If there were two news cycles that most people definitely had their fill of in 2016, it was the outbreak of creepy clown sightings terrorizing America and, of course, the presidential election — the latter having had lasting effects many Americans are still reliving on a daily basis, like an awful Groundhog Day scenario. For some reason, these are the two components Ryan Murphy went with when concocting the plot for the seventh season of his horror anthology, American Horror Story: Cult, but after the premiere episode it’s not clear where he’s going with what’s so far a confusing, too-soon satire.
The premiere opens with real clips from the 2016 election: news networks analyzing Hillary’s emails, Trump’s now-infamous quip about how he could shoot a person of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, Hillary foreshadowing our current predicament by saying, “You can’t just say whatever pops into your head if you want to be President of the United States of America,” and so on. It then cuts to an election night viewing party at the home of Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill), a married couple with a little boy named Oz, just as things are looking dire for the Democratic candidate. “No that’s bullshit. I won’t believe anything until I hear Rachel Maddow say it,” Ally says defiantly, before breaking down into heaving sobs as the election is called for Trump.
In another part of their suburban Michigan town, a blue-haired miscreant named Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) has a polar opposite reaction to the election results, declaring that the revolution has begun while chanting “USA! USA!” and humping his television. He then proceeds to dump cheese puffs into a blender and smear them on his face to go taunt his sister Winter (Billie Lourd, in her inaugural role in the series). Learning of the news, Winter is devastated, having dropped out of Vassar College to campaign for Hillary for a year. “What if I get pregnant now, where will I get an abortion?” she asks a friend on the phone. “What is wrong with CNN for not giving us a trigger warning before announcing the results?”*
(*) Liberals are not safe from this election-themed satire, as Ryan Murphy also takes aim at those who couldn’t be bothered to vote, or those, such as Paulson’s character, who voted third party out of their “conscience.”
These are the four central characters of Cult, although how they are connected to one another remains ambiguous at the end of the first episode. Like many in the real world who experienced heightened anxiety after the election, Ally likewise experiences PTSD, in the form of her many assorted phobias resurfacing — her coulrophobia (fear of clowns), fear of holes, and fear of blood. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson) prescribes her medication after her fears cripple her to the point that she can barely leave the house or help out with the business she runs with Ivy, a restaurant called The Butchery On Main. Their marriage really starts to get strained, however, when Ally begins seeing scary clowns in real life.
Meanwhile — and I can’t emphasize this enough — for reasons that are entirely unclear, Kai seemingly recruits Winter (now with matching teal hair) to work as a nanny for Ally and Ivy, and it quickly becomes apparent that she has nefarious motives. Aside from it being unclear why an average Hillary-supporting millennial would do the bidding of her psychotic, fear-peddling, Trump-supporting brother, it also remains to be seen as to why Kai and Winter are targeting the lesbian couple in the first place. At one point in the episode, when Kai bumps into Ally and Ivy and throws a cup of coffee on them, it’s clear that the two women don’t know their tormentor.
Ally’s hallucinations are eventually proven to be real when — while the two women are out for the evening leaving Winter in charge — Oz spots an ice cream truck full of the same creepy clowns his mother saw pulling up across the street, and the nanny inexplicably takes the small boy over to do some detective work. Through a window he sees the clowns brutally murdering the neighbors from the election party seen in the opening scene — one of whom turned down Kai’s city council request to approve extended overtime for sheriff’s deputies to stand guard at the Jewish community center to aid their plans to blow it up. (“There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man,” he ominously told the council.)
The scenes of the premiere take place on the night of and several weeks (months?) following the election. The fourth episode (FX has released screeners for the first four episodes, but I’ve only watched the first for the purpose of this recap) is titled “11/9,” and hopefully it will fill in some of these gaps. So far, however, it’s featured extremely confusing storytelling. The scenes seem disjointed and out-of-context, as does the introduction of Twisty the Clown. John Carroll Lynch reprises his role as season four’s Freak Show villain only in the context of Oz’s imagination as he reads a comic book based on the killer clown (who sort of redeemed himself in his previous incarnation, by the way). How Twisty ties into the overall clown theme likewise remains to be seen.
In previous seasons, American Horror Story at least started out cohesively, plot-wise, before eventually and inevitably going off the rails. Here we’re immediately presented with loose ends and confusing plot twists right from the beginning. If Murphy doesn’t fill in the blanks in the coming episodes this might end up being the most confusing season yet. Now that is a scary thought.