How far into the reality or, in the case of living in Trump’s America, the surreality of modern day is too far? That’s the question posed by Tuesday night’s American Horror Story: Cult episode. Within the first 60 seconds of the episode, we see a mass shooting, one that seemingly takes out cult leader Kai (Evan Peters) and injures cultist Ivy (Alison Pill). The reveal at the end of the cold open: Ivy’s wife Ally (Sarah Paulson) is the one left with gun in hand.
When they were crafting the series, Ryan Murphy and his team clearly couldn’t have known this episode would air a mere eight days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (Murphy re-edited the episode after the shooting to less graphically depict the violence.) But of course, they did know that the Pulse shooting (the last to carry the “deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history” moniker) happened just last year. They knew what they were doing: paying brutal homage to a very real threat in American culture right now.
On the one hand, that’s what we’re signing up for in watching this show. Mass shootings are a uniquely American horror. But considering the previous six seasons have focused on the supernatural frights, this episode and truly, this entire season hits far closer to home. Matched with Murphy and company’s macabre sense of humor and questionable taste, and you wind up with a project that is increasingly difficult to watch. Having seen the original cut before the re-edit, had American Horror Story aired this episode as-is, it would have deserved every bit of inevitable criticism.
Most of “MidWestern Assassin” is about filling in our knowledge gaps: Ivy joined Kai’s cult, a twist from the previous episode, because she grew to hate Ally after she birthed their child, Ozy. As ill-defined as this reason is, it’s a hell of a lot better than last episode’s suggestion that she joined the cult because Ally voted for Jill Stein. (“Are you kidding me? That’s not a reason!” Ally shouts at the suggestion that her Stein vote was the cause.)
The truly revealing parts of the episode, however, are spent with Meadow (Leslie Grossman), wife of gay man Harrison (Billy Eichner). It turns out she’s in love with Kai, and her escape in the previous episode from Harrison and his lover Jack (Colton Haynes) was staged by her lover. Kai’s goal was to get her to shoot him at a public rally, thus elevating his brand of alt-right evil to the national stage.
Yes, it’s revealed at the end of the episode that Ally wasn’t the shooter at all it was Meadow, who kills herself after non-fatally shooting Kai. The cult leader is alive, and will return more influential and powerful than before. Meanwhile, Ally is wrongfully arrested for the shooting.
Episode 6 tends to be a turning point for American Horror Story seasons. Last cycle, Roanoke, saw the entire story flip in episode 6, with the cast members of the fictional show My Roanoke Nightmare from episodes 1-5 suddenly taking center stage as themselves for the rest of the season. Seemingly, this episode serves a similar purpose: Characters are reset into new roles, one even dying, and the narrative generally seeming up in the air.
But upon reflection, was the spectre of mass shootings really necessary to get to that reset? Sure, this kind of attack is an American horror. That in and of itself isn’t enough to justify its inclusion particularly when the reveal of who and what is behind it is treated as a bait-and-switch surprise. Mass murder is too frequent an occurrence in American society; I admit I’m not sure what Murphy and his team are saying about it, if they’re saying anything at all, with this episode.
It’s no surprise that Cult has been a scattered, disappointing installment of Murphy’s flagship series so far. Perhaps it can figure a way out of the deep hole it has dug for itself in the next few episodes, but we’re just about ready to call this season a wash.