Confession: When I heard months ago that the writers of “American Horror Story” were releasing a season about the 2016 election, I cringed. It felt too soon, especially since the issues of the 2016 election still loom over us and have dominated 2017 as much as they dominated last year. However, after watching the entire season, including its finale this week, I realized that the horror anthology did a fair job capturing this moment, from the rise of the alt-right/white supremacists, to the power of the women’s movement, to the growing wave of mass shootings. “American Horror Story: Cult” touches upon all of those issues and its finale has an ambiguous ending that questions just where these movements on the left and right will lead.
There are a few spoilers ahead, so if you plan to watch the season, you may want to stop reading here. For the most part, the seventh season of AHS focuses on Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), a rabid left-winger who catches flack from her wife and friends when she admits that she voted for Jill Stein, and Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), a white supremacist Trumper turned cult leader who paints his face with Cheeto goop and cries victory after the 2016 election results come in and he realizes his guy won. The premiere is absurd, for sure. Some of the dialogue is a volley of clichés on the left and right, but in the age of hashtag social justice movements and 140 characters, maybe that’s the point.
Their ideologies only harden as the season progresses. For instance, there are hints early in the season that maybe Kai Anderson is trolling the absurdity of the online alt-right/white supremacist community, and perhaps he wanted Trump to win because he thought it would embolden and awaken the left. However, by mid-season, he grows an army of alt-righters after winning a city council seat, based on a Trump-like platform. As his followers grow, Kai’s political ideology gets more and more extreme and includes violence against minorities and women (including strangling his sister to death because he thinks she’s an FBI informant) and even a staged assassination attempt to launch a national platform for a Senate seat.
On the other hand, Ally evolves from a leftist cliché character to someone who wields feminism and intersectionality to take down Kai. One of the final scenes of the season includes Ally on stage during a Senate debate for the seat Kai wanted. After he escapes from prison, he tries to assassinate her and screams that women have no place in power. Working with other women, including a black prison guard and a black female reporter, Beverly Hope (Adina Porter), Ally defeats him and Beverly shoots him in the head. There are hints that Ally won’t covet power all for herself, as a white feminist, but wants to share it with all women.
While the season was certainly hard on Trump voters, it wasn’t afraid to lampoon the left and pose questions about social movements on both the left and the right, including extremism. The last scene of the finale entails Ally talking to her son, telling him that she hopes his generation will learn from the mistakes of the past and that she, as a newly-elected senator, can help create a world less dominated by sexism for him to inherit. However, the last shot includes Ally wearing a cult-like robe, which begs the question whether or not she will follow in the footsteps of SCUM manifesto author Valerie Solanos, a radical 1960s feminist who attempted to kill Andy Warhol and whose story was featured throughout the season. The finale leaves the viewer wondering if Ally’s views were hardened and pushed so far to the left, due to her confrontations with Kai, that she too will turn to violence in the same ways that he did.
Any writing on horror theory and structure, be it Stephen King’s Danse Macabre or Robin Wood’s influence essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” stresses the point that the best horror films are allegorical and reflective of our national anxieties. With so much national turmoil, maybe it’s no surprise that AHS found its stride again, after a few lackluster seasons that even Lady Gaga couldn’t save. Paulson and Peters, two of the only original cast members left, give a few stellar performances, especially in their final confrontation. There were episodes that made me cringe, especially some of the dialogue (Ally shouting to Kai that she’s a nasty woman moments before he’s shot and killed, for instance), but maybe that was the point. Maybe the season is meant to reflect our divide post-2016 and make us question if we too are falling into some of those ideological stereotypes.