“American Horror Story” fans who missed seeing Sarah Paulson during last year’s “1984” cycle can now breathe a sigh of relief: she’s returning for Season 10. Sure, the next installment has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Paulson will officially be back when it eventually airs on FX. (See the Season 10 cast list.) This Emmy winner for “The People v. O.J. Simpson” has been nominated for five “AHS” seasons through the years: “Asylum,” “Coven,” “Freak Show,” “Hotel” and “Cult.”
In anticipation of Paulson’s return to the franchise, we’ve ranked all nine of her “American Horror Story” characters from worst to best. Does YOUR #1 choice match ours? Sound off in the comments section to let us know your personal rankings.
Captions by Kevin Jacobsen
9. Susan Atkins (“Cult”) — Paulson briefly played Susan Atkins, a member of Charles Manson’s murderous “family.” In her one episode, aptly titled “Charles (Manson) in Charge,” she is seen stabbing actress Sharon Tate and writing the word “pig” on the door. It is Paulson fully uninhibited, which is both fun and horrifying to watch, but the character doesn’t leave much impact beyond the one flashback.
8. Wilhelmina Venable (“Apocalypse”) — Wilhelmina Venable would only be on our screens for a brief period of time, but she still made a big impression. As the strict leader of an outpost after the end of the world, Ms. Venable was a rare villainous character for Paulson to play. Finding out that she was not just following protocol but actually making up her own rules as an authoritarian just made her all the more fascinating. She only appeared in the season’s first three episodes, so it was not quite enough to stand out among Paulson’s other characters.
7. Shelby Miller/Audrey Tindall (“Roanoke”) — For the first half of “Roanoke,” Paulson played Shelby Miller, a yoga teacher who is tormented by events happening in and out of her country home. It is a traditional scream queen role that does not pop as much as many of her other characters, even as she commits to what it requires. Of course, the unique setup of “Roanoke” reveals that Shelby is actually a character being played by a British actress named Audrey Tindall and what we have seen is a dramatized reenactment of what the real Shelby Miller went through at her Roanoke home. Audrey is Paulson’s most carefree character and it’s fun to see her letting loose.
6. Ally Mayfair-Richards (“Cult”) — As a woman overcome by anxiety after the election of Donald Trump, Ally Mayfair-Richards was arguably Paulson’s most complicated character she’s played on “American Horror Story.” Her paranoia and her crippling fear of clowns put her in a heightened state through much of “Cult,” making her difficult to truly love, but when she comes back after a stay at the psyche ward, ready to take down Kai (Evan Peters) and his murderous cult, she had us cheering alongside her.
5. Bette and Dot Tattler (“Freak Show”) — It is difficult to separate Paulson’s two “Freak Show” characters considering they are both metaphorically and literally linked. Playing Bette and Dot Tattler, a pair of conjoined twins, was Paulson’s most difficult and ambitious task yet, but she was up for the task and distinguished their personalities well. Bette is the more innocent, idealistic twin while Dot is more cynical, which provides some interesting conflict as they work at the freak show. How you feel about Bette and Dot may depend on your view of “Freak Show” as a season, but the Siamese Sisters are certainly the most unique characters Paulson has played thus far.
4. Billie Dean Howard (“Murder House”/“Hotel”/“Apocalypse”) — Billie Dean Howard was our first introduction to Sarah Paulson on “American Horror Story,” showing up a handful of times in “Murder House.” Billie Dean is a medium who helps Violet (Taissa Farmiga) understand more about Tate (Evan Peters) being a spirit lingering between our world and the afterlife. She returned again in “Hotel” to investigate the goings-on at the Hotel Cortez but is soon chased away. She also returned briefly in “Apocalypse.” There is an attitude and confidence in her own abilities that makes Billie Dean fun to watch even if she doesn’t leave the biggest impact.
3. Sally McKenna (“Hotel”) — “Hotel” found Paulson taking a bit of a backseat after major roles in the previous three seasons, but Sally McKenna still made one hell of an impression. Diverging from the typical moral protagonists she played in the past, Sally is reckless and impulsive after being doomed to the Hotel Cortez for eternity. She is able to find peace after Iris (Kathy Bates) gifts her with an iPhone and she discovers its glorious potential. It was arguably the most different role we’ve seen from Paulson during her run on “American Horror Story” but she clearly had a ball playing her just as much as we loved watching her.
2. Cordelia Foxx (“Coven”/“Apocalypse”) — Miss Robichaux’s Academy headmistress Cordelia Foxx is the daughter of the Supreme witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange), and despite harboring her own witchy powers, she tries to resolve conflicts peacefully at the start of “Coven.” That soon changes when her girls are threatened and she gets blinded by sulfuric acid. This gives her Second Sight and she eventually proves her skills enough to become the next Supreme, succeeding her mother. Cordelia fully reached iconic status when she returned for “Apocalypse,” which found her in a duel with the Antichrist for the fate of the world. Cordelia is a total badass and is the rare “AHS” character to be intrinsically important to multiple seasons.
1. Lana Winters (“Asylum”/“Roanoke”) — Journalist Lana Winters will forever be Sarah Paulson’s most iconic “American Horror Story” role. Lana goes through the wringer in “American Horror Story: Asylum” as she tries to expose the secrets of Briarcliff Manor only to find herself trapped there with little hope of escape. She suffers through conversion therapy and sexual abuse at the asylum but ultimately makes her way and must murder her own son in self-defense. She would return in “AHS: Roanoke” to interview Lee Harris (Adina Porter) about similar experiences she faced. While Billie Dean Howard offered a taste of what Paulson could do as an actress, the role of Lana Winters is where viewers really took notice of her strengths and we’ve been hooked ever since.