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Sarah Paulson American Horror Story Characters Ranked Worst To Best

American Horror Story is an anthology series, composed of seasons that (for the most part) tell their own independent stories. The show is further notable for having a number of cast members return for multiple seasons, playing a variety of distinct characters. Of all the series' returning players (a list that includes Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, and Lily Rabe, among others), perhaps the most central and well-known performer is fan-favorite actress Sarah Paulson. Paulson is present in every AHS season other than AHS:1984, and is responsible for some of the series' most important and recognizable characters. 

Paulson brings unique humanity and gravitas to an absolute plethora of larger-than-life characters. Whether she's portraying a hero suffering trials and tribulations like Cordelia Foxx (AHS: Coven and AHS: Apocalypse) or Lana Winters (AHS: Roanoke), a villain causing wanton and needless suffering like Wilhemina Venable (AHS: Apocalypse) or Sally McKenna (AHS: Hotel), or a character somewhere in-between, her performances always generate complex, memorable, and interesting stories, regardless of how much screen time she gets. Simply put, there is no American Horror Story without Sarah Paulson: She is the heart of the show. In celebration of the multifaceted talents of one of TV's brightest stars, we're here to rank all of Sarah Paulson's American Horror Story characters from worst to best.

Susan Atkins (AHS: Cult)

AHS: Cult sees Paulson briefly play Susan Atkins, one of Charles Manson's exuberant murder-groupies in the episode "Charles (Manson) in Charge". The Manson reenactment is positioned as a comparison to Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) and the growth and increasingly volatile actions of his group of cult members. In this relatively short but memorable performance, Paulson's Susan is established as one of Manson's most visibly fervent followers. 

Susan gets a few majorly unsettling moments, such as stabbing Sharon Tate and writing "pig" on the door, both of which were real-life elements of the horrific Manson murders. This connects the character to essential parts of a real-world tragedy, as well as to the overarching story that anchors the season. Paulson's energy and charisma make for a memorable character: Susan stands out in every scene she's in.

These scenes add interesting variation to the season and set up a strong ending that won't be spoiled here.  But at the same time, the brevity of Paulson's time on screen (not to mention the fact that she's merely tangential to the main plot) easily knock the character down to the lowest spot on this list. In effect, this low placement is more a reflection of the impact her other characters have on audiences and their respective seasons than an indictment of her performance. Still: Something's gotta be at the bottom, and Susan Atkins is the obvious choice.

Shelby Miller / Audrey Tindall (AHS: Roanoke)

In American Horror Story: Roanoke, Paulson has the distinction of playing both Audrey Tindall and Shelby Miller. Shelby is a traumatized wife and yoga teacher played by Audrey Tindall, an actress. In other words, Paulson is playing an actress playing someone else. Miller's claim to fame within the series is having been the victim of a series of supernatural terrors, chronicled in the in-universe documentary series, My Roanoke Nightmare.

Tindall is a kind Brit who, at some prior point, was a successful stage actress. While shooting My Roanoke Nightmare, she falls in love with fellow performer Rory Monahan, and the two are ultimately married prior to Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell. Tindall suffers horrifically as the season goes along: Most notably, she has her teeth removed, is forced to commit cannibalism, and is finally killed by police. It's a tragic end for a character who endures a whole heck of a lot.

Paulson had her work cut out for her as a performer in the Roanoke season, what with having to play both a character and the character that character is playing. Believably enacting the horrors that happen to each of them is no small order, and she is easily one of the most memorable characters of the season. Unfortunately, this simply isn't the strongest season overall, meaning this performance can't be called one of Paulson's best. It's not her fault, but it is the case.

Bette Tattler (AHS: Freak Show)

While Roanoke showcases Paulson's ability to balance two different characters in one season, Freak Show gives Paulson the admirable challenge of having to perform two distinct characters simultaneously as conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler. It's absolutely one of her most complicated performances: The actress had to act opposite a dummy head in scenes where the two interact, showcasing her ability to embody a character so thoroughly, she can craft believable performances while co-acting with herself

Each sister looks identical, but has a fully distinct personality. Bette lusts after independence and Hollywood stardom, while Dot is the more cynical, suspicious, and morose of the pair. Bette is, in fact, pretty much everything Dot is not. Being the more passionate of the two, however, has a downside: Bette gets herself and Dot into trouble, and it's often up to Dot to find a solution to the problem. This rift manifests itself most poignantly (and tragically) when the sisters get into a heated argument with their mother, regarding their effective imprisonment in her home. Ultimately, Bette stabs and kills their mother in a rash bout of frustration. This spur-of-the-moment choice proceeds to cause problems for the sisters, as can be expected.

