American Crime Story: The Horror of Homophobia
(Episode 2.04)Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX TV Reviews The Assassination of Gianni Versace
And now we know where he got the gun.
It’s interesting, going backward. I mean, we all do it sometimes; life isn’t linear, as much as we’re trained to expect it to be. But in a TV or film narrative the convention of starting at the end and heading back, not to the beginning and forward again, but to the previous step, the one before that, the thing that happens the week before—that trick seems to inject a level of horror born of its own banality. The quotidian-ness of psychopathy might be its scariest feature. By this point it’s clear that we’re building backward to a horrifying back story about Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). I found myself wondering if we were supposed to be developing a strange pity for him, for whatever happened to him to make him what he is. I have concluded that we are not—let’s see if I still feel that way by the end.
If last week’s episode was in some ways the most artistically interesting episode we’ve seen so far, this one’s definitely the biggest kick to the gut. We open in the apartment of David Madson (Cody Fern), a young architect. He seems to have fallen into a boyfriend situation with Andrew, but there’s a third guy, Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), who seems to have been involved with both of them (and been duly creeped out by Andrew). “I don’t feel sorry for him,” Jeff insists on the way up to the apartment with David.
“Then why are you here?”
“He took something from my apartment.”
Jeff’s bludgeoned to death with a hammer the minute he walks in, and the shocked and terrified David can’t quite get away. Andrew proposes a “road trip” to start a new life in Mexico. David seems to know he’s probably not going to survive this, but he’s determined to try.
I don’t know, I remember the ’90s pretty clearly and even spent a brief portion of that decade in Minnesota, and in my memory there was not really this level of shock and shame and secrecy around being gay, though for sure I knew plenty of people for whom coming out to their parents was an ordeal. I think there’s a little poetic license being taken to heighten the homophobia in the series and this episode especially. But it doesn’t lessen the truth of the situation at all: It does what poetic license should do and makes poetry of the thing. Here, though it’s been hinted at, toyed with, before, is where homophobia, shame, and sociopathy become dazzlingly and horribly entwined. The episode is relentless in its casual brutality, from David’s flashback of stroking the bill of a duck his dad’s just shot on a father-son hunting trip (as barely depicted as it is, David’s relationship with his father is heartrending) to the gloriously bleak appearance of Aimee Mann in a roadside bar, to the obvious fear David and Jeff feel toward Andrew and its inextricability from a feeling of needing to stick together. As Cunanan drags David through a rest stop parking lot, David sees a woman watching them, arms around each other, and exclaims, “She knows who I am! Why else would she be looking at me like that?”
“Like she hates me.”
Cunanan doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have to. The actual crime of murder and the social crime of being queer have suddenly become linked. It’s horrible to watch. Good-natured, hard-working David doesn’t even see it; he’s (understandably) consumed by the fact that he’s been abducted by a man who’s just committed a murder and could easily kill him as well. The look on Cunanan’s face is a little different. And it speaks volumes. He knows what the woman is reacting to, and you get a sense for just a minute that, in his own mind, this somehow confirms, justifies, indemnifies his actions—in society’s eyes he’s already a frightening aberration, right?
It’s the notion that they are both already condemned for being gay that Cunanan uses to manipulate and coerce David from frying pan to fire. David tries to get away, fails. Tries, fails. Tells Andrew he was briefly fooled by his lies, but sees him for what he is. Enrages him. Begs for his life.
Meanwhile, the casually creepy homophobia that infiltrates the police investigations into all of the Cunanan killings is brought into the sharpest focus we’ve seen since the interrogation of Versace’s partner in the first episode. The minute the cops learn David’s gay, they start acting “different.” Despite eyewitness accounts from friendly neighbors who could tell something was going on, the immediate assumption when they learn that David is blond, unlike the body in the living room, is that David has killed Andrew. It takes a remarkably long time for them to get that there’s a third man involved, and it’s all full of subtle hints that gay porn and sex toys found in the apartment somehow have something significant to do with the murder. When questioning David’s distraught parents, the detective smugly informs them, “Oh, trust me, there’s a lot you don’t know about your son.” The way the scene is juxtaposed with a flashback of David showing his dad his architecture school award and then coming out to him is all the more bittersweet and all the more enraging for it. Two things are beginning to swim into focus. The people Andrew Cunanan targets do have something in common. They are makers of one sort of another, creators of real, actual, tangible things. And they have a particular kind of earned self-acceptance that he will never have. He knows he will never have it, and the only thing he can come up with to do about it is destroy it.
He shoots David in the back as David tries to run away. We re-enter his memory of that father-son hunting trip, only now his father is handing the cup of coffee to the adult David. Same cabin, same clothes, same smile. It’s the last thing David sees before Andrew shoots him again, in the face. Andrew seems to have a proclivity for mutilating people’s faces. Then he snuggles up to David’s body, lying with him in the grass for a few minutes before getting up and back into the car.
Next stop: Chicago.
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.