When Ryan Murphy announced that the next installment of his hit anthology series, American Horror Story, would tackle the 2016 election, I, like many fans who were disappointed with the show's recent less-than-stellar performance, was intrigued. It seemed like the perfect — albeit strange — way to personify the horror experienced by myself, and many others, at a Donald Trump presidential win.
Now, with two episodes' hindsight, it's more complex than ever. This week's "Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark," opened with Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) being terrorized by (real? Imaginary?) clowns. Her phobias, which have resurfaced en masse since the election, are just getting worse — though admittedly, finding a dying colleague trussed up like a piece of meat in the restaurant cooler must not have helped. She lashes out at the new neighbors, installs fancy new security all over the house, and avoids leaving her nest. Her long-suffering wife Ivy (Alison Pill), meanwhile, is wondering how much more of this she can take.
As has been made clear since the opening montage, Ally and Ivy lie on the left end of the political spectrum: They are a married lesbian couple who own a trendy sustainable business! They listen to Rachel Maddow! They grow an herb garden in their backyard! They refuse to fire immigrants because some white asshole tells them to! Sure, Ally may be carrying the dirty little secret that she voted for Jill Stein rather than Hillary Clinton, but in no way would she ever consider voting Republican.
On the other side of the aisle, you have Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). Although his true purpose in the narrative remains unclear, what is certain is that he is an agent of chaos, much like the leader he so reveres. Ryan Murphy isn't exactly subtle. His monsters are loud and proud, rather than creepy. So at first, watching Kai smear Cheetos puree on his face and dry hump Donald Trump's face on Fox News, I assumed that he would be, to adopt Buffy parlance, the Big Bad of the season. But now? I'm not so sure.
Kai's rhetoric when he shows up at Ally's door promoting his run for city council is a ripped from the headlines parody of a "fake news"-embracing Trump supporter. But despite the caricature, or maybe because of it, there's an important point being made: How scared does one have to be to give up on liberal values?
"I am interested in reaching out to people, making contact with other human beings, making bridges, not walls," Ally tells Kai in response to his Facebook facts on crime and immigration. It's a sentiment I've expressed myself, on a number of occasions. But as Kai points out, the words lose meaning when the person saying them is simultaneously holding a knife behind her back, ready to lash out at potential attackers.
"It's so easy until it's you they're coming for," he answers.
A fascinating essay in AV Club this week makes a strong case for the idea that 9/11 is responsible for much of "prestige" TV. "That the rise of this sort of 'serious' television began in the wake of 9/11 is no coincidence," Sean O'Neil writes. "As our initial shock wore off, yielding to a sort of constant, subconscious abyss, the national temperament turned darkly self-reflective, slightly shattered, wounded and cynical. It’s little wonder that the years that followed were a boom time for shows like that, series that subverted TV’s reassuring conventions and concerned themselves with characters who similarly felt adrift, jaded, and secretly terrified."
The 2016 election was a very different, but no less monumental instance of national upheaval, and one that Murphy is the first to tackle in a comprehensive way. For better or for worse, it's the first work to truly reflect the new reality of a Donald Trump presidency in a collective opus, rather than a single election-themed episode. American Horror Story works best when it presents a recognizable situation and inserts elements of classic horror (see: Murder House). AHS: Cult has so far managed to show a distorted — if heavy-handed — version of our current state of mind as a nation: we are afraid.
Trump supporters voted for him largely because of a fear that their way of life and fundamental values were disappearing forever. They fear a society that no longer has room for them. And on the morning of November 9, 2016, Democrats awoke to find themselves living in a far different world than they had previously imagined.
So, perhaps it makes sense that the driving factor of this season, the villain if you will, is fear. Fear, which is personified in every single one of Ally's many phobias. Fear, which prompts her, a staunch believer in gun control, to go out and get an illegal weapon. Fear, which causes her to shoot a man dropping off supplies. Fear is also what drives Kai to pursue a political career, the one thing that binds him and Winter (Billie Lourd), and seems to be activating all these weird clowns.
Knowing AHS, the show has a twist or two up its sleeve that will change my perspective at least as many times during the season, but after the slog of Freak Show, Hotel, and Roanoke, I appreciate the mental journey. Killer clowns aside, sometimes, reality is the scariest American horror story of all.
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