After a year-long wait, the highly anticipated seventh season of American Horror Story hit screens, and Cult doesn’t disappoint, says Shaun Nolan. 

The seventh season of American Horror Story returned in September. Subtitled Cult, it followed a story that was promised to be set against the backdrop of the 2016 American Presidential election. But while many sceptics were originally sure this was just going to be an elaborate artistic backlash at the Trump presidency, the show not only didn’t succumb to that, but jumped right over it. Spoilers ahead.

The pre-season hype for American Horror Story is always just as exciting as the season itself and this year, it was no different. After keeping the theme for last year a secret until the debut episode, the show had to try and capture audiences in a different way but with similar anticipation and hype this time around. Eventually, it was revealed that the season would be subtitled Cult and set against the backdrop of the Trump v Clinton political battle of 2016. Initially, many people were concerned that the political nature of the season would detract from the horror elements, but let us down they did not. Not only did this season avoid bogging itself down in the muck of American politics, but its subtlety and intelligence when it came to its presentation of horror was captivating.

The season followed the story of Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) who live in a large suburban home and own a restaurant in Maine. Along with their adopted son Oz (Cooper Dodson), the pair open the season by weeping over the result of the election, while Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) celebrates. As the first act of the season matures, we see Kai become an increasingly eerie and intimidating man with it ultimately being revealed that he is trying to lead his own cult. In the meantime, Ally is seeing a psychotherapist (Cheyenne Jackson) about her overwhelming number of phobias. From the top of the season, we see Ally get attacked in a supermarket by a team of killer clowns, have her house be broken into and a lot more, but we cannot work out if she is hallucinating it or not. As a result, the onset of fear in the first half of the season is born: clowns are scary as hell.

Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story

Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story: Cult. Photo: FX

The initial reaction for me as a viewer was “Cheyenne Jackson is leading this team and is telling them what she’s scared of, obviously – I’ve worked out the season!” but of course I was wrong; why on Earth would they make it so obvious only three episodes in? It eventually conspires that it is Kai and his cult who are dressing up in scary clown costumes and harassing Ally, while also committing a series of intense and torturous murders. He does this with the help of Harrison (Billy Eichner) and Meadow (Leslie Grossman), his sister Winter (Billie Lourd) (who was hired as a nanny for Oz in the first episode, clearly as a way of getting inside Ally’s family), a local police detective (Colton Haynes), a local shop assistant (Chaz Bono) and a local newsreporter called Beverley Hope (Adina Porter). But it still begged the question: why were they doing it to Ally?

It was eventually made known that something predictable was the case after all: Ivy, Ally’s wife, was a member of the cult and was orchestrating the terror on her wife. While this made sense for the story, it disappointed me in how blindingly obvious it was and also in how it was executed. Eventually, I didn’t grasp why Ivy had decided to join this secret underground cult, or why she decided to harass her wife as a result. Around the same time, it was also revealed that Kai was an assistant to his parents’ murder and that he keeps their dead bodies in their old bed behind a locked door (weird).

By this point in the series though, I started to wonder: “what’s the point?” I couldn’t work out why they’d bother setting this story against a backdrop of the American election; members of the cult had voted for a multitude of different political leaders, so it definitely wasn’t shining a bad light on anybody, so what was the point? At this stage, the horror had moved from being typical murderous clowns causing the terror, to a kind of psychological horror instead, suggesting that succumbing to fear and giving in to evil is easy. I would argue that from this point on, the show was more of an ‘American Thriller Story’, but I let it slide because I still had a lot of questions I wanted answering.

Evan Peters laptop cult

Evan Peters playing one of his seven roles in AHS: Cult. Photo: FX

As we came into the latter third of the season, the reason behind why “cult” meant “presidency” to Ryan Murphy became very clear. In a collection of flashbacks, Evan Peters expertly told the stories of classic cult leaders like Andy Warhol, Charles Manson and more to explain how the idea of a cult has developed through time. In the episode where Peters embodies Andy Warhol, we are introduced to the infamous Valerie Solanos (Lena Dunham), the woman who would ultimately kill Warhol for what he’d done to her and would then retroactively start the S.C.U.M Manifesto. In this (heavily fictionalised) retelling of her life, we see the inner workings of iconic cults and how they destroy some people. While I found this bit interesting, it did feel like a lot of time-filler. Perhaps it will work differently when being binge-watched back because it was done with great craftmanship, but when you’re watching only one episode a week, having 50% of that be nothing to do with the characters you’re totally rooting for is a little bit disheartening.

