American Crime Story: Ego, Therefore I Am

(Episode 2.08)

TV Reviews The Assassination of Gianni Versace
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American Crime Story: Ego, Therefore I Am

As we’ve discussed, people are not born sociopaths. They are made. And it generally happens in early childhood. It’s a humbling thing for a well-meaning but fallible parent to contemplate, and the idea at the core of “Creator/Destroyer” from the first minutes, in which we see young Gianni Versace in his mother’s dress shop in Calabria, watching her work and sketching. It’s not… well, it’s not entirely a “boy” thing to do in midcentury Calabria. Potentially the kind of thing a conservative parent would try to quash.

Instead, his mother (Francesca Franti) teaches him her trade. Boys in school pick on him for being queer and his teacher tears up his sketches, but his mother promises her support in whatever he wants to be and do—and she means it. When he reports that the teacher has called him a pervert, she quietly reassembles the torn pieces of his sketch and says, “It’s beautiful,” then proceeds to show him how to make it.

And that is one big reason why Gianni Versace grows up to be Gianni Versace, and Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) grows up to be a fraud, a pathological liar and a spree killer enraged by men who have earned respect for their work.

We cut to 1980 San Diego, where the Cunanan family is loading a moving van under the direction of Andrew’s father, Modesto (Jon Jon Briones), a man whose ego issues are apparent from the first frame. The rest of the kids are sweating in the heat while Modesto bombasts about how he will turn the $500 they would have paid for professional movers into $10,000. Meanwhile, Andrew’s upstairs reading Brideshead Revisited. They arrive at, well, let’s say a bit of an upgrade from their previous digs, a huge, white suburban house, and Modesto leaves his three other children and his wife to unpack while he takes “Prince Andrew,” who is blatantly and toxically favored by Dad, into the house for a private grand tour.

Interestingly, Andrew hadn’t been lying about his parents giving him the master bedroom. One of the weirdest details in his bizarre spiel to David Madson was actually true. Modesto says he’s giving the bedroom to Andrew because “When you feel special, success will follow.”

There it is, in a nutshell. One child is told to “feel special,” while the other is guided through the concept of “special” being something you work your ass off for, for years. One is taught empty entitlement; one is given tools.

It gets creepier. Modesto and Andrew get dressed side by side, each laying out their suits and attending to every fussy little detail while staring at their reflections in a closet door mirror (more Narcissus imagery). Andrew goes to a school interview while Modesto does the same at the local branch of Merrill Lynch (so there’s some truth to that, too—sort of). While Modesto goes on like a used car salesman about having come from nothing and pulled himself up by the bootstraps (obviously a superior recommendation to a degree from Harvard), Andrew’s interviewers ask him what he’d choose if he could have one wish. He rattles off a list of cars and assets; the question is re-asked and he answers simply, “To be special.”

Modesto gets the job. Now we know where Andrew’s recurring Lobster Dinner motif comes from. And we get a flash of how Mary Anne (Joanna Adler) became… a bit off. Modesto’s a wee bit of a gaslighter—show of hands, who’s surprised?—as well as a Big Fat Liar at work—again, surprised? He interrupts Andrew and his mom trying to do homework together because he’s bought Andrew a car (Andrew is about twelve and has several older siblings whom Modesto basically ignores). Mary Ann protests that it isn’t fair to the other kids, who are actually old enough to drive, and Modesto calls her crazy again, and grabs her by the throat and throws her to the ground while Andrew watches. Modesto tells Andrew that his brother and sisters aren’t “special” and that his mother has a weak mind and that Modesto is his mother and his father. As Mary Anne dusts herself off and approaches the car, Modesto puts the window up, so her face is reflected in the glass, with Andrew and Dad enclosed on the other side. Andrew mentions wanting to be a writer. Dad says it’s better to be “an opportunist.”

We cut to 1987, when a decidedly queenly Andrew sashays out of that car and into a yearbook portrait session, where he gets called a “fag” for increasingly loud protests over the uniforms and identical poses. “If being a fag means being different,” he says to the jock who’s insulted him, “sign me up!” He marches to the front of the line, unbuttons his shirt, and strikes a campy pose.

