American Horror Story typically likes to keep its audience guessing, but this season, its intentions couldn't be any clearer. Cult begins the night of November 8, 2016, where a married couple and their liberal neighbors have gathered to watch the results of the presidential election in their upper middle class Michigan abode. Donald Trump's victory plays out like a real-life horror show, as Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) screams in anguished, visceral terror.
"What's going to happen with Merrick Garland?" she cries to her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) while their young son Ozymandias (Oz for short, thank god) looks on, worried and confused.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a disarming loner named Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) screams and cheers — not to mention, dry-humps his television screen — while watching the election night coverage on Fox News. He's galvanized by Trump's win. For Kai, the revolution has finally begun.
As Ally's debilitating phobias (fear of blood, fear of holes, fear of coffins, and most prominently, fear of clowns) begin to resurface after election night, she starts to see terrifying clowns lurking everywhere she goes. Although she's being told her visions and paranoia are fake news, that's not entirely the case, especially as Kai's sinister movement — comprised of society's so-called "forgotten men and women" — takes shape.
If anything, this latest installment of Ryan Murphy's horror anthology series is the first one that truly lives up to its name. It's 100 percent grounded in Americana. Or, at least that's what we've been able to grasp in the season's first four episodes, which were made available to press for review. So let's breakdown what you can expect from American Horror Story: Cult, premiering September 5:
It's a showcase for Sarah PaulsonFrank Ockenfels/FX
No one can chew up AHS scenery quite like Paulson. As Ally, Paulson is constantly on the verge of hyperventilation. She's a victim of her own crippling paranoia, which only intensifies after Trump becomes president — something she never thought was a possibility, seeing as she voted for Jill Stein. (Perhaps this is all a sick commentary on third-party voters.) But there's a duality to Ally, in which she plays both the victim and the aggressor — and it makes her a perfect candidate for Kai's growing movement.
Cult isn't about the election so much as it's about a fractured AmericaFX
Sure, the characters of Cult sometimes reference Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but this isn't entirely about them. It's more a satirical exploration of how openly divided the country has become in the wake of Trump's rise to power. More so, it examines how a man like Kai Anderson, with his hateful rhetoric and nationalistic worldview, can inspire those around him — especially those on the fringe of society — to join his violent movement.
If you suffer from coulrophobia, you might want to skip this seasonFrank Ockenfels/FX
Ally's fear of clowns is a huge part of this season. Not only does she see disturbing images of clowns everywhere she goes — some frighteningly real and some seemingly delusions — but Freak Show fan-favorite Twisty the Clown also makes his return in the form of a scary comic book character. (It should be said that Twisty also appears in a life-like reenactment of said comic book in one of the season's most genuinely gory moments.) In all seriousness, if clowns freak you out, you might want to close your eyes when Kai's band of merciless murderers appear on screen.
It's yet another one of Ally's phobias. She gets visibly disturbed by irregular patters of holes, otherwise known as trypophobia. The ads for Cult, which show varying clusters of holes, ranging from honey combs to lotus pod-like formations on someone's tongue, have been triggering those who suffer from trypophobia. At one point in the season premiere, Ally is triggered by a chunk of coral in her therapist's (played by an enigmatic Cheyenne Jackson) office. So consider yourself warned.
Evans Peters plays his most deranged character yetFX
Paulson may be the star, but Peters gets his best AHS role since Asylum in Cult. Over the years on American Horror Story, the actor has been saddled with some truly problematic characters, from school shooter Tate to serial killer James March, but as cult leader Kai Anderson, Peters truly revels in his character's very real (and very sick) machinations. This is a guy who reacts to Trump's win by blending Cheetos and smearing them across his face like war paint. But what makes Kai so unnerving is how charismatic he can be; he knows how to get people to listen to him. And Peters is just getting started. Murphy has said that Peters will play multiple cult leaders throughout the season in order to examine how those people rise to power and, more importantly, why people follow them. So if you think Kai is scary, just wait until you see Peters as infamous cult leader Charles Manson.
Billie Lourd plays Kai's more liberal sisterFX
It's hard to say what Winter Anderson's game is in Cult — is she part of her brother's movement or nah? — but Billie Lourd is having so much fun, so who cares. As Oz's emotionally detached babysitter, Winter is often in the center of the action, which might also make her complicit. But Winter and Kai seem like polar opposites. An outspoken feminist, Winter put her senior year at Vassar College on hold to go campaign for Hillary Clinton. So what is she doing seemingly going along with her brother's murderous movement? Perhaps the lines between red and blue aren't as distinct as we think in Cult.
Lena Dunham exists in the AHS universe
We know Dunham will appear this season as Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol in the late 1960s. (Peters will play Warhol.) But Dunham is also referenced in an earlier episode, in which Winter informs Ally and Ivy that the Girls creator once retweeted her and she gained almost 6,000 followers. (Gaining almost 6,000 new followers from a single retweet is probably the most ridiculous thing ever stated in an episode of AHS.)
Billy Eichner is a fantastic additionFX
Admittedly, I've never seen Difficult People, so I don't know Eichner for his acting so much as I know him from the endlessly enjoyable Billy on the Street, in which he more or less plays his unfiltered self. But in AHS: Cult, Eichner gets the chance to flex. (Literally and figuratively.) He plays a man named Harrison Wilton who is married to his best friend Meadow (Leslie Grossman.) No, really. He's gay, and Meadow is his straight best friend. They made a marriage pact when they were young twentysomethings, promising to tie the knot at age 35 if neither of them were hitched. Now, he's in his mid-thirties breeding bees across the street from Ally and Ivy. (Harrison and Meadow are their shady new neighbors.) Herein lies the root of Harrison's unhappiness: stuck in a loveless marriage, he's used to not getting what he wants. This makes Kai an attractive ally to Harrison. Eichner's crackling performance in the stellar Episode 4 is especially noteworthy, if only for the line, "You need to calm up! You need to get on my level!"