So far throughout its 7-season run, creator Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story anthology series has taken on haunted houses, 1960s mental and social persecution, witchery and feminism, the ostracism of circus culture, the secret lives of hotel dwellers, and the true horror of reality television. Its first two seasons, Murder House and Asylum, were deeply fascinating as they explored the intimacy of horror—both at home and as a personal construct. But along the way, the series has sort of…danced along the edge of a cliff, until last season, Roanoke, when it jumped off completely. But now in its seventh season, Cult, the series has pivoted back to what made it stand out in the first place: an increasingly discomforting storyline that holds a mirror to society.
Sarah Paulson, who’s become Murphy’s muse throughout the series having appeared in each of the seasons, is once again at the center of the narrative as Ally, one-half of a lesbian couple alongside Allison Pill, who plays her wife Ivy. They’re the protagonists in the story, but they’re also deeply problematic. I can’t really tell this early in the season whether that’s intentional on Murphy’s part or whether he truly thinks he’s giving us good characters to side with. (I hope it’s the former).
It’s already traumatizing enough that right in the first few minutes of the season premiere, we’re forced to relive that terrifying moment when Donald Trump won the presidency. Murphy portrayed it aptly like a horror movie: with haunting music in a dark living room with the TV screen serving as the only glimpse of light until we see Trump appear on it. That’s when we hear Paulson shriek in terror. Appropriate.
So right away an entire section of the audience shivers simultaneously like, “wow, that’s how I remember it too,” and recognizes Paulson as an ally. A known bigoted, homophobic man has assumed one of the most powerful positions in the world, so of course, Ally and Ivy are more than a little concerned about their own well-being. It’s a moment that certainly hits close to home for many of us. Then, as we learn more about her, we notice her microaggressions, and how she is quick to play the victim in every situation. Her wife has to constantly come to her rescue whenever she sees clowns because she suffers from a crippling phobia that we’ve so far been reminded of in each episode. She also has a therapist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), who tries to be by her side even when she claims to be too proud to need him. All this is presented in such a way to make her a deeply sympathetic character. So, we sympathize with her.
But that empathy goes right out the window at the end of the second episode when Ally, alone in the house with her son and still recovering from another clown vision, shoots and kills Pedro (Jorge-Luis Pallo), the Latino chef at Ivy’s restaurant, assuming he was one of those scary clowns at her door trying to get her. Sure, she’s traumatized from the recent clown outbreak, but this frantic murder draws back to a scene earlier in the episode when Ally breaks up an argument at the restaurant between Pedro and Roger (Zack Ward), the sous chef. Roger tells Ally that Pedro should be fired and, in her own ignorance, she responds by saying that Pedro couldn’t possibly be fired as a Latino in today’s political climate. Well, kudos to Ally for acknowledging that other marginalized groups exist. But really though, is his race the only reason why he wouldn’t get fired? Not because of Roger, an entitled white man, antagonizing him? You see, Ally’s compassion for Pedro is selfish; she only appreciates him because it’s politically correct to do so. It’s a way to continue to make herself look progressive when in reality she’s everything but. Later, when Roger turns up dead, the racist white cop questioned Ally about the argument and tried to pin Roger’s death on Pedro. While she doesn’t also outright blame Pedro—who she would soon kill—for Roger’s murder, she allows the detective to vilify him—which is just as bad.
Murphy has created a divisive character, perhaps as he was trying to expound on the white woman struggle post-election night through the eyes of a lesbian couple, a young woman worried about the right to an abortion (except, she’s not pregnant, but worried about what would happen should she become pregnant. Because apparently she feels like she needs to be a part of the conversation, if even in a false way). He’s presenting characters that may make you question your own morals, who you may despise, but mimic real people who you may or may not want to see—realities we choose to keep hidden from mainstream conversation. The Asian-American woman who didn’t vote at all, and featured but only for a minute in the first episode, is no exception.
And neither is Kai Anderson, played by Evan Peters (another AHS veteran), positioned as the true villain of the season—a hardcore Trump fan with an American History X/neo-Nazi/redneck in a metropolitan city complex. Essentially, he’s ready to engage in full-on ethnic genocide. In just the first two episodes, he throws a hot latte in Ally and Ivy’s faces, offends a local political organization, and celebrates white power to the nth degree. So, of course, he runs for political office, following in Trump’s footsteps.
Whatever you may think about these particular characters Murphy’s chosen to highlight this season so far (noticeably no black characters yet), it’s hard to argue with their maddening intrigue. On the one hand, folks may not want to see people like this explored so fully. They may, in fact, be uncomfortable with it. But on the other hand, how truly horrifying it is that these people do exist. They’re right here, living among us.