Why ‘American Horror Story: Cult’ Is the Show’s Best Season Since ‘Murder House’

TheWrap’s Carli Velocci and Beatrice Verhoeven discuss the most politically charged season of Ryan Murphy’s hit horror anthology

Evan Peters Cult

(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you don’t want to know details about “American Horror Story: Cult.”)

The upcoming season of “American Horror Story,” titled “Cult,” is near. We’ve seen three episodes, and we’re here to tell you what we think — and why you should be excited.

TheWrap reporters Carli Velocci and Beatrice Verhoeven share their first thoughts on “Cult,” the seventh installment of the mega-popular horror anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.

Read on for insights and appreciations — trust us, it’s pretty darn good.

Beatrice: Okay, so let’s talk “Cult.” We’ve seen three episodes — what’re your first thoughts?

Carli: Just right off the bat, I like it a lot more than “Roanoke.” Both seasons were secretive, but you spent most of the first few episodes of “Roanoke” trying to figure out what the plot was. In “Cult,” the plot is way more streamlined. You know immediately — after the first five minutes — that it’s about the election and that it’s about fear, specifically phobias. I know it’s weird to say “Cult” is an improvement because of such a basic thing, but it’s true. What do you think of the story?

Beatrice: I think, so far, “Cult” is the best season of “American Horror Story” since “Murder House.” I know, I know — “Asylum” was crazy, “Coven” was decent, and “Hotel” was amazing yet silly. And I loved “Freakshow” — but I just get “Cult.” It’s pegged to a real event, and Sarah Paulson‘s reaction to Donald Trump winning the election reflects how many people felt across the country. And the fact that it’s more geared towards our individual phobias makes it that more real to me. I understand the fears of the main characters.

Carli: Definitely. I remember watching the news with my roommates and everybody just staring in horror and crying. I know people who were incapacitated for a week or two following Trump’s election. It’s not everybody’s reaction, obviously, but Sarah Paulson plays Ally Mayfair-Richards, a liberal white woman in suburbia, so she’s going to break down when a guy who said he could “grab a woman by the p-ssy” and says racist things wins. (She also voted for Jill Stein, which might be one of my favorite character moments and reveals in the series so far).

What I love additionally about Ally is that she is just full of anxiety. I know we talked about this before, but just the phobias she has and the things that scare her are relatable, even beyond politics. I have a fear of being buried alive and not being in control of my own body. I know people that are scared of clowns and have trypophobia (fear of holes). “Cult” should honestly come with trigger warnings.

Beatrice: Yeah. As I’ve told you before, the first episode had my palms sweating and my heart was beating really fast when she talks about claustrophobia. I’ve always been scared of small spaces, and the third episode made me feel like someone was sitting on my chest. I was close to tears.

Another thing I love, which I kind of mentioned before, is that it is more grounded in reality than “Roanoke” and “Murder House,” etc. Ryan Murphy said that this is going to be the first season without supernatural elements. I love it — it’s about crime in a neighborhood, racism, intrusion, and it’s about knowing the limits of your own mind. A lot of the times, Sarah Paulson‘s character says, “I’m losing my mind.” When do we know we’re losing our mind? What is the boundary? I think it’s a really interesting take of the series — something we haven’t really seen from the anthology series before.

Carli: “Asylum” also plays around with the definition of “insane” but “Cult” isn’t also about demons and aliens, as far as we know. It’s nice to see Murphy and his team play with stylized real-world elements for a change. Also my favorite horror stories are always though that are more based in reality and have personal subtext, so “Cult” is already more up my alley.

What do you think of how “Cult” approaches the horror? It’s exaggerated and melodramatic, leading to some moments of hilarity. It’s still an incredibly stressful story, but there are points where you just have to laugh, like when Evan Peters’ character Kai comes out with orange face paint. I think it fits right in with the “American Horror Story” brand, which has always been pulpy and campy more than straight up scary. It also helps when depicting post-election events, which seem exaggerated anyway.

Beatrice: I don’t know if I agree with the horror being exaggerated to the point where it becomes hilarious — although I do agree that there are some scenes or one-liners where I found myself laughing out loud. I mean, there’s definitely a discussion about mental illness and how one thing triggers the next, a butterfly effect, and I think that’s the main horror aspect explored in the show. But then there are the jump scares and the clowns and all the stuff that is like your typical slasher horror movie. Usually, I don’t get scared by things like murderers of clowns in this case, aka things explored in slasher movies, but I’m more afraid of paranormal things like the stuff explored in “Roanoke.” But “Cult” is really hitting it on the nose for me — probably because I can relate to the fears honed in on. I think all in all, it’s very well written. What do you think?

Carli: I think it’s well written for the most part. It’s consistent and streamlined, especially compared to other seasons. It has one focus, an internal conflict, an external conflict, and a mystery for the audience to solve. I think about “Asylum” and how it was like five stories at once and “Cult” is just refreshing.

On a more detailed level, the writing falls apart, or at least it seems to based on the first three episodes. I’m still trying to figure out if the show’s racist plot lines are supposed to be played for scares or for laughs, or whether we’re supposed to see Ally as a victim of racist accusations or as a person blinded by privilege and anxiety who partially deserves it. That worries me because while she’s called the “lesbian George Zimmerman” in a way that makes me laugh, but that parallel is dangerous, especially with real racial tensions being what they are. Although I guess that’s the point?

Beatrice: That’s a good point. I mean, we’ve only seen three episodes, and as you and I have said offline, it becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on.

People have been asking me about Billie Lourd’s performance, especially her relationship with Evan Peters on the show. At first, I thought her character was similar to what she played on “Scream Queens.” But I don’t know what the heck is going on with her character anymore. And I love it. And I think this is one of Evan’s best acting performances of the series to date.

Carli: Evan inhabits this role almost as well as Sarah Paulson always inhabits hers, it’s incredible. Most surprising to me performance-wise I think is Billy Eichner, who I’ve only seen in overly comedic, yelling roles. He’s still Billy Eichner, but he’s more grounded and shows incredible restraint. He’s also still hilarious.

But final thoughts. “Cult” has a lot of potential to be one of the best seasons of “American Horror Story” in a long time. It has some problematic elements and some things I’m not sure will work in the long term but I’m hooked and disturbed, which I guess is the most important thing.

Beatrice: I could go on and on about Sarah’s performance. There’s a reason Ryan Murphy keeps asking her (and Evan) to come back. I’m just happy Evan’s not just in this season for 3 minutes like he was in “Roanoke” — I felt that that was a big waste of his acting potential.

Anyway, my final thoughts: I’m so happy Ryan and Brad came back with a season like this after “Roanoke.” I’m terrified and have a cloud of anxiety hovering over me the entire time I’m watching, but I welcome it. I’m also interested in what will happen as the series goes on, but for now, I’m excited about what direction the season seems to be going in and I don’t want to wait for the upcoming episodes. I want — and need — them now.