'American Horror Story: Cult' Review: Election Night Triggers A New Series Of Nightmares

(Every week, we're going to get the discussion going about American Horror Story: Cult by answering one important question: who is the main villain of the episode?)

In its seventh installment, American Horror Story switches things up a bit in both story and tone – focusing more on psychological and human terror than anything supernatural. That's a welcome choice for a series that has gotten a bit mired down in genre tropes over the past few seasons. After Roanoke's balls-to-the-wall insanity, it feels like the perfect time for the series to look inward and examine the human psyche for a change. What better way to do it than focusing on emotional fallout that has followed the 2016 presidential election?

While the season 7 premiere is mostly a game of setup, introducing the characters and conflicts that will grow in the coming episodes, a few villains have already made their presence known.

This Week’s Big Bad: Winter Anderson

It's evident that Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is the one to keep an eye on in AHS: Cult, but Episode 1, titled "Election Night," puts a sharper focus on his troubled sister, Winter (Billie Lourd). Sure, Kai is basically a cult leader-in-training, but it's Winter who puts his evil plan in motion. She does so by putting on an innocent babysitter act, entering the lives of married couple Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy Mayfair Richards (Alison Pill) and immediately tormenting their young son, Ozzie.

Does Winter hate children? It seems so. But that doesn't stop her from putting the fear of death into the boy. While his moms are away, Winter notices Ozzie's unhealthy fascination with Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) – drawing images of AHS: Freak Show's serial killer...um, killing. Instead of chastising this behavior, she encourages it by showing the boy violent videos on the dark web. Comparing images of murder to the flu shot, Winter tells Ozzie, "This is like a vaccination for your brain. It hurts at first, but it makes you better."

american horror story season 7 trailer

Send in the Clowns

AHS: Cult is already playing on multiple levels, examining the paranoid polarity currently existing in the zeitgeist. Leave it to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States to send Ally on a downward spiral into disorienting madness. It's quickly revealed that she suffers from a variety of irrational fears – clowns, particles in the air, enclosed spaces, the holes found in coral – and election night brought these phobias back out to play.

From a horrific Purge-like visit to the supermarket, where clown-mask wearing marauders taunt her (and have sex in the produce section), to an appearance of a masturbating clown in The Butchery on Main – the restaurant she co-owns with her wife – to literally waking up to a clown lying next to her in bed, it's clear that Ally's problems are just beginning. But are these visions all in her head? Is she really being tormented? Or, is she just going insane?

American Horror Story Cult opening credits

Beware, They May Never Leave

With his greasy blue hair and icy cold stare, one could easily sum up Kai as a kook. But, there's more to him than meets the eye. With the cult of personality weighing heavily on Ryan Murphy's mind this season, it's easy to see just how dangerous Kai will become. The election of Donald Trump is the watershed moment that will push the burgeoning cult leader to make his power move. If fear is the tool that nudges Ally down a dark well of mental despair, it's the ladder that Anderson will quickly climb.

Leave it up to a video showing Kai as the victim of an act violence to thrust him into the spotlight. And while the urine-filled condom he lobbed into a group of migrant workers is not included in said viral video, the attention is enough to get him media exposure. "There's nothing more dangerous than a humiliated man," Anderson said in the episode's opening moments.  It's a statement that feels more like a prophecy for Kai – and it's one that is sure to be a throughline throughout this season.

Fear is the Mind Killer

One could easily point to fear as the big villain this season, but that would sort of be a cop-out. For Kai, fear is currency; it's a motivational manipulator that puts him in a growing position of power. Ally's reality exists on the flipside of that proverbial coin, showing just how harmful emotional traumas can be in today's cultural landscape. What's interesting, though, is it seems that AHS: Cult isn't out to point fingers and lay the blame about how we got here. Instead, little tidbits are given in "Election Night," putting liberal white privilege – a Rachel Maddow shout out and some Jill Stein rage, FTW! – on equal footing with those on the opposite side of the spectrum.

As we mentioned above, American Horror Story: Cult will kick the sexy vampires, badass witches and mischievous ghosts to the side this season. Twisty the Clown does make an appearance here, but his role here is indicative of a child's overactive imagination in relation to his mother's coulrophobia. But while the show is doing a good job painting Ozzie's mother as unhinged, it looks like her fears are coming true. Towards the end of the episode, the boy witnesses a gruesome murder right across the street. The culprits: those same clown mask-wearing marauders that attacked Ally in the market. Maybe now is the right time for American Horror Story to give the supernatural silliness a break. This reality of ours is way more frightening.

Some of the best horror entertainment has drawn on societal upheavals to make a statement. While American Horror Story: Cult may not reach the level of iconic genre goodness as Night of the Living Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, holding up a mirror to the societal paranoia conjured up from circumstances that feel all too real and way too familiar is a bold move and one that presents the FX series in a new and jarring light.