This week’s episode was kind of reminiscent of the middle of Valentine’s Day if the Garry Marshall film had included a lot more bloodshed. Four episodes into Cult and the audience knows how the characters are connected, but what hadn’t been explained, exactly, is why all these people from different backgrounds have collided. The connection, of course, is Kai, that blue-haired cult leader whose full OkCupid bio has now been revealed (if he really is committed to the truth, we know he majored in feminist studies, had a stint in the military, and now works in computers, because every TV and movie character of the last thirty years portrayed as smart and menacing works in computers).
Rather than dealing with any of the cliffhangers from last week’s episode (Is Meadow dead? Are Ivy and Ally over for good?) the show brings us back to election night, 2016, and the first of a fantastic bookend. When Kai brings in a frantic, bleeding man to cast his ballot for Trump, it seemed for a moment Kai himself might have inflicted the wound himself, as some kind of sinister and very small stakes drive to get out the vote for his orange idol. But as the episode wore on, it became more and more apparent that Kai’s allegiance isn’t to Trump, it’s to the fear he knew Trump’s reign would bring out in people on both sides. When we finally see the bleeding voter sawing off his own arm (as Kai looks on) so he can vote for Trump in defiance of all those who humiliated him (Kai name drops Samantha Bee and Rachel Maddow), it’s clear that Kai doesn’t care at all about what Trump has been saying. He cares about the rage the president’s word inspires. And he really knows how to harness that rage.
The story of Harrison and Kai is both the strangest and most amusing segment of the night, with Kai signing up for personal training with an ulterior motive, like hundreds of characters before him. Watching the cult leader answer his new trainer’s questions both honestly but in a way that could be dismissed as cliched hyperbole (his training goals include “world domination”) make it obvious that this is the strongest episode of the season. Instead of seeing painfully obvious connections between Ally’s anxiety and increasing political tension in the wake of Trump, we’re shown the slow burn of an expert manipulator transforming a sad, frustrated, and most importantly frightened man into a murderer. And crucially not just a murderer who’s driven to crush his bosses’ windpipe in a swirl of rage and Kai’s whispers, but who gets a chance to save said jerk when he gasps for breath after the initial assault, only to chose to double down and bash his head in with a hand weight.
Harrison is still being used, effectively, as the show’s comic relief because Billy Eichner just can’t run around yelling “I’m a murderer” without being funny. Meadow’s deadpan detachment is also hilariously dry, from her offer to sleep with a pair of pot smokers in exchange for their joint, providing the caveat that she’ll be more enthusiastic than skilled, to her stonefaced reaction to finding her husband sawing the head off a corpse in their motel room bathroom. Leslie Grossman does a great job of capturing the mood of someone who feels they’ve been dealt so many bad breaks, getting involved in the cover-up of a murder is simply something to add to the list.
Kai’s final recruit of the night, underappreciated newscaster Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) seems to be his only mark with a specific purpose in mind. He explains to Hope (taking her for coffee at The Butchery on Main, which seems like it was chosen for more than convenience, by Kai and the showrunners) that he needs someone on air stoaking the flames of fear. Though she at first doesn’t believe that he might be the person to create a new world order, she doesn’t argue the world should be remade. Hope is a woman fresh out of a psychiatric treatment facility for doing something that could certainly be perceived as crazy, but could also be seen as a reasonable reaction to being pushed too far. After men interrupt several of her live newscasts with shouts of “grab her by the pussy,” she wails on one with her microphone, screaming, “I’ll grab you by the pussy!” Watching the evolution of her reactions to the lewd interruptions makes her explosion that much more affecting—the first time her interview subject shouts it she’s visibly shaken, still professional but uneasy and unsafe. The second clip shows someone who’s no longer surprised by the harassment, just exasperated, completely fed up. By the time she’s wielding the microphone like a bat, it seems like the only possible response to yet another incident.
When Beverly sees Kai’s killer clowns murder her condescending co-worker (Emma Roberts) she comes running to his basement (has a creepy guy ever set up shop in a dining room or a breakfast nook?) to breathlessly tell him, “I believe in you.” It’s obviously all Kai has been looking for, but the moment becomes slightly strained when she brings up an agreement from their coffee shop date- “equal power.” He repeats it, but his eyes can’t quite focus when he echos his own promise. Kai wants power, and though he might not think he’s better than any specific group, it seems safe to say he doesn’t believe he’s anyone’s equal.
- The biggest surprise of the night was Winter and Ivy’s past. It makes the reveal of the bathtub footage in last week’s episode that much more powerful. Ivy wasn’t just experiencing the betrayal of her wife, she was experiencing the betrayal of a co-conspirator, someone who stood up for her and helped her to take back a feeling of power when she was at her most vulnerable.
- The now-one armed Trump supporter’s employee reminds him to vote, then seems at least a little put out when he strongly implies he’ll be voting for Trump. It seems very unlikely, though, that this man kept his political leanings out of the workplace for the entire campaign cycle.
- Emma Roberts’ character was perfectly villainous, right down to her disdain for an adorable shelter puppy. Her arc really captured a certain brand of white feminism. But the most pressing question that came from the character’s rise and demise—how long would you let clowns creep up on your colleague before you mentioned it?