Has nobody talked to Ryan Murphy about his unfortunate habit of completely undermining the great stories he frequently begins telling? It seems to be the case with every season of American Horror Story that by the time the finale comes around, the season has built itself up to be a pretty good story only for the finale to let it all down. Unfortunately, Ryan Murphy doesn’t break this trend with AHS: Cult. He comes awful close to succeeding, too, though. The finale was nearly a perfect cap to a truly great season – my favorite since Asylum, but then that final shot of the episode happened. In Great Again, written by Tim Minear and directed by Jennifer Lynch, the events of the season come to a breaking point as the mole in the cult is revealed and Kai’s (Evan Peters) kingdom comes crumbling down around him while Ally (Sarah Paulson) makes a bid for Michigan Senatorial race. (Major spoilers ahead!!!)
Like I said, much of this episode is truly a great way of ending the season. The episode starts off with a flash-forward eleven months into the future (from where the previous episode ended) featuring Kai in a maximum security prison. It turns out that Ally has been a mole for the FBI ever since she was sent to the mental hospital a few episodes ago and she finally pulls the plug that gets Kai arrested. Kai, of course, is up to his old tricks in the prison by recruiting various inmates and prison guards to his cause. Meanwhile, Ally has teamed up with Beverly (Adina Porter) in her bid for the senatorial race in Michigan. As the night of Ally’s debate with the incumbent senator, Herbert Jackson (Dennis Cockrum) approaches, Kai (with the help of a guard), breaks out of prison in a bid to track down Ally.
Cut to Ally’s debate where Kai shows up and tries to assassinate her onstage. Except – oops! – his gun doesn’t actually have any bullets in it and he’s subsequently gunned down by Beverly after pressing Ally to say something to him – leading to her great line “You were wrong. There is something more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man. A nasty woman.” The thing is, it’s probably here that the episode should have ended. Alas, this isn’t what happens. It goes on for another four minutes or so, showing Ally winning her election and becoming the next senator for Michigan, her having a really sweet conversation with Ozzy (Cooper Dodson) where she tells him that she’s doing this not to boss people around but to help lead them into a better future for him, all leading up to a shot where Ally pulls down a hood (totally styled after the one that Frances Conroy’s Bebe Babbit wore) with the obvious implication that she’s started some new kind of cult.
Yes, you heard that right. Ally Mayfair-Richards, the woman who spent an entire season escaping a cult, ends the season with the strong implication that she is now a leader of a cult. If you think that’s out of character for her to do, you’re not alone. Yes, Ally was manipulative as hell towards the end of the season; understandably so given that her wife, Ivy (Allison Pill), did join a cult with the intent of torturing Ally and then proceeded to gaslight her about everything Ally saw. But it just feels wrong for her to start a new cult. She literally just got done seeing all the awful things that go down in cults. Her son was threatened, for Pete’s sake! It seems completely out of character for her to do this! Yes, she wants to tear down the current political system, but after everything she’s been through, we as an audience are supposed to buy into her starting her own cult? (Yes, I know that in real life, this is exactly what happens. But American Horror Story has never been anything like real life, even in a season as realistic at this one.)
Leave it to Ryan Murphy to ignore character development in favor of a “shocking” final shot. The thing is, this episode really didn’t need this. Everything that happened prior to that final scene was the perfect capper to this ambitious season. We followed Ally from her hysteric breakdowns in the first episode (due to the cult) all the way through her overcoming every aspect of the cult and using the power and belief in herself (that she was forced to cultivate in order to survive that cult) as a way to get elected to a high office and implement the changes she believed in. THAT was the story of the season. It’s a story of a woman breaking free from a cult and not letting her experience in it define her. That’s what so much of the episode is about (there’s even a scene where Ally and Beverly discuss a campaign ad in which there is a clip that Ally thinks is causing her campaign to be tainted by her past with the cult); she spends the whole thing trying to overcome how Kai’s cult has impacted her past and the public’s perception of her. So, the idea that this woman would then create her own cult after spending so much time trying to rid herself of the previous one she was in is ludicrous! It undermines the entire story being told.
If Ryan Murphy really needed some kind of powerful image of Ally to end the episode with, perhaps he should have ended it with her walking out onto a stage to make her victory speech (paralleling the way the season began by showing Trump’s victory speech). There was no reason for him to undermine Ally’s character development by having her join a cult, and subsequently undermine the entire – very interesting and well told – story he’s been telling all season. But, alas, such is the nature of what Ryan Murphy does. He builds up great plotlines and almost executes them well, only to make some odd choice in the eleventh hour that throws a wrench into things. It happened last year with AHS: Roanoke in the way he decided to have the finale play out – almost completely detached from the previous few episodes that led to it. And it happens time and time again in his shows (just look at how quickly Glee devolved from a strong, character-driven show into a show that lived off of putting its characters into situations where they acted completely out of character (Blaine (Darren Criss) cheating on Kurt (Chris Colfer), for example) in order to… create shock? Increase ratings? I dunno. But it never really works. Glee’s ratings continued to plummet in the wake of that ridiculous plotline and fans never forgave him for making that choice. Every season finale of American Horror Story is criticized for not living up to the season that led to it.
It’s a shame, really, because AHS: Cult was one of the best seasons of American Horror Story. The show is at its best when it explores the horror of real people doing real things. The reason that Cult felt scary was that so much of it felt real. He touched on the uprising of white anger, white nationalist tendencies, and white victimhood that’s been on the rise since the election last year. He turned what sounded like a hokey premise – “let’s make the season about the election! – into a truly unsettling look into how people react in times of extreme political division. He provided a satirical look at politics and at the country at large right now. He told a story that was character-driven, featured some incredible acting, that had well-directed episodes and then undermined it all with one simple throwaway shot at the end of the finale. He came so very close to not screwing up his story this time, but he couldn’t resist his own creative flaws.
(American Horror Story: Cult, Episode 11 – Great Again gets 3.5/5 wands. It would’ve gotten 4.5/5 had it not been for that final shot undermining the entire episode.
The season as a whole gets 4/5 wands. Again, it, too, would’ve gotten 4.5/5 if the finale hadn’t undermined its narrative momentum)