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Friday, January 22, 2021

The Politics of Fear: Giving “American Horror Story: Cult” Another Shot

American Horror Story, in all its campy, bloody, pulpy, absurd glory, can feel like a step into a questionable horror freak show (pun intended) at its worst. With its usual reliance on ghosts, demon babies, witches, characters dying and coming back to life, and other various, fantastical elements, its themes (if there are any) get lost in its blood sauce. (That junk food-TV aimlessness may even be the very thing that keeps us coming back every season at times, admit it.) So when Ryan Murphy & Co.’s attempt at the very real, very tangible horrors of American politics within Season 7’s Cult was met with resistance and hostility from viewers, it was no real shock.

Which is fair— most of us were far too traumatized from the year prior’s 2016 election to acquire any remote desire of watching it all play out again in a fictionalized, exaggerated Horror Story universe. But with reality (and politics, especially) being as horrifying as it has been lately (compared to the doozy of fictional storylines that AHS strings together) Cult— which followed Evan Peters as a once basement-dwelling Trump supporter to a cult leader that aimed to run for Senate, and Sarah Paulson as one of his victims and eventual survivors within the swing state of Michigan— felt like a breath of fresh air, explicitly detailing to confounded viewers just how someone akin to Trump could rise to power through fear-mongering politics and cult of personality mentality. (And how legions of IRL followers could be manipulated into, gee, I don’t know, committing an act of domestic terrorism and invading Capitol Hill to fight for him, as an example.) As Americans begin to transition into another presidential era, while still suffering from the ripple effects of the last four years—hell, the last four weeks, even— American Horror Story: Cult will (and should) be looked at as a spot-on time capsule that deserves a closer second look and a greater appreciation.

Since AHS is all but subtle, Cult opens with actual clips that both preceded and followed the 2016 presidential election— the “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters” and such. As the election results are called, Paulson’s Ally, the show’s exaggerated idea of the hyper-liberal, gets “triggered,” screams, and wallows in grief. It’s the “politics of fear,” a tertiary character says from the same room. “It always works.” Meanwhile, Peters’ Kai humps the TV set and tauntingly smears orange Cheetos all over his face to resemble you-know-who: “The revolution has begun.” Umm, what revolution? Satirical, darkly funny, (and even off-putting), its initial moments are satisfactory, but the meat of Cult’s resonance would come later.

With a new pep in his step and an audacious ego post-Trump win, Kai makes his way to a city council meeting, in which he goes on a tirade, arguing for the abolishment of a local security for a Jewish synagogue and inciting fear within their local community— (a behemoth of a monologue that automatically should’ve placed Peters in Emmy consideration.) “Humans love fear,” he explains. “They yearn to be so scared that they don’t have to think anymore.” In this moment, the Kai character may be even more dangerous than the real man he was inspired by— he’s manipulative and twisted, sure— but intelligent enough that what he says can actually sound sensical. The city councilman denies Kai’s notion, insisting that this era of fear and hatred is a blip, and that it will not prevail. Rejected and emasculated, Kai caps the scene off with what is ultimately Cult’s thesis: “There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man.”

Through mind games and pinky-promise table interrogations regarding their darkest fears and desires, Kai eventually recruits a literal cult of followers across all backgrounds and political beliefs, including his gay, Hillary Clinton-supporting sister Winter (Billie Lourd), frustrated African-American news reporter Beverly who desires a sense of power herself (Adina Porter), a forcibly married couple, Harrison and Meadow (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman), a vehement Trump supporter, Gary (Chaz Bono), Ally’s wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), and a corrupted, Nazi-apologist cop, Jack (Colton Haynes). All are hand picked by Kai for various reasons: the cop, so the cult can get away with murder; the news reporter so that he can instill fear into the public eye; the married couple because they feed his ego. Dressed as clowns, with Kai donning a very phallic 4-way mask with penis noses all over it— indicating that yes, audience, he is, indeed, a d***head (again, subtly is not AHS’s forte)— the cult starts (small?) at first, antagonizing their local community with supermarket stalking, power outages, fake gas tanks…and gruesome, violent deaths for all those who dare to get in their way, because it wouldn’t be AHS without it. Paulson‘s protagonist Ally gets the brunt of the torture, as she’s an easy target with her endless stream of phobias.

