Sarah Paulson (Photo: Frank Ockenfels/FX)

“There’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man,” says Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) after a city council member dismisses his chilling speech on the power of fear, which sounds like it could be an irritating, but not too intimidating essay by an over-zealous college freshman in his first psychology (or poli-sci) class, until he hits what he came to speak out against—the council approving extra police officers to protect a Jewish community center that’s facing the same kind of anti-Semitic threats that are very real in our post-election world.

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Once Kai, with his blue hair pulled into a man bun (in a confusing stylistic choice that would seem to put him more at ease with a Bernie-bro than Trump supporter; blue locks would clash with a red hat), ends his rant by insisting, “we don’t need to protect the Jewish community center, we need to let them blow it up.” A council member (first introduced in an earlier scene berating his wife for not voting), makes it very clear he has no time for Kai, or the kind of person Kai represents (name dropping 4Chan and young men emboldened by “Papa Bear Trump”). With this exchange, Kai has become that most dangerous creature, and if the audience wasn’t wary of him after his Trump-by-way-of-cheese-dust makeover, they should be now.

If you had somehow missed the endless parade of American Horror Story: Cult teasers, promos, spoilers, and interviews that let fans know this season would tap into the fear sparked by the 2016 election, the premiere quickly gets to the thematic point by opening with a series of clips illustrating the tensions of the campaign, from Clinton and Trump themselves exchanging barbs to their supporters clashing at rallies. It’s effective, if a bit on the nose—whatever side of the aisle you’re on, it paints a chilling picture of emotions hitting a boiling point.

Clinton supporters mourning the death of democracy are depicted as both caricatures and audience surrogates here—sure it’s cringy when Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd), who dropped out of Vassar to work for Hillary, wonders why CNN didn’t preface the results with a trigger warning, or when Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) begins to literally scream as the results are confirmed. But when one of their viewing party guests (the scene is slightly reminiscent of the post-election Dave Chappelle SNL skit) point out anti-LGBT ideas from a president (or vice president) could have a real impact on the lives of Ally and her wife Ivy (Alison Pill), the terror these characters are telegraphing seems real and relatable.

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Beyond (though not totally removed from) the political themes explored, the premiere is focused on clowns—creepy, creepy clowns that make Pennywise look like a charming addition to a children’s birthday party.

Early on, the episode features a scene ripped from any classic horror flick: Two teens about to have sex in a very, very open-looking field interrupted by a monster just as the guy was finishing a story about said monster. In this case, the two young almost-lovers are interrupted and of course slashed to pieces by Twisty, the nightmare-inducing clown first introduced in Freak Show. It isn’t clear if Twisty will return or this was just a fan callback and general reminder to check out now if you’re still dealing with any unresolved coulrophobia.

Giant red noses fit into the larger Trump-world narrative because Ally is dealing with a serious clown phobia that’s resurfacing at least in part because of her election angst. When she sees a gaggle of murderous clowns filling an otherwise empty supermarket, you have to wonder if this vision (if it is only in her head) might have been triggered by her attempt to commiserate over the state of the nation with the lone cashier taking a turn when he praises Trump and puts on that iconic red hat. In the aftermath of Ally’s multiple clown encounters, Pill does a great job portraying a spouse who’s trying to balance understanding with the constant question: Is it time to bring in professional help? Her reactions also leave her history with Ally’s phobias muddied. Has it ever been this bad? If Ivy decides she can’t cope, will this episode be the last straw or the final escalation?

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The episode ends on a bloody note, with Ally and Ivy’s friends and neighbors murdered, and their adorable son Oz a possible witness, if he’s to be believed. At the very least, the show concocted a violent end for the couple Oz only thinks he witnessed being murdered, if his new babysitter Winter is to be believed. Lourd does a fantastic job of playing the world’s worst child care provider, keeping her sinister sitter just grounded enough to stay scary rather than funny. Knowing Winter chose brutally violent dark-web videos to entertain her young charge makes it easy for the audience to assume the kid’s account of the night—that Winter took him across the street just in time to see the very same clowns his mom encountered stab his neighbors (one of whom is the person who humiliated Kai)—is the right one. Yet the clowns being more real than imagined is still at odds with how others have experienced Ally’s assertions that she’s consistently under attack by villains in oversized shoes. They weren’t on the security camera at the supermarket, and they seem to disappear from her restaurant as soon as she yells for her wife.

It seems like the latest season of AHS is leaning on the fear and anxiety the audience brings with them rather than introducing the kind of twisted, heart-pounding mystery the show’s pulled out in the past. Maybe there are killer clowns on the loose, possibly led by Kai and other Trumpettes in rubber masks. Maybe killer clowns are just a simpler terrifying reality to confront than our own political reality. Either way, after November 8, 2016, it’s harder to dismiss any scenario as impossible. And that’s pretty scary.

Stray Observations

  • Why doesn’t Ivy immediately throw away her son’s clown comic? Sticking it in a drawer does not seem like a good solution when her wife’s tenuous grip on her sanity can be undone by just glancing at a clown. It might be worth it to head out of the country until all the promotion for It dies down, too—why take chances?
  • Is it normal for a psychiatrist to immediately bring the thing a patient has said is freaking her out closer? Ally’s TRX-loving therapist (Cheyenne Jackson) fetching the coral once she explained it gave her the heebie-jeebies seemed like something a mean kid brother would do, not a medical professor.
  • Do Cheetos have any skin-nourishing benefits? It would be super exciting to see the headline—“Evan Peters Has Discovered You Can Get The Best Facial of Your Life From a Vending Machine.”
  • Lena Dunham and her tweeting prowess have been name-dropped ahead of Dunham’s first appearance on the show. Here’s hoping they go full meta and have her character reference her love of Girls.

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