We're less than halfway through American Horror Story: Cult and less than a year into the Trump Administration, which AHS is using for creative inspiration. But many viewers might be too troubled by the 2016 presidential election's impact on their daily lives to find any sense of entertainment or escape from the FX series this season.
With the 24-hour cable news circuit, Americans are constantly engulfed by soundbites and snapshots of atrocious acts of violence and hate speech. As our president threatens nuclear war with other countries and Nazis march in the streets with torches, how — when we watch AHS: Cult — are we expected to find entertainment in this reflection of reality, which mirrors the fear and paranoia that have seeped into everyday American existence?
I suppose that's the entire point of this season's narrative, as protagonist Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) attempts to wade through a sea of phobias and keep her head above water in order to avoid drowning in her own manic devastation. She can't tell hallucination from concrete information any more than some people can tell facts from fake news.
It Just Feels Too Real
Ally's slack expression and raw panic during the opening of the first episode was my fiancée's as we watched the results of Pennsylvania roll in on the night of the election. The worried look Ivy and Ally exchanged over the security of their marriage and parentage of their son is the same one we shared as I looked in on my sleeping stepdaughter as the decision our country had made began to sink in.
The first glimpse of Evan Peters's character Kai, as he screams in furious victory at Trump's election, is believably terrifying. I remember scrolling through Instagram in the middle of the night on November 8th and seeing a celebratory photo from a family member that was colored with "Killary" hashtags, and the visceral reaction to seeing this scene was similar. Even Kai methodically blending the remnants of a Cheetos bag to paint a thick coat of edible orange paste onto his face — before sitting silent across from his sister in her bed — is disturbingly and startlingly genuine.
But there's an even bigger problem than mixing reality with fiction...
Is American Horror Story's Satire Missing The Mark?
The full-blown hysteria on display in AHS: Cult is executed with a hand so heavy that, as each week goes by and another episode airs, it seems that AHS: Cult is mocking those who oppose Trump just as much as those who support him.
In the third episode, Ally chastises her son for naming her male guinea pig "Mr. Guinea," because they don't support cis-normative pet names. The same neighbors (from hell) who gifted Oz with Mr. Guinea then show up with sombreros in solidarity of the death of a Mexican-American; the humor feels tone-deaf as real immigrants fear ICE on an hourly basis outside the television screen.
As AHS: Cult continues on the path it has forged so far, there are no villains or heroes, even though in real life one side believes in tolerance and the other side does not. In the show, they feel lumped together as sardonic targets.
Is It Too Soon For AHS To Make Entertainment Out Of Trump-Era Terror?
The moral of AHS: Cult, or rather lack thereof, appears to follow the well-known Roosevelt quote: "[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
In some cases, this fear is being bred by an underground group of anarchist Trump supporters, but some of this fear is self-imposed, whether it be from phobias, paranoia or hyper awareness of what's politically correct. To lump these exaggerated fictional fears into the authentic ones that plague this country right now has created a mockery of what's truly and rightfully scary for many of us.
How will AHS: Cult be viewed in retrospect? Will the tools Ryan Murphy is using to create horror out of current events seem less distasteful when they're past events? Is AHS: Cult triggering a hypersensitivity that we might become numb to as time goes by?
I suppose these aren't questions that can be answered any time soon, so for now we can either choose to mute our televisions or resign ourselves to watching our nightmares come to life both on and off the screen.
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesday nights on FX.