That pivotal scene required a complicated performance from Paulson, as the character's ordinary bubbly demeanor suddenly gives way to spontaneous, murderous anger. It's a testament to Paulson's talent that she pulled it off with aplomb, setting the character on a complicated and unforgettable path.

Ally Mayfair-Richards (AHS:Cult)

Paulson gives another incredible performance as Ally Mayfair-Richards, cult target and season protagonist of American Horror Story: Cult. Ally spends much of the season with severe post-election anxiety (which mingles uneasily with her grave fear of clowns), making her an extremely vulnerable target to malevolent forces. What's worse, she experiences great betrayal from her wife, Ivy Mayfair-Richards, which she eventually pays back in kind. Ally experiences an incredible journey this season: She goes from being a terrified mess to being incarcerated in a mental asylum to finally becoming a strong and determined woman, willing and able to take Kai and his cult down once and for all. By the end of the season, she's ready to accomplish anything she needs to, in order to get what she wants.

Ally is a well-written and strong protagonist taken to incredible heights by a thrilling performance from Paulson. At the same time, while Ally's arc and endpoint are powerful, the character's constantly anxious state, which lasts through much of the season, makes her a little bit less of an active character than many of Paulson's other AHS portrayals. It's surely no fault of Paulson's own (as always, she fires on all cylinders) and it does serve a wider purpose in the season as a whole. But when all is said and done, the character shines a little less brightly than, say, a Supreme witch who runs a school for magic and defeats the Antichrist.

Dot Tattler (AHS: Freak Show)

Of the two Tattler sisters, Dot is the more generally sympathetic character. She is also, by far, the more reserved, doubtful, anxious, and controlling sister. Her main goal is to gain independence from Bette: Dot is enormously irritated with her sister's strongly developed sexuality, and, in Dot's eyes, her overwhelming naivete. When Bette causes major problems for the pair by killing their mother with a knife in the midst of a heated argument, Dot is forcibly drawn into the fray. The act plagues Dot with guilt, to the point that she stabs Bette (which is, of course, also stabbing herself) with a set of scissors. These violent acts set off the events of the season.

Dot and Bette are among the most complex American Horror Story characters ever depicted. They are perpetually engaged in each other's lives and wrongdoings, due to their conjoined nature, and yet they  are also distinct individuals with their own dreams, faults, and desires. Dot is irrevocably shaped by her life as a twin, yet so too is she defined by her fierce independence. It's a dizzyingly complicated performance to be sure, but Paulson pulls it off memorably, with a wide-ranging and nuanced slate of emotions on full display. Despite their one-in-a-million circumstances, she makes Dot and Bette feel utterly understandable as human beings trying to live worthwhile lives. It's easy to feel empathetic towards both Dot and Bette, despite their differences — which evidences just how engaging Paulson's performances are.

Wilhemina Venable (AHS: Apocalypse)

One of Paulson's more explicitly villainous characters, Wilhemina Venable is one person you'd best avoid in the apocalypse. The totalitarian leader of one of the last known surviving communities, she rules with an iron, purple-clad fist. We come to discover her ruthless rule-keeping is not, in fact, post-apocalypse protocol, but a misanthropic plan of her own design. The Outpost's strict rules were designed to secure her own authority (and, to be honest, serve her whims as well). When we discover Venable's willingness to poison her own Outpost to secure the good will of the Antichrist, it isn't quite surprising, but it does add a further layer of cruelty to an already monomaniacal character. We also discover that she was little better in her life before the apocalypse, working for years for Jeff Pfister and Mutt Nutter knowing the world would end, yet letting it happen anyway.

Venable isn't present for the full duration of this season, but she definitely establishes herself as a menacing and memorable antagonist in her time on screen. In that time, it becomes clear that she is one of Paulson's best characters. Fiercely independent and absolutely self-interested, her malicious actions are all conscious choices, showing what happens when you gave the worst people full control. Venable allowed Paulson to perform a character who makes things happen, rather than responding to the events and choices of others. What results is a whole lot of fun to watch.

Sally McKenna (AHS: Hotel)

Sally McKenna is one of Paulson's more troubled characters in the AHS anthology series, as well as one of the few characters she's played who isn't a central protagonist or antagonist. This character is a former drug user who was known in life as Hypodermic Sally, a reckless woman who became doomed to an afterlife in the Hotel Cortez. Beyond her rampant drug use, Sally is guilty of some heinous and terrible actions in life — notably, she sewed the bodies of two friends together (unsurprisingly, they did not survive). She's easily one of the darkest characters Paulson has played on the show.

