The last several decades have seen a massive increase in the level of graphic violence that TV series can get away with showing, whether they be on a broadcast network or a basic cable channel. Few shows have seen fit to push this envelope further than FX's hit horror anthology American Horror Story. Co-created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, AHS has never been shy about making maximum use of its TV-MA content rating, regularly featuring both disturbing acts of violence and fairly explicit sexual situations.
Those facts made it seem all the weirder when it was announced last week that Murphy had decided to voluntarily edit down a violent scene that was set to open the latest episode of American Horror Story: Cult. This change was made in response to the deadly mass shooting that occurred recently in Las Vegas, as Murphy reasoned that it would be inappropriate to air a gory mass shooting sequence so soon after such a horrific real-life tragedy.
In the original cut of Tuesday night's episode - titled 'Mid-Western Assassin' - Ivy (Alison Pill) is the focus character during a mass shooting at a political rally for far-right candidate Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), the leader of the season's titular clown cult. The sound of gunshots is constant throughout the scene, and multiple people are shown getting riddled with bullets. A man tries to help Ivy escape the scene, only to get shot himself, and die with Ivy holding his hand. Blood also is shown splattering on the ground.
In the edited version that aired Tuesday on FX, shots are heard less often, Ivy's frantic journey through the panicked crowd is much shorter, and most of the actual bullet hits to victims are omitted. The mass shooting sequence is reduced to what are essentially its bare essentials, leaving enough intact as is necessary for the plot of the overall episode to make sense. Interestingly, a late in the episode follow-up scene - which expands on the opening shooting, and reveals additional details - was not edited.
While some AHS fans have expressed displeasure with Murphy's decision to edit Mid-Western Assassin,' it's important to note that those looking to watch the episode as originally intended are not being left out in the cold. Only linear TV airings will be showing the edited cut, meaning that anyone who watches the episode on the FX Now App or their VOD platform of choice will see the complete, unedited version, with all violence intact.
Whenever a movie or TV show is edited due to concern over its content, there will always be people who react passionately on both sides of the issue. The fact that Murphy himself opted to make the change at least prevented fans from complaining that his vision for AHS was compromised against his will, but that still didn't stop many fans of the show from reacting unfavorably to the move. After all, the scene in question was shot months before the Las Vegas shooting, and the only real similarity between the real and fictional events is that lots of innocent people were shot in a public setting. Beyond that, the details are almost entirely different.
On the other side of the argument though, people who approved of Murphy's decision to edit the episode agree with his conclusion that showing such a graphic scene that soon after the massacre in Las Vegas would have been insensitive to both the victims and their families, and might cause trauma to those still mentally recovering from the horrific incident. It's a complex issue to be sure, but at least by making both versions readily available, FX and Murphy have offered viewers on both sides of the fence the opportunity to experience their preferred cut of 'Mid-Western Assassin.'
That said, one wonders if Murphy will be so quick to take a step like this in the future. After all, AHS has depicted acts that are arguably far more upsetting many times over the course of its run. This latest instance isn't even the first time AHS has featured a mass shooting. Back in season 1 - subtitled Murder House - the character of Tate Langdon (also played by Peters) went on a shooting spree at his high school, killing 15 people. Following his rampage, Tate was shot by police and ultimately ended up as one of the many ghosts haunting the titular dwelling.
One of the more recent uproars concerning AHS' graphic displays of violence revolved around a scene in the premiere episode of the Hotel season, which marked Lady Gaga's franchise debut. The scene in question actually combined AHS' two favorite pastimes, showcasing both gory deaths and kinky sex. Gaga's character and Matt Bomer's character - a vampire couple - were shown having group sex with two lovers that quickly became victims, in a sequence many fans took to calling "the blood orgy."
Things actually got even more depraved in the gory sex department later on in Hotel, although this scene didn't get quite as much press as Gaga's. In Hotel, AHS regular Sarah Paulson played Sally, a ghostly drug addict with serious abandonment issues. Sally's bizarre backstory included a heroin-fueled threesome that eventually mutated into her literally sewing herself to the other two participants. They died, and she was left trapped with their bodies for days. Such scenes are one reason why Hotel is sometimes even cited by some fans as one time AHS took things took far in the gross-out direction.
Considering some of the above scenes, it remains surprising that Murphy felt compelled to edit a mass shooting sequence that is objectively much less graphic than something like Gaga's blood orgy. While the close time proximity to the Las Vegas shooting seems to be the biggest factor in Murphy's decision, another element in play may have presumably been how realistic the violence in the shooting scene is. Mass shootings happen on a depressingly regular basis in America, but one is unlikely to end up drained by a vampire, or sewn together with a crazed lover. Perhaps the over-the-top (and unrealistic) nature of those deaths explains why Murphy felt no inclination to make similar edits.
Still, Murphy may have set a precedent by editing 'Mid-Western Assassin,' one which might lead to similarly violent shows such as The Walking Dead being called on to edit out violent scenes after a different tragedy occurs in the future. Whether such calls would be right or wrong is, of course, a matter of personal opinion, but it's certainly something to consider. In any case, other networks would hopefully follow FX's example, and make both versions available to the public.