It’s been a trying season of American Horror Story, overloaded with smugly on-the-nose commentary about the Trump era, gratuitous re-enactments of cults throughout history, and characters you wish would just die already. Last night’s penultimate episode revealed the sketchy motivation of alt-right fuckboy Kai Anderson (Evan Peters). But at this point, why should we care?
As you might recall, I was immediately turned off by Cult’s eagerness to exploit the unrelenting dread of our current political climate—something many people, including myself, feel every time we read real-life news headlines—for entertainment, in the most irritatingly heavy-handed way possible. Of course TV shows and movies are going to be shaped by what’s happening in the real world, but most of them don’t have dialogue that sounds ripped from a Facebook rant. Though a midpoint episode hinted that the show might change course and venture into some interesting storytelling, that hasn’t happened. Instead, we’ve seen the two main characters do all kinds of horrible things that are played for shock value, but don’t really feel especially shocking.
Kai—who finally shed his blue man bun in last night’s episode, “Charles (Manson) in Charge”—has been incredibly predictable all season. This has nothing to do with Peters’ performance, which is suitably intense, and everything to do with the writing. He has a tragic and bizarre backstory (he witnessed the murder-suicide of his parents, then preserved their bodies in their bedroom in the house where he still lives); a charisma that lures all kinds of frustrated people (African American newscaster Beverly Hope; lesbian chef Ivy Mayfair-Richards; a group of Aryan yes-men who go by code names like “Speed Wagon”) to his cause; and a childlike quality that translates to both violent temper tantrums and a fondness for a truth-telling game that invokes a sacred pinky swear.
As Cult has moved away from its clown killing spree plot and focused more on Kai’s political career, it’s had to add intrigue (and give its title more weight) by delving into various gruesome cult groups throughout history, with the throwaway explanation that all political movements are essentially cults (... of personality). Peters, of course, plays the leader in each scenario as he weaves the tales to his rapt followers. This has led to re-enactments both ghoulishly comical (Peters as Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite) and alarmingly believable, including a sequence that should make the creators of that upcoming Waco miniseries worried they cast the wrong guy as self-styled messiah David Koresh. As its title reveals, last night’s episode contained a frighteningly authentic depiction of the Manson family’s 1969 mass murder of Sharon Tate and company. Since Manson didn’t actually participate in those killings, he gets to bleed into Cult’s main plot as a hallucination of Kai’s increasingly paranoid mind. Kai’s freshly shaved head is a nod to Manson’s, though he has yet to carve a swastika in his own forehead.
Last night’s big reveal, of course, was that Kai’s political awakening came courtesy of Bebe (Frances Conroy), his anger-management counselor. We met this character a few weeks back within a completely different context: the Valerie Solanas episode, which instructed us to believe that Solanas’ militant feminist gang was responsible for the murders attributed to the Zodiac Killer. Obviously that’s farfetched, but it’s not as outrageous as the idea that Bebe, a former Solanas devotee, would spontaneously decide to convince Kai—during the course of their first counseling session, court-ordered after he slapped a Hillary Clinton supporter while watching the final presidential debate—that he has a greater purpose. His destiny, you see, is to “break down the dam” and unleash “the biggest bomb the universe has ever seen,” which is of course female rage.
Huh? Somehow, this proud internet troll falls for it, and that’s apparently been his motivation this entire time—at least until he began making people call him “Divine Ruler,” and success started going to his head (along with visions of Manson, who reminds him he “can’t trust the bitches”). The fact that “Charles (Manson) in Charge” aired on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election was kind of perfect; Cult may not be an especially enjoyable show to watch, but its careening chaos does capture the mood of stomach-lurching horror that’s been permeating the country since November 8, 2016.
And “female rage” has certainly been unleashed on the show, most notably in the form of what may be American Horror Story’s most love-to-hate character ever: Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards. Again, no fault of the great Paulson, who stepped out of Ally’s increasingly unhinged skin this week to rather remarkably embody bloodthirsty Manson family member Susan Atkins. Ally is just awful, plain and simple; you can’t feel sorry for her and you certainly can’t root for her. But she is by far the most interesting part of Cult, since her character is the only one that’s undergone any significant changes throughout the season. We’ve seen her transform from shrill scaredy-cat to cool, psychotic manipulator, so desperate to reunite with her young son that she’s willing to kill (and frame others, who will then be killed as a result) to get what she wants. I won’t be sorry to see Cult end next week, but I will absolutely be tuning into the finale—not to see Kai get his just desserts, which are surely coming, but to see exactly how Ally is going to bring the hammer down.