The always-one-step-ahead Kai knows the best way to gain power for his “movement”— which is purposely ambiguous and never fully explained— is to make his way into politics, so he terrifies and threatens his way into the town’s City Councilman position. As he waxes on (and lies) about the lack of safety and danger within the community (which he himself is causing, unbeknownst to most), Kai’s rhetoric is challenged by a woman who is sick of his shit and threatens to run against him: “You’re not a conservative,” she says. “You’re a reactionary. You use the fantasy of the time that never was when ‘people left their doors unlocked.’” She’s right, of course, and maybe Kai should create his own party. Naturally, Kai rids of the woman faster than she can add her name to the ballot box.

As the movement picks up some steam, including a political rally in which Kai moans about the feds never stopping “them”— meaning his anti-fascism counter protesters who can smell his hate-spewing from a mile away, something 45 also frequently bemoaned during his presidency— he simultaneously gains hardcore loyalty from his followers, to the point where it becomes disturbing. Grossman’s Meadow is coerced into shooting several people (and herself) at a public event for national attention that feels all too haunting following the death of the woman who died during the Capitol Hill attacks, Ashli Babbitt. Kai convinces Bono’s Gary to cut off his own arm in devotion. He brings in an army of Proud Boys, and makes everyone drink (what they don’t know) is un-poisoned Kool-Aid to prove their loyalty to him and the “cause.” Slowly but surely, he picks several of them off one-by-one when they question him, “betray” him, or just offer themselves up for sacrificial sake— abandoning them in critical moments. (Kind of like suggesting your supporters raid a sacred building of democracy in devotion to you and then not actually being present in the midst of the chaos yourself.) He particularly weeds out the women amongst his followers, insisting that he can’t trust them and that they “can’t lead.”

In the spirit of its title, Cult briefly explores infamous cult leaders of the past, including David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and Charles Manson and his “Family”– all “weaponizers” of fear for personal gain. They all have similar patterns: get the followers to trust you, convince them they can’t trust anyone else, and threaten to hurt or leave them if they don’t abide to you. That’s the thing about leaders who abuse power, Cult suggests: they know how to use your fears against you. However, unlike many of the other unbearable, far-right extremists of his kind, Kai’s intelligence, self-awareness, and calculation is to be admired. One of the better written villains of the series, Kai keeps the audience on its toes and provides the thrill of not knowing just what the hell he will do next, otherwise you would’ve dipped out after Episode 2. He never takes blame, and he knows it: “Stop saying sorry- everything is someone else’s fault.” Even after finding himself in jail when the feds do finally catch up with him, he manipulates another inmate into being a deadly body double in service to him so he can escape. Always one step ahead— or so he thinks.

But freedom isn’t what Kai finds when he escapes. While he was busy exploiting and murdering his way to what he thought would be the top, the two remaining women in his circle, Paulson’s Ally and Porter’s Beverly, obtain the power that he so desperately wanted himself: Ally becomes a potential Michigan Senate candidate, with Beverly as her campaign advisor. Recognizing that Ally doesn’t stand a chance with Kai still alive, as the public opinion polls suggest she’s viewed as “weak” and too associated as a victim of his, the women outsmart him. Angered and threatening, Kai shows up to Ally’s final debate, as they expected. “You symbolize the hope that one day women will win an argument with their husbands,” Kai scoffs. “Women can’t lead. Women can’t win.” A little on-the-nose, (but fitting for its thesis) Ally replies: “You were wrong. There is something more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man: a nasty woman.”…Before Beverly splatters Kai’s brains out with a shotgun. His reign of terror/the nightmare is officially over; Ally gets elected to the Senate seat— even if she may be part of an active cult herself, as its elusive final moment suggests. (Because all politics are cultish, the show insists.)

In true AHS fashion, that finale couldn’t be more unrealistic if it tried, however, it offered something we didn’t have very much of at the time: hope. Women may not have gotten to see the first female president then, but, sure enough, three and a half years after its airing, we finally got the scenario that Cult’s finale dreamed up for us, in the form of our first elected female Vice President. A few years ago, that ending felt contrived and eye-rolling; looking back now, it feels accurate and validating.

After it sucks you in with its knife-happy killer clowns and oft-cartoonish views of both sides of the binary American political spectrum, AHS: Cult seeps into your brain with haunting thoughts of political division, extremism, and social unrest that have always existed and will never fully go away, no matter what administration— but it’s a much easier pill to swallow now that one IRL reign of terror is over.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3649292/politics-fear-give-american-horror-story-cult-another-shot/

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