Unlike previous seasons, American Horror Story: Cult, takes place in the modern time. Even My Roanoke Nightmare was focused on historical occurrences and mystery. “Election Night” decides to focus on two large events in 2016: The Presidential Election and the evil clown sightings that occurred all over the United States.
The opening credit scroll for this season is fraught with chaotic images of clowns, blood, and bugs. It hits all the major themes, phobias, and ideas for the season. It maintains the droning intro that has been there since Season 1, along with the potential foreshadowing of future events. There is even an IT reference for those who understand the significance of the red balloon. The political imagery sets the springboard for the season. The one thing that seems out of place is the image of gassed dogs, shown dead on the ground with one being held by a person in a gas mask and coveralls. This conflicts with the otherwise consistent imagery of the main intro. However, it definitely intrigues me as potential foreshadowing for upcoming events (or a subplot)- or maybe it is just shocking imagery used to horrify the audience.
Before the intro, “Election Night” starts with scenes that most Americans are all too familiar with. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are shown competing against each other on the campaign trail, culminating in Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States. Cutting from Trump being elected we receive two very different reactions, portrayed by Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) and Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson). Immediately, the typical over-dramatic AHS flair is applied to both these characters in order to contrast their reactions to the election. Ally is grief-struck over Hillary’s defeat, crying and carrying on to the point her son comes over and asks if his mother’s marriage will be taken away. While Ally’s grief is something I identify with, her character is not one I necessarily identify with. Her wife tries to comfort her while her friend and neighbor Mr. Chang (Tim Kang) goes on about how they are losing Missouri due to Jill Stein voters. This is a sentiment that I saw too often after the election. This reinforcement of done to death 2016-2017 ideas is a common thread through out the episode.
Kai on the other hand is shown to be smashing Cheetos into dust, carrying on to the point he begins to dry hump his TV while chanting “USA! USA! USA!”. His manic excitement is something that we saw reflected in Trump supporters after the election as well. While both reactions are realistic, the animalistic nature of Kai’s reaction seemed more true to character than Ally’s. One specific scene after this works very well with Evan Peter’s acting as well as the overall direction of the scene and reaction. Ryan Murphy’s directing makes Kai blending Cheetos and slathering them all over the mirrors and his face an extremely creepy act. Clearly a call to Donald Trump’s complexion, it makes something so downright silly into something sinister when compared to his earlier reactions to Trump’s victory. Kai’s character is further developed as he shows his control over his sister Winter (played by Billie Lourd), face slathered in ground up Cheeto dust. Something that should be comical is creepy and disturbing.
This scene also falls into the overdone tropes surrounding 2016-2017. Winter is shown on the phone, talking to a friend and complaining that there were no trigger warnings on the election. Her friend also begs Winter to not hurt herself over the reactions to the election. The scene screams misunderstanding of Millennials as over-sensitive and having mental illnesses that are so easily ‘triggered’ to use the vocabulary of the show. The entire exchange is unnecessary and downright demeaning to those who not only understand the trigger warning debate but to those who suffer from mental illness and self-harming tendencies. This is not the first time Ryan Murphy has shown his misunderstanding and disconnect with the younger generations and love for stereotypes (specifically people of color), but it was one that stuck out as extremely unnecessary.
Compared to the rest of the characters in the “Election Night”, Kai ends up not only as the most established, but as the most realistic. At a town meeting after the election, he gives a speech about fear that even had me thinking (especially as the curator of a horror website). Ryan Murphy’s writing of this character is the perfect storm of charisma and outlandish ideas that make for a cult leader. This is only solidified as he is shown taunting immigrant workers in order to stage his assault by them. This use of deception and deceit to prove a point struck a chord that paralleled the actions of YouTube pranksters. Often these YouTubers will go into predominantly black neighborhoods and harass (sometimes even assault) black people to show how ‘violent’ and ‘unreasonable’ people in ‘the hood’ are. Despite being a collection of ideas on what makes a cult leader, Kai’s character is one that could very easily be a real cult leader in our current time.
Portrayed alongside Kai’s march to a cult leader is Ally’s slow descent into psychosis. Ally has a phobia of clowns and holes and the dark and several other phobias that she rattles off to her psychiatrist. The phobias experienced by Ally have only been made worse by the stress and fear of the election. She is scared for her family, her son, the state of the country she lives in. She begins to hallucinate seeing clowns, chopped up fingers, blood pouring from hole-filled objects, and so forth as she loses her grip on reality. This comes to a head when her neighbors are murdered by what their son (Oz) sees as a band of clowns only for Winter to say he was influenced by the season four Freak Show call back comic of Twisty the Clown.
Despite the stereotypes associated with Winter’s character when she is first shown, her character is realistic to me. The stereotypes in “Election Night” are mentioned and then dropped, not to be brought up again. The sister of Kai is obviously brainwashed and manipulated by her brother. Their interactions are intense and one-sided, making them hard to watch. She is obviously afraid of her brother in some ways, but this fear makes her obey him. This is further proven by her interactions with Oz, the son of Ally and Ivy. Kai scouted this family out, sent Winter to them as their nanny, brainwashing her into which answers she should say to get the job, and then used her to start brainwashing Oz. Her first night as his babysitter, she uses his interest in the Twisty the Clown comics to show him real dead bodies on “the Dark Web”. Then she gaslights his witness of the murder of the Chang’s using this very same interest. Even the viewer starts to doubt that Oz really saw what he did since the cop mentions it was more than likely a “murder-suicide”.
The use of cult tactics to get the viewer at least interested in Kai and his ideas, even causing the viewer to doubt Oz and his witness of a murder, is clever. Ryan Murphy has his moments of genius when it comes to directing and writing a show, and these moments show through in “Election Night”. Kai is shown as a charismatic speaker who manipulates not only those around him but the facts in order to fit his twisted and delusional idea of reality. The election is only the basis for his ideas on fear and their driving factors for the masses.
In “Election Night”, Ryan Murphy establishes two plot lines: the effects of the election of Ally and her family, and Kai’s descent into some form of what seems to be a murder clown cult. Despite the in-your-face gory nature of this first episode, there is no cult established yet. American Horror Story is known for its off-tangent side plots that often get in the way of the actual story, sometimes leaving rushed or loose ends (AHS: Freak Show is a prime example). Hopefully this season will stick to these two plot lines which already share a connection in Winter (and thus, Kai). Only time and future episodes will reveal whether or not this season stays its course. Ryan Murphy has stated the politics are only the catalyst for this season, not the focus, so we can only wait to see where it goes from here. “Election Night” does well to convey the overall theme of the season, cramming a lot into one episode (including at least two major call backs).
Author: Lucian Clark
Lucian is the owner/creator of queer horror website, GenderTerror. They also hold a BA in Psychology from Post University. Favorites video games, rats, and cosplaying. They can be found most of the time writing fanfiction or yelling excitedly on Twitter.
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