In her hotel-bound afterlife, Sally stays menacing. She assists the Addiction Demon in its torturing attractive men on the hotel grounds, helps John Lowe in many of his Ten Commandments killings, and regularly lures men to their deaths at James March's Devil's Night parties. The character finally finds some sort of peace when Iris (Kathy Bates) gives her an iPhone, which offers her an outlet into the outside world.

Sally McKenna is a bad seed, living or dead, and Paulson plays the character with panache. She's vile, erratic, and complex, but also somewhat pathetic in the villainous actions she resorts to. All in all, this oddball nature sets the character apart as one of the most unique Paulson has played in the series.  It's also rare for Paulson to portray such an explicitly cruel character, and she pulls it off quite memorably.

Billie Dean Howard (AHS: Murder House, AHS: Hotel, and AHS: Apocalypse)

Billie Dean Howard is the very first character Sarah Paulson portrayed on American Horror Story, making her debut in the inaugural Murder House season. Billie Dean is a medium, and the only real ally of the protagonist family at the heart of the season. Ever knowledgeable and electric, Billie Dean is an engaging character to watch, and always seems to know an uncanny amount about the spirit realm. She might be a side character (especially when compared to many of Paulson's later roles), but she casts a big shadow. 

The character's strength and memorability has ended up being underscored by appearances in two additional seasons. In AHS: Hotel, she emerges on Devil's Night for her TV show at Iris' invite. The character is ultimately sent packing by the serial killer dinner ghosts. Billie Dean returns once more in AHS: Apocalypse, warning of the dangers of the Murder House and its many attendant ghosts. Interestingly, she knows that Madison is a witch, yet refuses to give Madison knowledge about Michael Langdon. 

Billie Dean is a strong and interesting character who proves pivotal to many important arcs: In fact, her presence in multiple seasons gives the series such strong, intriguing interconnections that it leads to a more engaging overarching tone and narrative. She might not be the protagonist, but she's always important to the central characters. All in all, Paulson's Billie Jean is always a welcome presence.

Lana Winters (AHS: Asylum and AHS: Roanoke)

One of Paulson's most memorable and popular roles, Lana Winters is perhaps American Horror Story's most straightforwardly heroic character. Lana is a journalist who enters the forbidding Briarcliff Manor to investigate the shocking Bloody Face murders. She ends up wrongfully imprisoned, where she's subjected to a variety of horrible acts of abuse and brutal bouts of electroshock therapy. It's a harrowing journey to watch such a morally good and likable character endure, but thankfully, Winters ultimately survives these ordeals. She becomes tough and cold in the process, however, eventually even killing her own son in self-defense. So it goes on American Horror Story — even when it comes to the good guys.

In some ways, Lana, being such a morally straightforward character, would seem to be one of the series' more simplistic roles. But Paulson gives the character such a tremendous amount of depth and strength that she can't help but be memorable, even when stacked against more immediately attention-grabbing figures like Sally McKenna and Wilhemina Venable. Lana ultimately becomes an author, and later comes out of retirement to interview Return to Roanoke massacre survivor Lee Harris.

Lana is a uniquely strong character, and definitely one of the series' most genuinely sympathetic. Paulson's turn as Lana Winters, full of passion, conviction, struggle, and hard-won triumph, easily deserves a spot towards the top of this list.

Cordelia Foxx (AHS: Coven and AHS: Apocalypse)

One of the most interesting characters in American Horror Story, Cordelia Foxx is the headmistress of Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies and the daughter of Supreme witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). She starts out as a protective, idealistic, and notably kind teacher, learning her own strength as she tutors her charges in the discovery of their unique talents. Simultaneously, she does her best to stave off the dark forces that are growing in strength within the school. All this changes when Cordelia survives a blinding sulfuric acid attack — as though she didn't have enough to deal with already. The attack blesses Cordelia with the gift of Second Sight, dramatically increasing her power and setting her on the path to becoming the next Supreme witch. After this point, she's an uncompromising powerhouse, willing even to burn Myrtle Snow at the stake.

Cordelia later appears in a significant role in AHS: Apocalypse. She reemerges in this season to combat Michael Langdon, the Antichrist, amidst the ruins of the end of the world. While it isn't altogether rare for characters to reappear in additional seasons of AHS, it is unique for a character to appear in more than one season as a central, plot-altering character, as is the case here. Plus, Paulson gives Cordelia such a memorable arc and presence that she's frankly unforgettable. She's powerful, compassionate, charismatic, and a total badass, and Paulson ably and memorably performs the character in both seasons.