Oh, and Modesto’s not at Merrill Lynch any more. He’s doing “trades” from a seedy office in a strip mall. And he seems to be ripping off little old ladies. Hmm.

Andrew’s mom can tell from his cologne that he’s seeing someone: “Who is she?”

“What would you say if I said she was over 30?”

Mary Anne says a young man should be with an older woman, who will teach him to be a man. Andrew goes upstairs and dresses for his date. The date’s definitely over 30, and doesn’t appreciate being brought to a high school house party because he’s married and can’t be seen out with Andrew like that. So Andrew goes to the party alone, tossing aside his trench coat and swaggering into the party in a tomato-red leather jumpsuit. This definitely clears him a lot of space on the dance floor, and also attracts the attention of the delinquent house sitter who’s hosting the party. Hey, Lizzie! (Annaleigh Ashford). She takes to him at once and confides that she’s not a high school student but a bored housewife who promised the owners-—he daSilvas— that she’d watch their place while they were out of town.

So Andrew has now made one of the two closest things to an actual friend he’ll ever have (Jeff Trail will be the other). Meanwhile, the stockbrokers are on to Modesto that he’s been conning little old ladies over fake stocks. The feds are involved. Modesto runs for it, pretty literally—he’s still in the building when the FBI shows up.

Andrew’s senior yearbook page is captioned, “Apres moi, le deluge.”

“I dunno, it just sounded sorta cool,” he says to a classmate of the enigmatic words, attributed to Louis XV and/or Madame Pompadour.

Meanwhile, Modesto runs home, pries open a floorboard, removes cash and passports, knocks his wife out of the way and flees. Andrew pulls up just in time to see Dad jumping a fence. “Don’t believe a word they say,” he says to his son, and takes the car keys from his hand.

Mom tells Andrew they have nothing left, that Modesto had even secretly sold the house because he knew they were coming for him. Andrew decides to go to Manila to track him down, over Mary Anne’s hysterical protests. “He’s dangerous!” she screams, and Andrew puts his hand over her mouth.

“You’re wrong about him.”

Gaslighters are interesting folks, folks. Here’s a kid who has grown up watching his father mentally and physically abuse his mother, and when she says he’s dangerous, he disagrees.

He finds his father in his home village outside Manila, staying with an uncle Andrew’s never met. No, there is no money, and no plan; yes, he defrauded and stole. Modesto never stops defending his actions. Andrew loses it.

“You’re a lie! And if you’re a lie, I’m a lie, and I can’t be a lie!”

Spoiler alert: That ends up not being strictly true.

Modesto’s response? “You’re weak, just like your mother.” Spits on him. Says he’s ashamed of him. Calls him a sissy. Andrew jumps up with a knife in his hand (He’s been chopping pineapple with it) and Modesto dares him to use it. Instead, he just grips the blade until it cuts through his palm.

“You don’t have it in you,” Modesto sneers. One wonders, had his father not said that sentence, whether any of what happened afterward might have been different. See, being a narcissist-sociopath-psychopath involves total dependency on the projections of others. If they say you’re nothing, you’re nothing. If they taunt you to prove them wrong, you’ll do it.

We use the word “ego” almost as if we’re describing a character flaw. In fact, the literal translation of the word is “I am.” To be completely egoless might be the ostensible aim of some religious philosophies, but there’s a big difference between relinquishing one and never developing one in the first place. People with broken or empty or malformed egos are miserable and very often highly dangerous. This episode is basically a primer on how to build a human being with no stable idea of who he is. The pressure of that instability is like the seismic buildup between tectonic plates in a subduction zone. The longer the pressure builds, the more catastrophic the quake’s going to be when the ground finally gives way.

Andrew comes home and applies for the job at the pharmacy, telling the elderly Filipino proprietor about his dad in in Manila running pineapple plantations. “Is that so?” the man says, a bit skeptically.

Cunanan’s eyes are dead as a fish’s. “As far as the eye can see.”

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.