the broad spectrum of fears mounting symptoms but the phobias continue to mount. Two escalate to frightening proportions, coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, and trypophobia, a fear of irregular clusters of small holes. They are at the center of her extreme hallucinations. Ally is brought to the brink of psychological disassociation as the line between reality and delusions blur.
Numerous factors contribute to the continuing success of this series. At its core are the brilliant control exhibited by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy in the crafting of the ongoing narrative. One aspect of an anthology that must be kept in mind is the tendency for an inherent degree of fluctuation in the perceived quality. Some season is naturally stronger than others. The consensus on the diehard fan is this season is among the weaker thus far. Even with that said, the weakest season with a show of this overall quality is much better than the vast majority of what is regularly programmed. Another notable trademark of Falchuk and Murphy the precision infused in the most fundamental level of their storytelling. Thanks to online forums and conventions, ardent fans can dissect each episode on a frame by frame level isolating the slightest nuances and noting the various potential reference to popular culture in general and, more importantly, seasons past and those not yet shown. It didn’t take long before keen-eyed fans were able to document evidence that every season takes place in the same narrative universe. Characters reappear, others are referred to while the same setting is shared across several seasons. This does require a bit of effort on the part of the viewer as well as the ability to separate the character from the actor; many actors are in multiple seasons with Sarah Paulson, and Evan Peters proximately featured in aver season. The central theme binding all seasons of the series together is the exploration of the various people, places, and objects that never fail to terrify the audience, with seasons like ‘Murder House’ and ‘Hotel’ the abject fright is conjured through locations demonstratable cursed, enfolding those that enter with bone-chilling, supernatural horror. Superficially, ‘Asylum’ might appear to fit into that category. Ultimately terror is generated through the pure evil made flesh by its inhabitants, with ‘Cult’ the terrifying catalyst is found with the reaction to a highly controversial, and by many accounts, amoral chief executive Ally represent the dismayed, disenfranchised and distraught citizens who become exceptionally susceptible to the coercive charismatic control of a cult leader.
The primary antagonist at the core is Kai Anderson in yet another incredible performance by Even Peters. There is a simple reason the showrunners have prominently featured this talented young man in every season of the anthology; he is among the most versatile actors of his generation. Mr. Evans has an amazing range, an aspect of his abilities impossible to properly showcase in a movie or traditional episodic television. Whether he is portraying a man with a tragic congenital disability or a ghost with a penchant for elaborate torture, Mr. Evans never fails to showcase the nuances necessary to realize his character fully. Here, he shines in a role that carries much of the season, Kai Anderson. He is a young man that is severely damaged emotionally and darkly twisted psychologically. A master at manipulation his idols encompass the worse on humanity, Charles Manson and David Koresh. Further showcasing his talent, Mr. Evans portrays these men in fantasy sequences. Anderson realizes the Trump election has engendered a sociopolitical environment pervaded with hatred and driven by xenophobia; this was an ideal climate for Kai.
Ally is soon the target of a campaign of terror inexorably tightening around her. Escalation was exceedingly quickly with the murder of their neighbor by brutal gang disguised as clowns. These were not the standard prototypical clowns but bizarre dark creatures with phallic accouterments wielding blunt instruments and very sharp blades. Among the victims was the true target that opened a vacancy in the City council, a seat that Kai intends to fill. What ensues is a campaign of terror minutely planned to exploit deeply ingrained fears. From the perspective of the audience, Kai’s actions painted as a despicable, inhuman sadist. A significant portion of the audience has become desensitized to violence perpetrated against people. When a hamster is placed in a microwave and killed, something visceral snaps in even the most hardened viewer. While Mr. Evans hits each personality trait necessary to come across as a psychopath, highlighting the showrunner’s uncanny ability to develop characters, subsequently forwarding the narrative by juxtaposing diametrically opposite characters, contrasting Kai’s insatiable need for control and per through domination and fear, Ally descends deeper into her phobias fueled by the escalation of death all around. As she reaches out for help, even Ivy is convinced her wife is paranoid, but the viewer understands that it isn’t paranoia if they are after you.
The reason why some fan may rank this season lower is the source of the fear, the foundation of the terror, is far from the traditional. Most of us grew up with creature features where the antagonist is a product of radiation or gene manipulation, perhaps from the uncharted depths of space. These are excellent for generating a fright but be matter how realistic the presentation might be we still realize it is making believe. We will never encounter those minsters, but the terror here was the result of an election, a real even an actual piece of American history. I remember that night and millions of people were deeply upset; certainty ripped away with an announcement on cable news, the knowledge that the circumstances are not only possible but occurring in our real lives, it is crucial to consider all factors when attempting to assign a relative ranking to the season. The acting is, as usual, extraordinary. The character development is closer to cross between psychological horror and a political satire. Admittedly this is a substantial departure from the more overt genre archetypes. Some may pull back from a full appreciation of this season because it hits too close to home.