On the surface, American Horror Story: Cult appeared to examine how a white man, with his hateful rhetoric and nationalistic worldview, politicized fear to gain power and spark a dangerous alt-right movement. But over the course of its 11 episodes, Cult's real agenda became clear: female rage. With Cult, television provocateur Ryan Murphy delivered a violent revisionist fantasy — a story in which a nasty woman gloriously defeats a misogynist egomaniac in the throes of political battle.
"There is something more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man: A nasty woman," Ally told Kai with righteous aplomb in the finale's closing minutes. It was a cathartic, if not predictable, end to an otherwise ambitious season that showcased some of the very best (and worst) of the American Horror Story franchise.
While Sarah Paulson's heroine Ally Mayfair-Richards may have emerged from Cult as the season's MVP — no one can chew up AHS scenery quite like Paulson — Leslie Grossman's scene-stealer Meadow Wilton was its most tragic casualty. Unlike Ally and Beverly, Meadow's rage was internalized and left unresolved, which led to a lifetime of devastating insecurities and Real Housewives marathons to mask the pain. She was an easy target for Kai's manipulation.
MTV News caught up with Grossman following the season finale of Cult to reflect on her AHS journey and to break down some of Meadow's biggest, and most painful, moments.
Cult marked a professional reunion for Grossman and Murphy.The WB
Grossman made her memorable debut as bubbly cheerleader Mary Cherry in Murphy's short-lived WB high school series Popular in 1999. (If memes were a thing back in the early aughts, Mary Cherry would have been all over your social media timelines.) Although Popular only lasted two seasons — and ended on a major cliffhanger — Grossman and Murphy have remained close friends since its untimely cancelation. So it's no surprise that she was eventually cast in American Horror Story. According to Grossman, Murphy is still the same "funny, hilarious" friend she met in that casting room more than 18 years ago.
"Ryan hasn't changed that much," Grossman said. "Ryan was always this brilliant, creative genius, and that hasn't changed — I just think everybody figured it out."
"He's always been about inclusivity and representing underrepresented people," she added. "That's the thread that runs through all of his work. Don't forget that in Popular there was a transgender teacher, and this was a show that was geared towards teenagers in the 90s. To say that he's ahead of the curve is an understatement... Popular got canceled because the network didn't understand it and didn't know what to do with him and his incredibly unique ways of seeing the world. Ryan always knew that he was on the right track, and everyone else just needed to catch up."
Grossman's favorite AHS season is Murder House.FX
Grossman might not have a lot in common with Meadow, but one interest they do share is television. Like Meadow, Grossman is a Real Housewives devotee, and when it comes to AHS, she was a fan long before she got the call from Murphy to join the cast. Her favorite season is Murder House, but she loved the campy antics of Coven, too.
"I cannot watch it at night before bed," she said, explaining that she barely made it through this season's nail-gun scene. "I will have terrible dreams and get totally freaked out. The thing I love about American Horror Story is that even at its scariest there are so many layers and there's always this dark humor that runs through it. That's what has kept me hooked."
She was "freaked out" by the mass shooting episode.FX
The episode "Mid-Western Assassin" initially opened with a graphic depiction of a mass shooting, in which an unhinged Meadow opens fire at one of Kai's campaign rallies. The scene was particularly brutal for Grossman, who not only had never held a gun prior to filming (fake or otherwise) but also had to be at her most vulnerable for her character's inevitable demise.
As if the deafening gunshots and anguished cries weren't enough to make her stomach churn, it was also an extremely graphic and bloody scene. "When I signed on, I didn't know that there was going to be a mass shooting episode," she said. "When I got the script for that, I had to take a minute to wrap my head around it. That was a lot, and I was freaked out by it."
However, FX made "substantial edits" to the opening sequence in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas that had left 58 people dead just days prior to the episode's air date. The network made the right call, said Grossman, but it didn't please everyone, especially those who found the scene "exploitative."
"With what's going on in our world right now, that's a really big scary issue," Grossman said. "But season has been a reflection of what's going on right now in our country. Isn't that what's going on in our country? These horrible, random acts of violence? Ultimately, it ended up being a really important set piece."
Everyone got a "little loopy" while recreating the Manson murders.FX
Following Meadow's death, Grossman made a surprise appearance in the penultimate episode of the season, titled "Charles (Manson) In Charge," as Manson follower Patricia Krenwinkel. (In the reenactment, Paulson portrayed Susan Atkins, Billie Lourd played Linda Kasabian, and Grossman's TV husband Billy Eichner returned as Tex Watson.) "Ryan had told me that I was going to come back in some capacity, but I didn't know what that was going to be," she said. "Was I going to be a ghost? Because there are no rules on this show — it can be anything and everything."
When it came time to shoot the sequence, Grossman said the AHS cast and crew felt a lot of responsibility to pay "a lot of respect" to the victims and their families.
"The show is fiction, but when you're recreating something like the Manson murders, that's a real thing that happened to people's family members," she said. "We absolutely wanted to be respectful, as much as we could. With all of us in those wigs and the 70s clothes, and filming so late at night, we all got a little loopy. We had to get a little crazy to get through it."
She's just as in awe of Sarah Paulson as you are.FX
"She's so incredible," Grossman gushed about Paulson. "To see her act up close and in person, she has this remarkable ability to key into something with such laser-beam focus, and her skill set is so advanced. I've never really seen anything quite like it. It is intimidating and a joy, simultaneously, to get to work with her."
The intimidation was real for Grossman. Joining a popular show in its seventh season and acting alongside two actors who have been there since the very beginning (Peters and Paulson) was nerve-wracking in and of itself, but acting one-on-one with the Emmy winner in an intimate scene between Meadow and Ally was what Grossman ultimately called the "best professional experience" of her career.
"Every single take I had I was like, 'Well, that was terrible,'" she recalled. "I just wanted to keep up with her as much as I could."
"She's a real actor," Grossman added. "It's the same level of work whether she's doing it for 99 people in a tiny theater or whether's she's doing it in a Steven Spielberg movie. It's the same level of focus and brilliance. She is there to work with you and be a real scene partner. I've absolutely worked with people who, when you go onto a set, have a huge amount of attitude and the person you're working with, particularly if they're much more established than you are, they really want to let you know that they're the star of the show. Sarah doesn't have an ounce of that. Sarah is there to do the work. Can you imagine stepping into the show this far along and having a bunch of scenes with Sarah Paulson? If she wasn't nice, that could have been horrifying."
Their onscreen camaraderie has since grown into a real-life friendship. "She's also one of the funniest people I've ever known."
Grossman hopes you learned something from Cult.FX
Sure, the characters of Cult sometimes referenced Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it was never really about them. It was more a satirical exploration of our increasingly divided country, blurring the lines between red and blue.
"Before they had watched it or knew anything about it a lot of people wrote it off because they had had enough of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton," Grossman said. "But it's really about fear and how fear can be used to manipulate and coerce people, and how people can use fear to gain power and control, and how people can let themselves be overwhelmed and overcome by fear that they do things that they thought they were never capable of."
"It's an important lesson, especially right now, to keep your wits about you," she added. "Remain unafraid. Stay true to who you are. Remember what's important. Don't let people scare you into changing who you are to accommodate their agenda."
Of course, there's even more to glean from this season of American Horror Story. For starters, don't go to the grocery store after midnight, and if you do, beware of the clowns in produce section. Also, a person can take 13 nails to the head and somehow survive — unless someone strikes a fatal blow to the medulla oblongata. (Then, it's lights out.)