It wasn’t until the final two episodes of the season that the whole thing really started to make sense for me. Eventually, Ally has learned that her wife is a part of the cult and has joined the team as a result. Kai has murdered a lot of people – including Cheyenne Jackson’s character (who was revealed to be Kai’s brother), almost every cult member that was a part of the original team, and his sister Winter – and his team is mostly made of overly macho and totally lost young men as a result. Ally has also murdered Ivy in cold-blooded revenge for the torture she put both Ally and their son Oz through and Beverley Hope is determined that they escape from the patriarchal world that Kai seems to be building.

In the final episode, we jump forward to 2018 where Kai has been arrested for his actions following his cult being found out by the FBI (due to a leak by Ally, so we discover that she was only in there as an undercover agent all along). In prison, Kai has set up a new cult which even includes the woman who guards his cell. At the same time, Ally is fighting back and has decided to run for their local senate seat, a position that Kai was running for when he was leading his cult. In a team managed by fellow cult survivor Beverley Hope, the two start to rise to prominence through the campaign but they can’t seem to shake off the public’s memory of what Kai did to Ally. As a result, the two form an elaborate plan to kill Kai on live TV and eventually win the senate seat. It wasn’t until this point, in the final moments of the season, that I really realised where the politics came into this mix: a political figure is the exact same as a Cult leader and it’s demonstrated here that it doesn’t matter if it’s Hillary Clinton leading that pack or if it’s Donald Trump. Either way, they are leading a team of followers toward their idea of a “promised land”. It’s a thought that actually terrified me deeply for the first time this season and while it took a long time for them to explain it properly, I appreciated it when it was done.

Evan Peters American Horror Story cult

Evan Peters as Kai Anderson. Photo: FX

The season concluded with Ally kissing her son goodnight and explaining that she is going to go and meet up with “some very important and powerful women” before sitting at her dressing table, donning a green hooded cape (like the women of Solanos’s ‘S.C.U.M.’ wore earlier in the season) and leaving the shot. Many conspiracies have come off of the back of this with the most obvious being that she has set up her own version of S.C.U.M. after being inspired by Valerie’s story, but some believe that it’s a hint towards the promise of season eight being the first season to bring us back to a theme used before in a Murder House / Coven crossover; the hooded figure being a reference to the witches in Coven. It was also reported online that the original draft of the script had an additional scene in which Ally went to this meeting which was attended by a lot of different characters that Paulson had played in previous seasons. While the idea of that sounds fun, not only does it seem unlikely, but it also seems like die-hard fan fiction and it would’ve ruined the show for me.

While the story wasn’t the scariest the show has ever told, the performances were some of the most fantastic. Sarah Paulson was, as always, a dream to watch perform and following on from her Emmy-winning portrayal of Marcia Clark in American Crime Story last year, it was wonderful to see her once again embody another complicated and complex character so beautifully. I also thoroughly enjoyed the newbies this season including Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman who, as I said earlier, could not help but be exuberantly charming and quirky. I also thought Adina Porter, who made her third return to the show this season, gave a brilliant performance, so much so that I am adamant that she returns for next season.

The real star of the show was undeniably Evan Peters as Kai Anderson (among other roles). It’s crazy to think of how totally hateable his character was this season  when you consider how loveable previous characters he has played have been. If you think back to his performance in Coven a few years ago and put it up against his performance this season, it is astounding to see the actor have so much range, and that’s even emphasised when he’s put against all of the other roles he played this season alone including Andy Warhol and Charles Manson to name but a few. If Peters doesn’t win an Emmy for this performance, I will be furious. It is one of those television performances that has to be seen to be believed and one that I think will be career-defining for where he goes on to after AHS.

Clown American Horror Story cult

Photo: FX

While the seventh season of American Horror Story is definitely a lot more nuanced than that, I think that’s a good description of the show in a nutshell. Ultimately, the show does pale in comparison to the horror presented in previous seasons (and no season of the show will ever beat Asylum for me), but its thriller twist this time around was as well considered as the likes of earlier seasons in the show’s run, which I appreciated immensely.

★★★1/2