Everyone is afraid of something, and that's exactly the point that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk make with American Horror Story: Cult.
The seventh installment of the FX anthology series takes place in suburban Michigan, immediately following the events of the 2016 presidential election, and takes a satirical look at the varying effects the event had on Americans.
Unlike in past seasons, FX released three entire episodes to press ahead of the Sept. 5 premiere, giving critics a chance to really get a grasp on what the show is going to bring to the table. After watching all three, it's easy for me to say that Cult is set up to be the most clever and unnerving American Horror Story to-date.
The first episode begins by looking into the night of the 2016 election, and the way people reacted to the results. Loving couple Aly (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) cried out in shock, like many others, as they claimed Donald Trump's victory would lead to danger for the country. On the other side of that coin, Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) celebrated the triumph by dry-humping his television, cheering for America, and covering his face in cheese curl crumbs.
From that moment, these characters take off on two very different directions. Kai begins to pull the strings of a secret cult, while Aly quickly spirals out of control
Aly is plagued with a number of irrational fears, including agoraphobia (fear of being somewhere you believe to be unsafe), coulrophobia (fear of clowns), and trypophobia (fear of small holes). As Aly gets more upset about the election results, and the changes happening to her neighborhood, these fears grow like a disease in her mind. Honestly, it's often conflicting to watch this character. She's clearly the protagonist, but you're never sure where her rational mind ends and where her hallucinogenic, fear-driven mind begins.
This is where the beauty, and the horror, of Cult lies.
Fear is a dangerous weapon. When we can't control it, or someone controls it for us, things quickly spiral into chaos. This series breeds fear through its characters. Kai is scary because he's a manipulator. The cult is scary because you have no idea who could be a part of it. Your own home becomes scary because the clowns prove that every house has a way to get in. To top it all off, clowns are just scary in their own right.
Murphy left the supernatural elements out of this season, which was honestly a brilliant choice. By doing this, the situations and characters in Cult are ones that we all are familiar with. You can't watch this series and say, "Oh that's not scary because haunted houses and Kathy Bates butcher-demons aren't real!" Gun violence is real. Psychological disorders are real. Clowns are real.
Evil people are real.
Cult takes place in your neighborhood, and the people being terrorized and murdered are the people you know. That's the key to Cult's success.
Murphy and Falchuk created something terrifying with Cult, but it wouldn't work without the brilliant performances from the cast. Paulson's turn as Aly is one of her best AHS roles yet, and that's saying something. It's hard to be the most ludicrous character on the show while also being the most transparent and relatable. In just three episodes, Paulson is already making another Emmy case.
Part of what really makes Paulson's performance great is that she was given an impeccable scene partner. Let me just say, Alison Pill is a revelation. Not many actors can keep up with Sarah Paulson for very long, but Pill stands toe-to-toe with her in every scene, delivering powerful and emotional performances each time. In some cases, you'll actually finish certain scenes and think, "Wow, she just out-acted Sarah f***ing Paulson." The woman is dynamite, and I can't wait to see where she takes her character as the show goes on.
Evan Peters is great, as always, but it's tough to say exactly where this performance stands in comparison to his others. He is definitely one of the most chilling characters in the series, along with Billie Lourd's Winter, but we just don't see too much of him outside of the first episode. Kai has been treated a lot like Jaws so far. He's not seen very often, but glimpses of him are horrifying and you know that he's always lurking just around the corner.
I'd be wrong to write a review about Cult and not mention just how fantastic Billy Eichner is in this series. While tones of that On The Street personality tend to poke through, the actor proves that there's much more to him than you think. It's a haunting and honest performance that you probably weren't expecting, but it's easily one of Cult's most shining attributes.
Top to bottom, American Horror Story: Cult is an incredibly strong addition to the roster. If Murphy and Falchuk can keep this up for an entire season, Coven and Murder House need to watch their backs.
American Horror Story: Cult premieres on FX Tuesday, September 5, at 10 p.m. ET.