American Crime Story Recaps S2E2: Manhunt
When you start with a bang, there always has to be a drop-off. And I think the second episode of this season of American Crime Story, Manhunt, is the perfect example of that.
The OJ season benefited greatly from the fact that, straight after the murders, you had OJ attempting to flee arrest in one of the more action-driven sequences of that whole seasons run. But this season, which starts from the murder and then leaps back to fill in the gaps, was always going to suffer after the big, bold, broad and often brilliant first episode.
That’s by no means saying that this outing was a bad forty minutes for the show. No, it’s still impossible to deny the solid elements that the Versace season has already settled into – from Penelope Cruz’s dominant, dominating performance as Donatella to the pink-tinged cinematography that encapsulates everything from the sickly neon tinge of a cheap Miami hotel to the lavish beauty of Gianni Versace’s opulent home to a well-served Max Greenfield side character, this is still a fantastically-made show with a solid grasp on it’s location, both time and place (and, fuck me, that soundtrack is fantastic). And, at the centre of it all, you still have Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, who continues to convince with every moment on camera: those long looks he gives himself in the mirror, as though trying to find something he knows isn’t there, chill me right into my bones.
But when we tell stories about serial killers (which is the category Cunanan has been stuck into, for want of something more accurate) and other people who do morally repugnant things, we come up against a problem. Because I think we’re certainly interested in these kinds of people, as a culture, because we want to understand why they did the things they did – maybe because we want to put space between them and us. We want to take these po-faced pop-psychology looks into their psyches and nod solemnly and pretend like that’s what we’re here for. And to an extent, maybe it is – I know a lot of people who find these investigations in the psychology of violent criminals like Cunanan interesting and you only have to look at the recent success of Netflix’s Mindhunter, which follows the stories of criminal profilers attempting to figure out the psychology of murderers, to see that.
But, when it comes down to it, these are people we’re interested in telling stories about – especially in the last year or so, with the release of the American Horror Story: Cult, Waco, and the aforementioned Mindhunter – because of what they did and, to a lesser extent, how it affected the people around them. There’s this grim fascination we have as a culture with people who commit atrocities that most of us would find unthinkable – if that wasn’t the case, we would leave the investigations of their psyches to people who might actually be able to do something useful with it, as opposed to packaging them and presenting it as entertainment (I’m casting no judgement here that I’m not also applying to myself, of course – like the rest of us, I’m just as guilty of coming to these retellings for amusement as anyone else). We wouldn’t give a shit about Cunanan if he was just some double-crossing, smooth-talking narcissist; we care about him because of what he did, how he did it, who he did it to. Because he murdered people. Like it or not, this story is being told because we think getting to know someone who killed a bunch of people is worthwhile.
There’s a reason that Mindhunter, for all it’s dry lecturing, featured the graphic image of a woman raped to death with a broom in it’s first episode, and it’s the same reason that this Versace season is going to face as it goes forward. And it’s that the gory details are what stories like this rely on. But to make a show only comprised of those gory details -especially gory details surrounding the real-life suffering of very really people – renders the story you’re telling nothing more than tabloid fodder, so where do you find the balance? How do you tell a story that is both entertaining and engaging, while still keeping up at least the facade of being respectful and “decent”?
We opened last week with those gory details, with Cunanan shooting Versace dead, and then the raw grief that followed from the people in Gianni Versace’s life: these gory details don’t have to be as literal as violence, but they have to offer that voyeuristic look into something that we couldn’t imagine. It was packed with falsehoods and double-crossing and the impossible, juicy, impossibly juicy stuff that pumps at the lifeblood of true crime stories like this one. But, if the show wants to pretend that this story is more than just a gory, salacious retelling of an appalling series of murders for the titillation of it’s viewing audience (and it does and should), we have to move away from the what and the how and more into the why – and this episode isn’t so much delving into the “why did Andrew Cunanan do what he did?” question as it is into “why was he able to get away with it for so long?”. And that, for all it is a worthy and interesting question, doesn’t have the immediacy that the opening episode had.
Something I’m hoping to touch on in later reviews is how this show depicts the gay male world in the 90s. We’ve already been entrenched in gay culture since the start of last week’s episode, and I think the way they’ve used it as a backdrop here makes for some of the more interesting revelations Manhunt (a pretty great double entendre of a name, I’ll give them that) has to offer – a sequence in which Cunanan physically tortures and possibly sexually assaults an older, closeted man engaging him for sex ends with the man picking up the phone to call emergency services before hanging up and slipping on his wedding ring, stepping back into the closet and taking the incriminating experience with Cunanan with him underlines just how powerful and dangerous the stigma around homosexuality still was at the time, and how it allowed Cunanan to operate unencumbered (if you’re looking for another real-life example of this phenomenon, I would really recommend looking into the heartbreaking case of the Doodler serial killer). I think this – an attempt to expose how the stigmatising of LGBT culture allowed for violent acts to proliferate – is an example of how to tell a story like this in a way that’s respectful and not too scandalous. So, kudos there.
But there’s an ugly side to this episode that doesn’t feel as earned as it’s commentary on the gay community at the time, and that’s…yeesh, look, the Versace family have outright come out to say that they believe this season is nothing more than a work of fiction, and they pointed specifically to a section in the book it’s adapted from which claimed that Gianna Versace was HIV postive when he died as proof of it’s questionably truthful nature. So when this episode opened with Gianna apparently receiving that diagnosis, I can’t help but feel seriously uncomfortable. Yes, HIV/AIDs was a blight on the LGBT community for decades, and yes, it would be hard to tell a story so entrenched in gay culture and not have it come up, but inventing this kind of shit from whole cloth feels like a grasp for the gory details, for the salacious, in the worst possible way. This episode featured a scene in which Donatella outright accuses Antonio D’Amico, Gianni’s lover, of passing on the infection to him due to his numerous extra-relationship lovers, and the veracity of the statement, in-show, is left uncommented on. When you’re dealing with the mess of real-life relationships, especially ones built around the violent murder of a loved one, not making potentially damaging shit up from whole cloth is probably the best course of action here. For the love of fuck.
So, yeah, the second episode had it’s upsides and it’s downsides, but is still struggling to figure out how much of the salacious it wants to indulge in. On the one hand, I find the show’s exploration of the veil of gay stigma under which Cunanan was able to operate really interesting, and Criss continues to deliver in terms of that performance. But the show also seems to understand that these questions as to the why of his murders, as we reel back the story, aren’t as naturally engaging as the violence and horror of the first episode, and to make up for that, they featured something which Versace’s own family has denied as outrightly untrue. With only nine episodes to get it right, I’m intrigued to see how American Crime Story strikes the balance between the worthy and the tabloid-worthy.
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