American Horror Story Recaps: Election Night

by thethreepennyguignol

I was watching the latest episode of American Horror Story, season seven’s premier titled Election Night, taking in the sight of Evan Peters pissing generously into a rapidly-ballooning condom that dominates the entire frame while gruntingly singing a bastardised verison of “La Cucaracha” and let out a sigh. Well, we’re back.

I recapped American Horror Story’s last season and, while I had no intention of doing this one, as soon as I heard that it was going to be based around the election of Donald Trump, I knew I had no choice but to sacrifice myself at the altar of Murphchuck once more. Because fuck me: I have never, ever in my life seen a statement so ripe with disastrous potential as “Ryan Murphy takes on the current state of American politics in his anthology horror show”. I can’t turn down a trainwreck (just ask me about his other show, Glee), so here I am, committing myself to another dozen or so episodes of a show that seems to have a clinical aversion to getting it completely right.

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Still would. Would I? I disgust myself.

So, how bad was this first episode? Well, I can say for certain that Ryan Murphy’s level of subtlety towards gore and sex extends to his depiction of politics, too. The episode opens on the real-life election night 2016 when Donald Trump was voted in (I dry-heaved just typing that), and we follow two major characters: Kai (played by Evan Peters) and Ally (Sarah Paulson) as they react to the news of the results, and it’s about as nuanced as you might think. Ally, a lesbian boutique butchery owner living in middle-class suburbia, dissolves into hysterical anxiety, while Kai, a greasy-haired white boy (whose looks seem to invoke recent spree killers like James Holmes) with that all-important smattering of bum fluff, smears mashed-up Cheetos on his face and goes to goad a Hillary supporter after the victory. They’re both outrageous stereotypes: they’re meant to be. In introducing these characters like this, intentionally or not, American Horror Story: Cult has established that it’s not attempting to tell a serious political story or examine the state of America right now. The political climate in the USA is a jumping-off point for our story to unfold out of, for better or worse: I’m inclined towards “worse”, as Murphy has proved a dozen times over that trusting him with real-life concerns in his fiction is a bad idea, but I’ll play along for now until he does something really aggressively terrible. For now, we’re keeping the political satire to Sarah Paulson attempting to fight off assailants with bottles of rose wine in a Whole Foods stand-in, and I can live with that.

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Every jacket Sarah Paulson wears in this episode is just fucking amazing, too. If someone could send them all to me, along with Alison Pill, that’d be ideal.

And, I mean, there’s something here. It’s not their finest season premiere by far, but it’s also one of their more focused affairs, and draws a pair of really good leading performances from Peters and Paulson. It’s Sarah Paulson’s Ally who really stands out to me here, as she’s consumed with phobias and anxieties following the election. We veer between reality and anxiety-ridden hallucination when we inhabit her point of view, with director Bradley Buecker creating those chillingly closed-off spaces in her mind with tight framing and shallow focus. Paulson, as ever, is sweepingly brilliant – whether she’s attempting to convince her partner (a promising Alison Pill playing the soft butch of my dreams) that she’s really trying to get better, fleeing from deranged clowns pursuing her around a supermarket in the episode’s most effectively unsettling scene, or screaming in at least a half-dozen close-ups, she’s really one of the best actors the show has on it’s roster and this was a nice little showcase for her innumerable talents. Give her an Emmy. No, another one.

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I swear, I got one glimpse of her hair in this episode and my crush on Alison Pill went from zero to inappropriate in about four seconds. 

What about Evan Peters? Well, as established by his turns in both season one and season five, he’s by far and away at his best when he’s playing a villain. And this performance is certainly in that category. But this isn’t the heartthrob horror of Tate Langdon or the campy evil of James March. Here, he’s a very real worst nightmare: an entitled white boy with an axe to grind and the actual impetus and circumstance to do it. He’s, by turns, unsettling, gross, pathetic, and cunning, and, while I’m going to hang back on casting any major judgements on his character quite yet, Evan Peters can still act the shit out of a villainous role and I’m looking forward to seeing how he stands up once a few more of the pieces are in place. His compelling speech in the first third of the episode, about the need to indulge and even encourage fear, seemed like a mission statement for the season, as did the petulance of his muttering a threat on his way out after being shot down.

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Take a good, hard look at this shot, because it’s probably all you’re going to be seeing of Cheyenne Jackson all season.

Because there are plenty of pieces scattered around the board right now – I’m just not sure how they fit together quite yet. Billie Lourd’s dead-eyed babysitter with a penchant for snuff videos on the deep web could go either way yet, and the child at the centre of this episode (Ally and her wife’s son, Oz) could be pivotal and brilliant or irritating and nothing more than a way to tug on the heart strings. The apparent murder clown cult were effectively unsettling but relatively obvious as a horror trope, and until we know the why or the where or the what behind them they’re going to remain nothing but a gory, dick-nosed plot point. As has become a calling card of AHS at this point, there was plenty of sex and violence (and an apparent insistence on underusing the shit out of Cheyenne Jackson, who only appears for a single brief scene despite being in the main cast, but I digress) in service of not much, but hopefully as their themes of fear and attempts to eliminate it take shape I’m hoping they’re going to have some punch behind them. Because, amongst all this ridiculousness, there are moments of brilliant humanity that gleam through and remind what this show can be when it leans into it’s darker emotional corners – Ivy’s patient but utterly emotionally exhausted reaction to discovering her wife isn’t taking her medication (“well, you should”) is by far the best moment of the episode, and I want to see more stuff like that and less of piss-filled condom balloons.

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So, thus far – yeah, this is a pretty standard episode of American Horror Story. It’s messy and promising, unsubtle satire linked together with a handful of interesting ideas and great performances and gorgeous direction. It’s about as far removed from perfect as it’s possible to be, but, like always, there’s still something compelling that’ll keep me coming back for more. Are you watching this season of American Horror Story? If so, what did you think of this first episode, and what are you hoping for for the rest of the season? Let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter with your hot (Cheeto) takes!

Lou’s Hysterical Fan Theory Corner

  • Yup, I’m bringing it back, bitches: every week, I’m going to dump my stupid fan theories down here in the hopes that one of them is right and I can go “LOOK LOOK I TOLD YOU SO!”). The first and most obvious one: Ally and Ivy’s son, Oz, is actually the antichrist baby born at the end of the first season of American Horror Story.
  • Ivy is actually part of the clown cult apparently pursuing Ally and she’s attempting to drive her over the edge in order to get a divorce and keep hold of their business and baby with no competition.
  • There actually is no clown cult at all and this whole season is going to be a nuanced look at the leeching paranoia felt by the previously complacent white liberal middle classes of post-Trump America. Because it’s no less ridiculous than the clown cult actually existing.

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