‘American Horror Story’ mostly sticks its landing as it ends a controversial season on a contemplative, cathartic note
“Women can’t lead. Women can’t win.”
After a season that largely fluctuates in quality, AHS: Cult’s final episode, “Great Again,” goes out with its heart in the right place. This finale kicks off with force as the episode jumps forward in time and smashes in everyone’s faces the reality that Kai is now in prison. However, Kai’s incarceration doesn’t slow down his trademark manipulation tricks. Kai might be in his biggest cage yet, but that doesn’t stop him from keeping his title as Divine Ruler. The skinheads that worship Kai in prison are no different than the “dude bros” that were supporting him before. He even hooks his talons into authority figures at the prison and finds new surrogates for past followers. The individuals aren’t important. This is all cyclical for Kai, just like the “Cult Leader Storytime” segments that have reiterated this all season.
Kai’s been in prison for nearly a year, but his plans remain at the same basic level: Women are Evil. Let’s Take Down the Women. It’s an angry, violent cold open that paints Kai as an automaton of sorts. He appears to be on autopilot as his imaginary bestie, Charles Manson, continues to call the shots. Kai may very well run out of rope here, but it makes for an exhilarating introduction to this final hour of the season.
On that note, AHS: Cult deserves some respect for their ambitious work with this finale. Past seasons of American Horror Story are no strangers to delivering a creative, atypical installment to close out the year. AHS: Asylum still manages to be one of the more effective examples of this as the season leans into its journalistic themes and transforms its finale into a documentary from Lana Winters (Lana also gets a pretty delightful shout-out here that brought a big smile to my face). So just when it feels like AHS: Cult is about to pull the rug out from under its audience, it’s deeply encouraging to see the finale remain mostly in 2018 and take its time before flashing back to how everyone reaches this point.
Frankly, I’d have been fine if we didn’t get any of these background details and were simply left to reach our own conclusions on Kai’s incarceration. This still feels like a finale that focuses more on Kai’s future and his rebirth, rather than a tedious lesson on how he falls from grace. It’s a smart decision that makes this final hour come alive, rather than resigning it to be on life support as it bungles the landing. It also doesn’t hurt that Jennifer Lynch directs the hell out of this finale and makes most of its subject matter resonate.
One of the most effective elements of this season has been the complete breakdown of Beverley Hope. Beverley’s mental anguish only intensifies over the past few episodes and Adina Porter does brutal work in her current state. She shuffles around like some lobotomy patient and is just eager for all of this to be over. At one point she wanted to run this show with Kai, but now she just wants the release of death. Beverley acts as a devastating character study of how cults can reprogram people to such shocking degree. Even when Ally tries to give her hope and tell her that change is coming, she doesn’t even know what she really wants anymore. She’s completely void of individuality and it’s just as harsh as any of the violence from this season. In fact, it’s worse. Thank God she’s able to get a moment of redemption before the season ends.
A lot of “Great Again” relies on Ally’s ability to run this show and outsmart everyone. She methodically moves all of her pieces into play so she’s able to pull off her giant coupe on Kai and his army. The success of this episode banks on the fact that Ally has some way to take all of these people down with her. Besides, all of Kai’s goons are too busy focusing on bigger issues, like how to successfully execute 100 pregnant women.
Ally’s success isn’t meant to be a surprise. It’s inevitable and something that has apparently been in the works ever since Kai sent her away for psychiatric help. A lot of this episode simply basks in Ally’s contentment. It’s almost the polar opposite of the season’s premiere where we meet Ally as a frightened, insecure mess. Hell, she’s even able to make a legitimate run for a seat at the Senate now, too. This transformation is no coincidence and after Ally’s triumphant coup, the episode slowly turns up the tension. Will Ally get her happy ending—let alone, does she even deserve it at this point—or is there one final danger that’s going to strike?
The episode plays Beverley’s story as an interesting counterpoint to what Ally experiences after her escape of Kai and his influence. Ally is the “celebrity” of the situation. She’s the survivor that everyone admires and wants to take their picture with while they praise her strength. That’s not wrong, necessarily, but Ally is still guilty of a shocking amount of murder and crime herself. She’s ready to put this behind her and use it to her advantage. At one point Beverley colloquially says to Ally, “You’re the one that we should have been worried about.” That’s the dangerous level of power that Ally plays with now. Even if she thinks that she’s okay, it’s clear that she’s changed and continues to change.
“Great Again” takes Ally’s run for the Senate and essentially morphs it into a redux of Clinton versus Trump, which frankly is the perfect way to bring this season full circle. The final scenes largely play out like some sort of fan fiction of the 2016 presidential election, but it’s an exaggerated moment that works. In other circumstances, such a conclusion might seem ridiculous, but audiences are more than ready to see Kai Anderson get his at this point.
Fortunately, this problematic season of American Horror Story seems to have gotten rid of most of its kinks at this point. With this season’s slow pace, this finale easily could have been split into two episodes, but it’s a better episode for not spreading story too thin. The year surprisingly ends on a note that not only doesn’t disappoint, but also manages to be somewhat optimistic. American Horror Story: Cult was far from a disaster and it certainly deserves points for ambition, but I’m still waiting for Ryan Murphy to make American Horror Story great again.