The Frustratingly Empty "Politics" of American Horror Story: Cult

TV Features American Horror Story: Cult
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The Frustratingly Empty "Politics" of <i>American Horror Story: Cult</i>

Tonight’s American Horror Story features that distinctly American fear, the one that enters our timelines, our lives, under the name “active shooter.” Or, at least, it did: Though the original version will be available On Demand, as well as on the FXNOW and FX+ platforms, the network released a statement Monday confirming that its linear channel will air “Mid-Western Assassin” with “substantial edits,” out of respect for viewers who might find it “traumatic.” Creator Ryan Murphy’s decision to truncate the episode is unsurprising—BoJack Horseman’s savage satire of the pieties surrounding the nation’s plague of gun violence, “Thoughts and Prayers,” practically predicted it—but it speaks to the current season’s eagerness to engage “politics” without becoming “political.”

Cult, in line with the country in which it’s set, is fascinated by firearms; the seventh season of Murphy’s anthology series refers to Stand Your Ground laws, George Zimmerman and personal arsenals, and depicts multiple gun deaths in its first five episodes. Long before “Mid-Western Assassin” adds to the body count, then, American Horror Story’s woeful attempt to account for last year’s election—the season premiere finds star Sarah Paulson, as Michigan liberal Ally Mayfair-Richards, emitting a frightful scream at the news of Trump’s win—underscores its strange sensitivities. When it comes to the accidental killings, murders and suicides that comprise the lion’s share of American gun deaths, Cult seems unconcerned with the implications of their on-screen representation. Mass shootings appear to be where the series draws a red line.

As BoJack recognizes, the contingent nature of Hollywood’s bloodlust is a function of public relations, not of moral conviction, and whether or not one agrees with the decision to re-edit “Mid-Western Assassin”—the sequence in question is clumsy at best, the specter of Las Vegas notwithstanding—it points to the abiding squeamishness of Cult. Despite its obsession with gore (deliriously bloody stabbings, the disgusting demise of a guinea pig), or indeed with the zeitgeist, the series waves off real horror—and, for that matter, coherent stories—in favor of the cheapest possible shorthand. Jill Stein voters, Nicole Kidman fans, the “pussy” tape; “red pill” subreddits, “economic anxiety,” Facebook’s influence; Lena Dunham, Ozymandias, Beyoncé, Jim Jones: The season bears the same resemblance to our own American horror story that Ally’s rare phobias (clowns, holes, airborne particles) do to cult leader Kai Anderson’s (Evan Peters) claim that “fear is currency,” which is to say a glancing one. Cult can’t dramatize its central thrust, its “fear itself” through line, because it doesn’t care to—it skims along the surface because surface is all it is.

Even at its most formidable, of course, American Horror Story preferred this chaotic, densely allusive mash-up of genres, tropes, eras, techniques; its finest season, Asylum, managed to shoehorn Anne Frank, serial killers, homophobic nuns and alien invasions into a wild, profoundly unsettling portrait of historical memory and its discontents. In Cult, though, fear no longer possesses a past¬—it emerges, tabula rasa, from election night and its aftermath, as if to erase the forebears of the crisis at hand. This departure from prior seasons, meta-textual thickets with multiple timelines, might explain why Cult’s “relevance” seems so weightless: American Horror Story’s insight, in Murder House, Asylum and Coven, was its willingness to weave horror into the very fabric of the American story, to acknowledge that crimes and their consequences outstrip idealism in the nation’s true narrative, if not always its fictions. (Freak Show, Hotel and Roanoke suggest much the same, though they replace the storytelling’s brick and mortar with the flimsier spit and glue.) Cult, which thus far reaches back no earlier than 2014, clings so hard to the present that it misconstrues symptoms and causes: It replaces provocations with pieties, and in the process loses its bite.

As it happens, Ally’s fears are not irrational—she is, in fact, encircled by a Satanic cult-slash-rainbow coalition of disgruntled citizens, including her wife and nanny (Alison Pill and Billie Lourd), both Clinton diehards; her neighbors (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman), both apathetic liberals; a Trump-crazy grocery store owner (Chaz Bono), and a policeman (Colton Haynes) and newscaster (Adina Porter) of indeterminate political leanings. (One of the season’s stronger sequences peeks into the voting booth on election night and finds the characters casting ballots for everyone from Gary Johnson to Oprah.) The point, I suppose, is to suggest that our national crack-up is non-partisan, that its fuel is a baser instinct, our penchant for stoking fear in the absence of love. But for a season “about” politics to eschew the political in this way—to position the depiction of a mass shooting as “political” while maintaining, at least tacitly, that other firearm deaths are not—is so bafflingly gutless that I almost have to expect it to come good in the end. How else to explain Cult’s very existence? How else to read its half-hearted interest in horror, except to hope that it’s playing a very long con?

In trying to amass enough allusions to connect its action to our own—Big Little Lies, Twitter, Etsy, cultural appropriation; the Emmys, immigration, Truvada, fake news—American Horror Story abandons its commitment to fear’s antecedents; more than the witless twists of seasons past, Cult absorbs the “LOL nothing matters” affect it’s ostensibly gunning for and turns it into a form of storytelling. Buried alive under its series of escalating set pieces, after all, is an appropriately rancid satire of the very pieties it ultimately stumbles into: Its first laugh line comes three minutes into the season premiere — “What’s gonna happen with Merrick Garland?” Ally cries — and from there it spins a rather scintillating send-up of self-serving liberalism, hers in particular. (In one episode, she complains to her therapist, played by Cheyenne Jackson, about losing her Guatemalan housekeeper; in another, she confronts the “pain” of being called a racist.) The new nanny, played by Lourd with cutting flatness, goes ahead and says it aloud: “It’s not always about you.”

It’s apt, in the end, that Cult should fail to thread the needle between its sense of humor and its sense of horror—after all, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has argued, it was jokes, not revulsion, that won the election. Both of the genres in which American Horror Story is operating this season require a certain amount of courage; to be truly unflinching, in either vein, means edging up to the line, even daring to cross it, and as “Mid-Western Assassin” suggests, Cult doesn’t seem to know where the line is. Maybe none of us do, not anymore, and if there’s one thing the series’ foray into politics inadvertently captures, it’s the utter confusion of the age we’re in: There’s nothing funnier than the shallowness of American politics, and nothing scarier than the thought of where that might lead.

American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.