November 15, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “American Horror Story: Cult”


Calling a season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY “grounded” is like calling a batch of moonshine smooth:  it’s still going to make your eyes water on the way down.  But creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk set CULT in something that resembled our real world, certainly as compared to ultra-baroque previous installments like Freak Show and Hotel.  It wasn’t just that the season invoked our actual president (albeit one who is alarmingly like a Ryan Murphy creation come to life), but that the characters, for the most part, acted with internal logic, and even the trademark wild twists tracked from episode to episode.  This isn’t to say that Cult entirely steered away from the usual Murphy/Falchuk excesses:  it was–literally–overkill, for example, to depict nearly every leading American cult leader in the course of the season, an exercise that ultimately just gave Evan Peters (and in case, guest star Lena Dunham) a workout.  The early episodes’ fixation on killer clowns felt very Freak Show.  And so on.  But as Horror Story seasons go, this was a year that aspired to more than mere bloody spectacle.

Tonight’s finale wrapped things up nicely, focusing on the final showdown between cult leader, Trump voter and general maniac Kai Anderson (Peters) and last woman (almost) standing Ally Mayfair-Richards (Murphyverse all-time MVP Sarah Paulson).  Executive Producer Tim Minear’s script was largely a time-jump to 11 months after the main action, which found Kai in prison, where he had re-founded his cult and was cultivating a guard for his escape.  Flashbacks explained how Ally, working with the FBI, had “joined” Kai’s cult just to put him away.  Even as Kai meticulously assembled his escape, viciously murdering several of his adherents along the way, Ally was putting her life back together with remarkable smoothness, reopening her restaurant, acquiring a new girlfriend, and ultimately deciding to run for the Senate seat Kai had hoped to win.

In the climax, suspensefully staged by episode director Jennifer Lynch, it turned out that Ally had been playing Kai all along, working with that same prison guard to give Kai an unloaded gun for his attack on her at the Senatorial debate, which set things up for ex-reporter Beverly (Adina Porter) to blow his head off.  The mini-twist ending implied that Ally might be running a feminist cult of her own.

American Horror Story doesn’t have the sophistication or finesse to pull off truly incisive political satire, and its use of Trump as a cult inspiration didn’t run higher than bundling misogyny and racism under his banner, with some jabs at Fake News.  Backing up that sentiment with bloody murders, though, had an undeniable impact.  The fact that their characters here had some recognizable humanity gave Paulson and Alison Pill as her traitorous wife (the scene where Ally gleefully poisoned her to death was one of the season’s best) some substance to play.  Peters’ Kai was more one-note, but he played it for all it was worth.  The typical Horror Story gamut of guest stars, both familiar (Cheyenne Jackson and Billie Lourd as Kai’s siblings, plus Emma Roberts, Mare Winningham and Frances Conroy) and not (Dunham, Billy Eichner, Leslie Grossman) were fun to watch.

Cult wasn’t Pod Save America, but it was a welcome reversal of the show’s usual meal of empty shocker calories.  With real life scarier than most thrillers these days, incorporating some of that fear into a horror story felt very American indeed.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."