After an uneven—at times even cringeworthy—start, in episode four American Horror Story: Cult finally begins to come together. For loyal viewers not initially put off by the strange blend of killer clowns, half-baked political commentary, and the show’s usual gratuitous violence, the theme becomes more clear and, perhaps, intriguing enough that viewers on the verge of quitting might find themselves drawn back in to Ryan Murphy’s blood-soaked post-election saga.
A backstory episode, “11/9” takes place in the lead-up to the election and establishes quite a bit more of Evan Peters’ character, Kai Anderson, and the complexity of his master plan. Devilish characters like Kai thrive amid chaos, and he recognizes that a world at war is ripe for the taking. He reveals as much to Billy Eichner’s and Adina Porter’s characters as he artfully persuades them to join his following. Peters has unmistakably taken several cues from Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Dark Knight performance, and the best scenes of the episode are almost entirely his. It’s the first episode that follows him, with only brief cutaways to his co-lead, Sarah Paulson, and it might be revealing that her character’s absence coincides with the noticeable improvement.
Following years of playing exceptionally well-crafted and sympathetic characters for the franchise, Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards has been a frustratingly difficult figure in the first three episodes of Cult, not least of all because she killed a Latino man in episode two with seemingly no legal repercussion. A Jill Stein -supporting stand-in for the Bernie-or-bust crowd, Ally is the privileged embodiment of everything the right finds at fault in the left, but even left-leaning fans must also find fault in her character. Though she still seems in some ways the heroine (perhaps because that’s what audiences have come to expect of Paulson), instinct suggests she could prove to be Cult‘s worst villain, a turncoat exemplary of the most dangerous reaction to the 2016 election. After this episode, which closely details how Kai employs the power of fear to warp his recruits’ perception of the world, methods clearly already at work on Ally and her family, viewers can readily anticipate that Ally will succumb to her fears before the season’s end.
Like any of Murphy’s series, it’s best if you don’t get too hung up on the plotting: despite solving some little part of the mystery, episode four raises more questions than it answers, and experience says a clean resolution is unlikely. Whether the show has bitten off more than it can chew by tackling some of the toughest current issues in American politics also remains to be seen, but it feels as though this season has turned a corner. There is renewed hope that the sharper focus on fear will lead to a more coherent commentary, and when American Horror Story operates at its full capacity it’s the most frightening thing on TV.
Horror shows face tough competition these days, but American Horror Story: Cult is something to believe in.
Watch American Horror Story: Cult on Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX.