In the era of Peak TV, it’s hard not to think about what a show’s legacy will be once it’s off the air, how often its title will appear in essays and pop culture books next to Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and The Sopranos, and what its blurb will say.
American Horror Story will almost certainly be remembered for Sarah Paulson’s star-making turns, Jessica Lange’s renaissance, and for making the anthology series cool again (though it could be tough to argue that it brought on an anthology trend when so many of them are also helmed by Ryan Murphy).
It could be argued though, that AHS’ greatest legacy will be its reaction GIFs. The iconic “Surprise, Bitch” from Coven, Evan Peters stalking the high school halls in his skull makeup in Murder House, and what promises to be a new gift from AHS: Cult—Billy Eichner appearing suddenly in the window with a warning, “Lesbians, we’re under attack.”
By the time Eichner, Ivy and Ally’s new neighbor, pops up with this moment of bleak comic relief, it feels more than necessary. Cult’s second episode lacks any chills or thrills because it utterly lacks suspense, its message (and possibly the message of the entire season) so clearly telegraphed—fear can turn us into the monsters we condemn.
The episode opens with Ally waking up next to yet another terrifying clown, and when she runs down to tell her wife they’re under attack yet again by one of Ronald McDonald’s more terrifying cousins (we’re only two episodes in, please feel free to include your own ways of describing clowns below), her wife takes her 100% seriously, grabbing a knife and following her upstairs with obvious fear. It’s never explained why Ivy suddenly believes Ally’s clown hallucinations are now clown realities—if they believe their son really saw clowns killing their neighbors it might make sense, but seeing as the Baby-Sitters Club reject is still in charge of the poor kid, it’s safe to assume they’re still in the dark about how the neighbors really died.
But as one door closes on horrible bloodshed and murder, another opens, and the couple soon meets their new neighbors, just your average, Nicole Kidman loving, bee-keeping, gun-toting husband and wife Harrison (Eichner) and Meadow (Leslie Grossman). The pair is just friendly enough for Ivy’s insistence that their eccentricities (Harrison, it’s revealed, is actually Meadow’s former GBF, their union the result of the kind of “if we’re not married in ten years” pact that really should have died after the release of My Best Friend’s Wedding) are more odd than menacing comes off as mostly believable. Still, their nonchalance about moving into a house that still sports blood stains from the previous homeowners points to something more sinister in their past than a penchant for buying Kidman memorabilia (could there be something to the fact the poster they have up in the kitchen is of The Stepford Wives, a creepy remake no one would argue is Kidman’s best work)?
Ally’s fear gets a swift uptick when she encounters something no one could argue isn’t very real, and very tramutizing—bumping into one of their chefs hanging from a meat hook dead (or, as she explains to her therapist who just happens to stop by), nearly dead, the ultimate fatal blow (pull? yank?) not actually coming until Ally jostles him in an attempt to help. With the incident fresh in her mind, she goes to see the neighbors for a little insurance in the form of a gun. Which is where things get much less interesting.
In case you didn’t see the connections and contradictions being made as super-liberal Ally decides to bear arms to protect her family and feel safe when she bristles against her therapist’s concern about the firearm she leaves no room for interpretation, asking if his reluctance about her having a gun if being spoken as her therapist or a “knee-jerk liberal,” going on to say, “because that was my first reaction as well, until I started to reason it out.” You can practically hear the mad scientist in the background cackling, “It has begun. She’s...changing.”
So it’s immediately clear when Ivy sends her busboy Pedro to check on an unraveling Ally after the power goes out across the city (possibly at the hands of North Korea, according to the GIFable Harrison), the same man questioned by police after the chef’s murder (and, more to the point questioned about his immigration status though he’s a citizen) that he’s going to end up a victim of Ally’s fear. When he arrives at the door just as Ally’s preparing to flee not just the darkness and all its uncertainty, but a fresh horde of clowns, it’s barely a surprise when she shoots him in a moment of terror and watches in horror as he crumbles. She might have decried the police for profiling him for the color of his skin, but it’s Ally’s fear that put him in life-threatening danger (it’s not clear by the end of the episode if the shot was fatal). Now the biggest question is, with Ally already transformed into a person who shoots first and asks questions later, where is there to go?
- Why oh why would you send someone who is having fear-based panic attacks, and possible full-on hallucinations, to check out a disturbance at your empty, dark, knife filled restaurant? It seemed like a job for just about anyone else.
- Billie Lourd’s deadpan delivery of “It’s not always about you,” in response to Ally’s frantic pleas for her to stay to fight the threat in the night was hilarious, but her insistence that she had to get home to protect her belongings seemed puzzling. Is this Ryan Murphy’s way of inserting a think piece on millennial materialism?
- Wouldn’t Ally’s volatile state and possible hallucinations, plus a secret handgun check the “danger to herself or others” box Ally’s therapist would need to mention the gun to Ivy?