American Horror Story Recaps: Drink the Kool-Aid
Look, I want to make it very clear right here and now that I don’t think that depicting historical events should be off the table in fictional movies and TV – hell, I don’t even think they should be stuck with only showing serious events in a po-faced fashion (in fact, I wrote about this very thing with regards to the excellent comedy The Death of Stalin on my newly-launched film site a few days ago). But dammit if American Horror Story has just frequently proved that it can’t treat real-life awfulness with anything close to the baseline of respect it deserves. When I saw that this episode, Drink the Kool-Aid, would be invoking a couple of real-life massacres, I was fucking unconfident, to say the least. I don’t care if Angela Basset is directing: the show just can’t quite get a handle on how to treat tragedy, and so often comes off as lightly camp and disrespectful in the process.
And invoke them it does: with a mixture of real-life footage (which it quantifiably just shouldn’t be using, especially when you consider that they were very happy to use reconstructions which were just as impactful) and Evan Peters in wigs, we traipsed through a series of mass suicides from Heaven’s Gate to the Branch Davidians to Jonestown. No, I’m not saying that no show should be able to invoke these events, even use real footage of them, but this is a show than only last week had Evan Peters attempting a threeway with a comedy soundtrack.
Yes, you can balance comedy and seriousness, sometimes even using those to prop each other up, but American Horror Story cannot find the line between real-life awfulness and fictional camp, and it just ends up pulling focus from both. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the recordings of the Jonestown massacres (which are – and I cannot stress this enough – not things you should seek out if you’re in any way sensitive to disturbing material, as they are worse than even you think), but no amount of Evan Peters doing a killer Jim Jones impression is going to take away from how uncomfortable the fact that they are using this to prop up this exceedingly and constantly silly story makes me. Your mileage may vary, but I don’t like it one little bit. Certainly not when they climax with a ridiculous pseudo-religious fantasy sequence that seems mostly played for laughs, even if it is meant to be Kai’s made-up interpretation of events.
Anyway, on to the meat of the episode: Kai intensifies his grip on the cult and sets his sight of bigger political power as Ivy and Ally confront each other over their mutual involvement in the cult. The latter provides one of the better scenes of the episode, with Allison Pill flailing to justify her part in the cult – Sarah Paulson is full of righteous rage and slithering certainty and for once, soars to assertive new heights as she vows to free them both from Kai’s grip (or does she?). But it’s Allison Pill’s Ivy who has the more interesting role in the story, as she comes to terms with the fact that she was willing to sacrifice her family, her freedom, and literal human lives in order to get away from her wife and relinquish some of the control she felt had been shoved on her. “You wanted a daddy,” Ally spits in her direction, and it’s the ultimate betrayal; not only did Ivy sacrifice so much in order to take the coward’s way out of her marriage, but she sought a male authority figure through which to do it.
Speaking of the girls, the women take the centre stage in this plot to underline one of the more interesting aspects of this season: that Kai, despite his intent to shake up the system, has instituted a mostly straight, white, male patriarchy to lead his movement. I love Evan Peters’ in this season, obviously, but as a whole the female cast (Billie Lourde, Sarah Paulson, Allison Pill, Adina Porter, et al) are stronger as a group, and particularly as they try to free themselves from his grasp. For all Kai talks revolution, he’s all too happy to prop up the status quo when it comes to gender and racial divides. His power is hooked into his masculinity, right down to his magic jizz. It’s an interesting contrast to Ally, who’s power seems to be linked to her traditionally feminine roles in this episode: imploring a receptionist for information “woman-to-woman”, and making it clear that her role as Oz’s mother is what has given her the drive to take things this far. Even her cooking – her traditionally feminine role of homemaker and chef subverted – is literally killer this season.
And Drink the Kool-Aid succeeds in other ways, too, as a set-up episode: the story is barelling towards it’s inevitable conclusion as Ivy and Ally try to flee the cult with their son, while Kai attempts to consolidate his power with increasingly violent displays of control (including tormenting his followers with a faux-mass-suicide pact). The reveal that Kai is, apparently, Oz’s sperm donor complicates proceedings – it’s an obvious twist, but I don’t hate it, especially the callously charming way Evan Peters plays the reveal as he tries to impress himself as true father on to Oz. Where last week it felt as though we’d skipped a step or two in Kai’s descent into madness, this is a little more grounded and thus more unsettling. The show has done well in growing this sense of unease around characters and their motivations, too, which leaves you guessing as to loyalty and intention right till the very end – culminating in a powerful scene between Ivy and Ally as personal resentments bubble up over pasta and vino tinto.
The episode also got some of the funnier one-liners of the season, including my new personal favourites: “Tolstoy-” “Toy Story?”, and some strong direction, courtesy of season-debut director Angela Basset, who seems to have a grasp on how the show should look and feel. It’s certainly one of the stronger entries to the series, even if I really don’t like the invocation of a number of real-life tragedies; Evan Peters is on exquisite, sinister, soaring form, and a few twists and turns keep the story bright and interesting, even if most of them were relatively predictable. As the episode rounds the bend into it’s final turn, it’s batting strong – though AHS has never been great at endings, I’m looking forward to seeing how they pull this one together. Or fail to.