In the opening sequence of “Mid-Western Assassin,” the American Horror Story: Cult episode that was sent to critics before it aired Tuesday night, a low-angle shot of an American flag is suddenly interrupted by gunfire. The camera trains on Ivy (Alison Pill) at a political rally as the shots proliferate and people around her are mangled by bullets. She runs through the crowd while bodies buckle and fall; she holds a man’s hand as he’s shot dead. Blood spatters the ground. The scene ends revealing that the subject of the rally, a cultist, far-right candidate for Michigan governor, is among those hit.
In the episode as it actually aired on FX, we see the flag and hear the gunshots, but Ivy’s graphic journey through the crowd is almost entirely elided. Shots rain down, but we don’t see who they hit. The sequence, stripped down to its plot essentials, is not nearly as frightening. (The end of the elliptical episode, which reveals the true shooter and includes intense gun violence, remains intact.)
Co-creator Ryan Murphy, speaking at the New Yorker Festival last weekend, confirmed the episode was edited following the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “I believe I have the right to air it,” he said. “But I also believe in victims’ rights, and I believe that now is not the week to have something explosive or incendiary in the culture.” He’s hardly the first showrunner to face this dilemma. Mr. Robot’s first season finale was delayed after a man shot and killed a news anchor and a cameraman on live TV, and an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pulled altogether for months after Columbine. The 2015 Paris terrorist attack led to a wave of re-editing. One episode of Hannibal never aired in the months after the Sandy Hook shooting because of its depiction of children and violence. Similar examples go far back.
The impulse is understandable, even if it often seems like a depressing commentary on our attention spans—if it’s not fine now, is it really fine in a week? Murphy is television’s proudest, crudest provocateur, and if even he gets squeamish maybe that’s a sign. But the rejiggered sequence feels like an odd turn for American Horror Story. Part of what has made the series’ new Cult season one of its most potent in years is its unfiltered, messy dive into the culture of the 2016 election, mashing up #MAGA hate crimes, the indoctrination of gay fascists, and the horrors of suburban Jill Stein liberals into a volatile and queasy mirror of our political moment. It works precisely because of how exploitative it is, pushing its familiar genre mechanizations on far-too-plausible events to underline the very real horror show our country has become. It’s added up to the scariest, most unnerving cycle for the show since Asylum.
That’ll be harder to keep up if American Horror Story loses its nerve when it gets too real. The mass-shooting sequence has clear parallels to the surreal terror of the videos that filtered out of Las Vegas last week, and it’s hard to fault Murphy for trying to put the people most affected first in his mind. But I’m not sure who benefits from the scaling back the carnage when we do depict gun violence. To his and FX’s credit, the full, unedited episode is available on streaming platforms, and the sequence—superbly directed by Murphy habitué Bradley Buecker—is blunt and visceral in exactly the right ways. American Horror Story has always teetered between living up to its grand titular promise and its cruder instinct to shock and torment the audience, but in this week’s episode, it found a disturbing and effective way to do both.