A review of tonight’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story coming up just as soon as I have a role in Air Force One…
Despite the impressive performance by a nearly unrecognizable Max Greenfield, Versace episode two was so focused on Andrew Cunanan’s various sociopathic tics that I was nearly ready to cut bait on the whole season right there. Instead, I moved on to “A Random Killing,” and it was there that the strengths of Tom Rob Smith’s approach to the story started to outweigh its weaknesses.
Cunanan himself remains a bit too one-note, despite good work by Darren Criss, and despite all the different guises he adopts. But in journeying backwards through his life, and through the murder spree he committed on his way to committing this season’s central crime, Versace in turn gets to explore the lives of his other victims, and to understand some of the forces that both put them next to Cunanan and inspired him to kill them.
The title refers to the Miglin family’s public stance on why Cunanan killed real estate tycoon Lee Miglin(*) — to this day, they insist Lee and Cunanan never met — though the episode instead applies it to its other murder, of caretaker William Reese, who had the bad luck to be driving a truck Cunanan wanted to steal after he realized law-enforcement could track the phone in Lee’s car.
(*) Lee is played by Mike Farrell, best known for his long stint on M*A*S*H as easygoing, mustachioed Army doc B.J. Hunnicutt, and whose environmental work inspired one of my favorite random Simpsons jokes.
The bulk of the action is in Chicago, depicting not only the murder of Lee in all its macabre details — including the ham Cunanan left sitting out — but the extremely comfortable closeted lifestyle Lee had arranged for himself. His relationship with Marilyn — played spectacularly by Judith Light, who checks so many of Ryan Murphy’s usual casting boxes, it’s a wonder this is the first time they’ve worked together — is presented mostly as a business arrangement. She feels affection for him, and he for her, but there’s a remove even when they’re speaking sweetly to each other, and when Lee’s body is found, Marilyn’s first response is to whisper, between quivering lips, “I knew it.”
That the closeted Lee was a wealthy, powerful, and very public figure in the ’90s made him extra-vulnerable to the approach of a manipulator like Cunanan. And Cunanan, in turn, finds great cause to resent this man who can enjoy all the trappings of a socially acceptable hetero lifestyle and also hook up with guys like him when nobody’s watching too closely. Having already committed two other murders (alluded to here, to be depicted in future episodes), he no longer has any reason to hold in his envious rage, and the type of sex games he likes to play — which we also saw with the tourist he nearly suffocated in episode two — give him complete control to do whatever he wants to potential victims. He doesn’t just want to kill Lee: he wants to out him, and he wants Lee to understand this right before he dies, when he’s helpless to do or say anything to prevent it.
The aftermath of the horrific crime continues to show the many ways that law-enforcement bungled the Cunanan manhunt, in large part because they underestimated the ongoing threat a gay killer posed. Even if they’d been dismissive of his earlier victims, the Miglin family was well-connected enough that the search should have been nowhere as laid-back as it was; instead, they gave him enough rope, and didn’t keep a tight enough hold on the news about the car phone, that he was able to slip away again and murder William Reese in the process.
It’s all maddening and ugly. And for this week, anyway, it lived up to the potential of all the tools Murphy, Smith, and company have given themselves for the project.
I’ll check back in a few weeks. In the meantime, how’s everybody feeling about Versace so far?