‘American Horror Story: Cult’ Mass Shooting Episode Is Jarringly Tasteless and Exploitative
Tonight’s American Horror Story made me legitimately angry; yelling at my television and then having a processing conversation with my roommate afterwards to ensure I wasn’t entirely overreacting type angry. Tuesday night’s mass shooting episode shouldn’t come as much of a shock considering Cult’s preoccupation with timely political commentary, which has been tone-deaf and crass from the jump. And as a long-time AHS devotee who’s been watching since the beginning, I was more than primed and ready for whatever disturbing, gruesome nonsense this season would throw at audiences. After all, the Ryan Murphy anthology has a long history of depicting grisly acts of physical and sexual violence. If it’s horrific, AHS has it: Ghost rape, a coat-hanger abortion, a school shooting, a white man gunning down an all-black salon, incestuous abuse, and a graphic scene in which a demon creature anally rapes Max Greenfield with a metal dildo. Like I said, not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended.
And yet, I was still somehow shocked and pissed off by Tuesday night’s episode of Cult, which opens and closes with a mass shooting. Perhaps it was because I started watching the episode (via screener sent to critics in advance) last Monday evening, a day after the Las Vegas massacre, and hardly got a minute in before shutting it off — Ryan Murphy’s take on bullets hitting bodies was the last thing I wanted to see. Though FX chose to release an edited version of the episode that Murphy described last week as “less graphic,” the inclusion of the shooting plot alone speaks to the problems with Cult, and where American Horror Story has gone wrong.
(Spoiler alert for American Horror Story: Cult Episode 6 “Mid-Western Assassin”)
Tuesday’s “Mid-Western Assassin” was met with controversy before the episode even aired. News of the mass shooting sequence broke last week, garnering media attention and leading many to question whether FX would pull the episode from airing in light of Las Vegas. If you watched Cult on FX tonight, you saw the edited version. In the edited opening multiple frames of bystanders getting struck by bullets were cut out and close-ups of a manicured hand firing a handgun were replaced with inserts of the opening shot of an American flag – curious whether Murphy’s adding in some commentary there about our country’s gun infatuation. Nothing was changed from ending when episode returned to the shooting in its final minutes. The unedited version sent to critics weeks ago is also available for the public to stream on FXNOW, FX+ and various VOD platforms. Since that version is the original cut of the episode, and is still being released as an official cut by FX, that’s the version I’m going to focus on.
First off, let’s recap what happens. In the unedited cut, the episode opens with a slow-mo sequence in which a crowd of people scatter as they run for cover. One shot of people piling atop one another to hide beneath a concrete wall scarily echoes a well-circulated Getty photo from Vegas — the episode was shot in September so it isn’t a direct reference to last week’s massacre, but speaks to just how “too soon” the episode feels. Random people are struck by bullets as Alison Pill’s Ivy watches in horror, while bodies lie on the ground around her. The police arrive to find Sarah Paulson’s lead character, Ally, clutching a handgun. It’s a classic cliffhanger opener that sets up a shocking fake-out reveal — our lead protagonist and the series’ most beloved actor is actually the villain! — only to jump back and recount what really happened. Manipulative, to say the least.
Long story short, Ally wasn’t the shooter, but Leslie Grossman’s Meadow was. You see, Meadow joined the clown cult and fell in love with Evan Peters’ messianic leader Kai (all of which was described in a quick flashback recap without any previous hints towards this sudden reveal). The episode makes overt connections between Kai and Charles Manson, just in case we missed the obvious references. In a plot echoing real-life Manson follower and lover Squeaky Fromme, who famously attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975, Kai convinces Meadow to prove her love for him…by assassinating him. Meadow shows up at Kai’s city council meeting, shoots him (but only in the leg so he can later gain pity as a survivor of gun violence), then she starts killing random people in the crowd. It would’ve been one thing for AHS to stage an assassination attempt, but having Meadow mindlessly kill innocent passerby takes an already poor choice too far. Director Bradley Buecker films the shooting with a haunting bleakness that’s far from entertaining to watch.
Regardless of how the episode is shot and what degrees of violence are shown on screen in either version of the episode, the problem with “Mid-Western Assassin” is the plot: A lone shooter gunning down a crowd before taking her own life. It’s not hard to understand why including an episode that involves such a timely recreation of real-life gun violence — and one with little-to-no thoughtful commentary on gun culture or domestic terrorism — a week after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history is problematic. It’s certainly bad timing that the episode is airing a week out from Vegas, and I’m not suggesting FX should have necessarily pulled the episode. More so, I’m questioning Murphy and episode writer Todd Kubrak on exactly why they felt including a mass shooting plot was essential, especially in a year when 273 mass shootings have already taken place in the country.
While the series has always reveled in its button-pushing theatrics, part of why its previous gratuitous violence felt less tasteless and offensive was because it mainly operated in a fictional, supernatural universe. That isn’t to excuse depictions of sexual assault and violence that are set in a genre context — the Coven witch mass shooting set to “Oh Freedom!” as Roots plays is even more tone-deaf than Cult’s — but the difference is how AHS previously detailed its horrors with a larger-than-life absurdity, and with a notable distance between fiction and reality.
In its previous episodes, Cult has managed to hit that sweet spot just shy of too-far from time to time, and that’s when the season has worked. When Chaz Bono’s alt-Right Trump supporter is faced with the conundrum of not voting on Election Day or sawing off his hand to make it to the polls in time, AHS is in its signature grisly absurdist territory. A sequence like that takes something familiar, like the crazed dedication of a political candidate’s supporter, and puts it in an outlandish scenario with an over-the-top twist. But recreating a specific type of violence that’s rampant in the current cultural moment where wounds have yet to heal, exploiting it for shock value, and failing to offer any incisive analysis on it isn’t just bad television; it’s irresponsible.
AHS would do better reverting back to the period piece settings of its earliest seasons rather than mining modern politics for vacant social satire and real-life horror gimmicks. Luckily, some episodes this season are expected to jump back to real-life cults of other eras. But until then, you’re better off tuning into the news for your daily dose of American horror stories.