From the moment Ryan Murphy declared that American Horror Story: Cult would take on the 2016 election, the predominant obsession has been figuring out WHAT THIS MEANS and how exactly Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton figure into the season. With the sometimes clever, often bats–t insane season coming to a close that answer is clear: they were merely tangential.
Fans and critics alike have been divided on the season. Cult was undeniably convoluted, with dead ends and twists that were nonsensical, even by AHS standards. Regardless of the reception, the season did do what AHS does best: Tap into a primal terror, a paranoia Ryan Murphy saw becoming more concrete after the 2016 presidential election when it became clear that everyone regardless of political affiliation had lost their collective minds.
No, AHS: Cult was not about politics, but media illiteracy and how the frightening power of groupthink can be used and abused by savvy leaders. Admittedly, that thesis became hard to remember as the season began, especially with the Trump and Clinton masks in the intro, and Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) smearing Cheeto powder on his face. But it’s all in the receipts.
“The season really is not about Trump, it’s not about Clinton,” Murphy said in an early interview with THR. “It’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see that that’s what’s happening and is using that to rise up and form power, and using people’s vulnerabilities about how they’re afraid.”
That the liberals were lampooned as much as the Trump-worshipper was demonized only backed the point. Once fear takes over, people lose their goddamned minds — a theory certainly not difficult to see playing out on social media feeds and news broadcasts. Murphy repeatedly brought the show back to the fact that this sad state of affairs is as funny as it is scary (as long as one happens to find gratuitous murder and dismemberment cute), and the dark humor of manipulation played out again and again. Lead antagonizer and monster-in-the-flesh Kai, with his utterly stupid pinkie swearing, gained access to people’s deepest or overt worries, be they about sexual orientation (Billy Eichner‘s Harrison Wilton), skin color (Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) or the fear being replaced by minorities (Chaz Bono‘s Gary Longstreet) and used them to do his bidding. Up until the finale, Kai literally kept a finger on the pulse of people’s insecurities and most selfish impulses, leveraging them for ascendant power.
Even if the season frequently felt like an unfocused mess of ideas splattered onto the screen like the fake blood splattered about this season, the cult leaders who became Kai’s inspiration/hallucination heroes drilled home the chorus. The scariest boogeyman aren’t fictional figures or imaginary monsters that live in the dark, but mortals like Jim Jones and Charles Manson, men skilled at turning people into zombies by figuring out what they’re afraid of, and sending them out to eradicate it. Like Kai, every cult leader depicted knew exactly how to weaponize people’s pain. Murphy made viewers see that, no matter the party or demographic, uncontrolled anger and “What about me?!” victimization becomes a breeding ground for unscrupulous figureheads to march in. Or creepy clowns. Or something like that. Either way, Ally, Gary, Ivy (Alison Pill) and every other marching moron in Kai’s army made viewers look at the danger of unchecked gullibility.
Murphy’s messages of succumbing to fear and not handing over one’s mind to someone else might have been lost in the wild story turns, but ultimately it did what Murphy said it would. AHS: Cult, in all its ridiculousness, showed how easily people can be duped, and how quickly a mad leader can create a circus. And it’s up to viewers to challenge what they see. Certainly, that’s something every American now thinks about every day.
American Horror Story: Cult aired its season finale on Tuesday at 9/8c on FX.