“I don’t know what’s real anymore.”
That observation is where Ally (Sarah Paulson) finds herself during the second episode of American Horror Story: Cult. You’ll recall that, when we last saw the Michigan lesbian, she woke up to find not wife Ivy (Alison Pill) asleep in their bed, but a demented clown. Terrified, she runs downstairs to get Ivy’s help, but by the time they’ve returned, the clown is gone.
Ally is paralyzed, worried something’s wrong with her. Is her mind playing tricks on her, or is the universe? Post-election, nothing seems real to Ally and gods, isn’t that relatable? Who among us didn’t walk around in a daze in the weeks after Nov. 8, 2016, worried we’d stumbled into some Bad Future version of the United States? Of course, we didn’t have clowns tormenting us at the same time.
Creator Ryan Murphy and his team are playing a tricky game in American Horror Story: Cult. In order to make the audience feel as disoriented as Ally does, they’re giving very little away about the mystery of the season. The clowns are seemingly part of a mentally ill woman’s imagination but this is American Horror Story. We know better than that. Yet why does no one see the clowns besides Ally and son Ozymandias (Cooper Dodson), the unfortunately named latter of whom suffers from night terrors?
Adding to this: The characterization of Winter (Billie Lourd), Ally and Ivy’s full-time nanny and, seemingly, the accomplice of Trump-obsessed villain Kai (Evan Peters), is confounding. Whether it’s Lourd’s performance or how Murphy and co. are writing the character, there’s an imprecision to Winter so far that’s intriguing, but dangerous. She’s so ingrained in the mystery (what is she doing to Ozy, and why?) that her motivations so far have remained totally unknown. It’s hard to feel anything in particular for that enigmatic a character; Murphy is asking both Lourd and the audience to take a big leap of faith with Winter.
Fortunately for the audience (if unfortunately for Lourd), there’s plenty of more interesting characters being introduced at the periphery. The second episode scores a homerun with the Wiltons, a gay husband-and-straight wife duo played by comic actors Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman. Their scenes are a welcome respite from the election-related clown horrors.
Hubby Harrison Wilton is a beekeeper, triggering Ally’s trypophobia with his honeycombs. He and Grossman’s Meadow bring some much-needed levity, what with their love of Nicole Kidman (they’re fan club members!) and Lemonade references (“I can’t drink this stuff without thinking of Beyoncé now,” Meadow says while preparing Crystal Light). None of their lines are really jokes, but Grossman and Eichner understand why the characters are funny. They’re vain and oblivious, spouting fake news about a blackout in the neighborhood being terrorism and stocking up on guns out of fear President Obama would take them away. When Meadow says she watches “all the Real Housewives, even Atlanta,” she hits the punchline exactly right with no need to explain. Of course this woman considers the black women of Real Housewives of Atlanta to be other when compared to the other, whiter franchises.
So far, this is what works best about Cult. While there’s plenty of horror pulp to be mined out of the election, Murphy and his team’s facility with camp perfectly puncture the uncertain fog that consumes the rest of the season. I can’t mentally separate one scene of Ally and Ivy panicking from another, but I will be quoting Meadow pointing to a particular gun and saying “That’s the pistol Nicole used in Cold Mountain” for days.
That’s why it’s disappointing to see the episode end on a suffocatingly serious note: Panicked about the blackout and alone with Ozy, a newly armed Ally shoots who she thinks is an assailant outside her door. Instead, it’s one of her and Ivy’s employees at their restaurant, come to bring them supplies on Ivy’s direction. Knowing Murphy and American Horror Story, the story will likely come to a quicker close than you’d expect but it’s still a turn toward the dark and bleak in a series that’s already heavy. We’re going to need a lot more of the Wiltons, to say the least.