Cult (season 7, aired in 2017)
Of all of the seasons on this list, Cult is the one I had the hardest time ranking. I thought about placing it as high as second, but my opinion on it changes every time I consider just how Murphy wants us to think about the politics of America in the 2010s.
Cult is the infamous “post-Trump” season, which involves a killer clown cult slowly indoctrinating the residents of a Michigan town into its murderous ways, all against the backdrop of the 2016 election. The highs — like a late-season scene between a brother and sister that clarifies many of the season’s themes — are really high, but the lows often feature astonishingly superficial readings of that specific political moment for a show that has had some success dissecting America’s worst impulses in the past.
And yet … I always say that to understand how American Horror Story wants us to think about whatever it’s discussing in a given season, you have look to the character Sarah Paulson is playing, who often seems like a Murphy avatar navigating the series’ chaotic world. And the fact that Cult casts her as a terrified woman who lets her fear turn her into a complicit part of multiple horrible systems suggests to me there’s more to Cult than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe I should watch it again.
Coven (season 3, aired in 2013-’14)
This season about a school of witches in New Orleans seems to be the favorite of lots of people (no less a TV authority than Entertainment Weekly named Coven the best TV show of 2013!), but I’ve always found it to be hogwash saved by a lot of great performances from some of the world’s finest actresses.
American Horror Story has always been a death-soaked series, but Coven is the one season where death becomes a liability, because the show keeps killing off characters and then immediately resurrecting them, occasionally as literal talking heads or the like. It kneecaps whatever stakes the show is trying to build and, thus, its metaphorical representation of how infighting among the disenfranchised can only lead to further hegemony by the straight white men who run the world.
If you watch this show for its campy deconstruction of horror tropes, I can see where you’d love Coven. But I think American Horror Story has done campy deconstruction far better in several other seasons.