This week’s American Horror Story: Cult instalment hit home harder than nearly any other episode in the FX anthology's seven-season history, as it opened with its own mass shooting mere days after the heartbreaking Las Vegas massacre left at least 58 people dead and hundreds injured. While FX rightly decided to edit out some of the fictional carnage for the live debut, the reality of the situation was still triggering for many. Yet, the bullet-ridden violence of “Mid-Western Assassin” wasn’t the only scene in the episode made so much worse by the real-life headlines surrounding Tuesday night’s Cult. While now-disgraced super producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual harassment and assault now dominate the news cycle, viewers saw another powerful man, Cult’s Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), manipulate underling Meadow Wilton (Leslie Grossman) in sex. Let’s all call the encounter what it was: rape.
To start off with, yes, I know Meadow seems very excited — thankful, even — Kai has sex with her at the end of “Mid-Western.” That doesn’t mean an endless barrage of coercion and violence didn’t lead her to that point. Toward the beginning of this episode, we see Meadow finally stick up for herself, telling Kai he’s “full of shit” and his plan for world domination is both “hilarious” and “insane.” In response, Kai has Meadow’s own husband Harrison Wilson (Billy Eichner) and his new boyfriend Jack Samuels (Colton Haynes) drag her into the basement, hold her face down with the sole of his boot on her back, and hogtie her like an animal. That is the immediate, terrifying punishment Meadow faces for saying “No” to Horror Story's new cult leader. Also, in last week’s “Holes” Meadow witnessed another cult member get shot in the head with a round of nails for the crime of insubordination. This is the fear she is already stewing in, whether she realises it or not.
“A cat goes missing and there are posters plastered all over the city. But, you, no one’s even noticed you’re gone. No one gives a shit if you live or die. You’re worthless. You don’t exist. You’re nothing,” Kai tells Meadow as her best friend of over two decades treats her like a pig heading to slaughter.
Yet, we find out at the close of “Mid-Western,” that is not the end of Kai's monologue. In fact, what he actually told the terrified, effectively kidnapped woman is, “You’re nothing … in the eyes of the unenlightened world.” Then the young man undoes Meadow’s hogtie, strokes her hair, and eventually kisses her, proving he’s the only person who truly cares about her on the entire planet. “But to me, you’re everything,” he coos in her ear. Soon enough, between passionate kisses, Kai is telling Meadow she was right about the cult's plan being faulty and she’s the only one who can save the revolution, “My love.” By the end of the scene he’s ripping off Meadow’s pants and unzipping his own because he and, and only he, let her free. That's why Meadow moans with pleasure when he's inside of her.
There are some obvious sexual manipulations here, like Kai essentially threatening to murder Meadow because she denied him — and that’s before he even starts passionately kissing her. A person trapped in a basement can’t really consent to sex, no matter what. It’s that simple. But there are even darker machinations at work in this scene Meadow likely doesn’t realise. In a previous episode, “Neighbors From Hell,” Kai slaps Meadow so hard for not following orders, she falls off her chair and onto the floor. “Do you understand how valuable my time is? How much it means that I’m here doing this for you?” he screams, sowing the seeds that will eventually convince Meadow how powerful he is, and how weak she is.
Kai follows up that stint of abuse with his classic pinky trick, which then helps him learn Meadow's precise biggest fears. This is the information he eventually uses to get Meadow into the exact mindset necessary for her to be “thankful” for Kai gracing her with his penis and his compliments in “Mid-Western.” Kai asks her if her fears include being “40 and childless”, that she’ll “die unloved” and that she will “never be penetrated by a man again.” Meadow answers all of the inquiries with a yes. “I’m afraid the man that I love is turning against me,” she adds, referencing Harrison’s new relationship with handsome police officer Jack. Kai shoots back, “He is. I would. You’re so fucking irritating.”
So Kai then goes about making all of Meadow’s greatest fears come true. He ensure it’s Harrison who turns against her, trapping her in the basement in the darkest way possible, and convincing her she’s deeply, deeply unloved. That's what Kai's pre-"sex" speech is all about. The only person who can save her from this literal living hell? Kai, because he does love her. And he does want to penetrate her. She isn’t really irritating like the cult leader said, she’s his “everything;” he would never leave her now. We get further proof of Meadow’s deep brainwashing when she uses the word “anaesthetise” while telling Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) of her pre-Kai life. That is the exact word the would-be politician said after slapping Meadow.
Obviously, Kai’s long-orchestrated rape of Meadow isn’t the end of his horrifying coercion of the woman — it’s just another tool to trick her into doing his bidding. By finding out her deepest, darkest fears, making them a reality, and then proving he’s her sole saviour, with sex, the cult leader puts her in his complete thrall. The final part of his plan arrives, mid-thrust, when he asks Meadow to “assassinate” him, fail, and help him step onto the national stage as a resurrected martyr for the cause. Meadow, on the other hand, will have to commit suicide to keep from cracking under the pressure of law enforcement after the purposefully botched assassination. “You’re the only one I can trust to do this,” Kai promises Meadow, reinforcing the fact he’s the only reason she won’t die alone. “It’ll be our eternal secret. Our everlasting love.” This is why Meadow's final words at her massacre, which she says before turning the gun on herself, are, “This is the face of true love.”
American Horror Story's name can often be read as a reference to the campy horror tropes living in its seven seasons; the killer clowns, the sexy vampires, and the murderous houses. But after watching a powerful man systematically twist a woman into his suicidal sex puppet, it feels like Cult's true aim is to lay truth to the horrors of humanity.
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