When American Horror Story: Cult bid farewell last week, I cheered like odious main character Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) cheered Trump’s victory – because finally, the torturous Cult was over. With at least two more AHS seasons to come, there’s still hope it will be able to muster a return to form. But how?
Kathy Bates as Iris in American Horror Story: Hotel, the show’s fifth season. Image: Prashant Gupta/FX
Lily Rabe as Shelby in American Horror Story: Roanoke, the show’s sixth season. Image: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Bring back the supernatural elements
Despite my overall dislike of the season, I will give Cult credit for doing something completely different with its plot. One thing American Horror Story will never do is exhibit any amount of restraint; it wants to startle you, repulse you and push every possible button. The show knows that its fans expect this, so it delights in rising to the challenge. In Cult, it certainly achieved that, but the plot stayed stubbornly, deliberately rooted in reality. This was the first AHS season that didn’t contain any supernatural elements, which tilted its shock value somewhat. Sure, we’ve had humans being awful to humans in previous seasons, including multiple serial killers. But there’s always been some kind of otherworldly menace to really raise the stakes above and beyond that. American Horror Story‘s previous “real people” characters always became more compelling when their lives became entangled with sinister fantasy – such as Murder House‘s Harmon family, who picked the most cursed house in Los Angeles to try and make a fresh start, or Roanoke‘s Matt and Shelby, doomed winners of the most ill-fated property auction in North Carolina history.
In Cult, the horrors felt too real, to the point of being hyper-real – they offered a very exaggerated take on reality but never crossed fully into the spirit realm the way other seasons have done. Instead, they feasted on the deep unease that’s permeated America since Trump took office. There’s certainly something to be said about being the first show to really capitalise on that – the story and themes cooked up by creator Ryan Murphy and crew were sometimes breathtakingly prescient, as when a long-since-completed episode about a mass shooting had to be quickly re-edited following the tragedy in Las Vegas.
Other times, the show felt forced; the clown gang never really made any sense, nor was it especially scary, and the reenactments of Jonestown and other historical cults were ultimately superfluous to the main story. Even the SCUM subplot, which ultimately tied into the season’s final image, felt kind of hollow. Aside from playing fast and loose with history (are we really to believe that militant feminists plotted the crimes attributed to the Zodiac Killer?), it certainly didn’t have enough impact to supply Kai’s motivation. It also wasn’t explored nearly enough to make Ally’s final gesture, donning the group’s signature hood after her election to the US Senate, the kind of “Holy shit!” moment it was clearly trying to be.
Besides, that kind of stuff is not what endears American Horror Story to its viewers, and that isn’t what it should be trying to deliver. There are already already a ton of crime dramas and docudramas and factually iffy recreations on television, including a few in Murphy’s own stable of shows. But there’s only one series whose wild ride has included ghosts in bondage suits, alien abductions, conjoined twins, witch feuds, glamorous vampires, and a blood-drenched spin on the Lost Colony, to name just a few. Wouldn’t it have been awesome if, say, the rotting corpse of Kai’s brother (Cheyenne Jackson) had actually come back to life – instead of just speaking to Kai in his twisted mind – and started kicking arse from beyond the grave? Next season, whatever the theme may be, let’s hope AHS brings back its signature evil ghosts and campy ghouls, and delves back into a story that exists in its own weird bubble, instead of trying to be such a literal-minded reaction to current events.
Lady Gaga as Scathach in Roanoke. Image: Prashant Gupta/FX
Bring back more fan favourites… and write some likeable characters
Cult had a relatively small cast compared to other seasons of AHS. That meant we spent a lot of time with its main characters. Maybe too much time, considering how across-the-board unlikeable they were. The characters don’t have to be good people – Roanoke basically had zero sympathetic characters, though I sure did love Kathy Bates’ performance as “the Butcher” and also her bonus turn as “the Unstable Actress Who Played the Butcher on TV” – but a little more balance would have been a relief. Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Kai did 90 per cent of the heavy-lifting and scenery-chewing, while everyone else pretty much existed just to react to their characters. This was especially annoying because while the cast had some intriguing new additions – especially Billie Lourd as Kai’s goth sister, Winter, and Leslie Grossman as suburban trainwreck Meadow – Cult never felt like it had the right blend of AHS ensemble magic. It was almost totally the Ally and Kai show, and that got really tiresome after a while.
Obviously, not every season of AHS can have the same cast, but Cult in particular seemed to be missing a lot of fan favourites and familiar faces. Besides Bates, notable absences included Denis O’Hare, Angela Bassett (who directed two Cult episodes) and Lily Rabe. Murphy may never get the series’ original touchstone star, Jessica Lange – who earned critical acclaim earlier this year playing Joan Crawford on another of his shows, Feud – back to AHS, though apparently he hasn’t totally given up on that, so that would be an amazing goal for season eight or nine. To be fair, some familiar faces did pop up in small guest roles – including John Carroll Lynch reprising his Freak Show role of Twisty the Clown, who appeared as the personification of a comic book character, and Emma Roberts as a TV reporter who meets a ghoulish end. But overall, Cult‘s key cast felt like it had less spark than previous AHS seasons. Personally, I was hoping for a Lady Gaga cameo, but maybe the eternal Countess/Wood Witch was too busy to stop by and play someone so boringly normal.
Sarah Paulson as Ally in American Horror Story: Cult. Image: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Do the crossover next
Here’s a simple solution that would cross both of the above items off the list. With only two more planned seasons, the eighth go-round seems like the perfect time to cash in on AHS‘ many between-season connections and Easter eggs and give fans the crossover they have been waiting to see, especially since Murphy’s been hinting at the idea for some time now. Though in true American Horror Story fashion, we won’t know anything for sure until the thing actually hits the airwaves, Murphy has said he wants to do a “return-to-Coven” season that will also bleed Murder House into Coven somehow. That sounds like a recipe for the most memorable American Horror Story of all time – and would certainly go a long way toward making up for the unpleasantness of Cult.