American Crime Story S2E4: House by the Lake

by thethreepennyguignol

Well, after a week like last week, there’s always going to be a drop-off.

And that’s not to say that this week’s ACS: Versace outing, House by the Lake, is a bad one, by any means. But after last week’s total blinder of an episode, whatever comes next is going to feel less fully-formed by comparison.

There was lots to like about this episode, no matter what way you look at it. The direction, courtesy of Daniel Minahan, continues to impress, especially as this week the show takes a trip out of the city and into the strikingly beautiful backwaters of a gold-soaked Minneapolis countryside. Darren Criss, for all that the performance sometimes flails for subtlety, explodes with these moments of impossibly brilliant emotion, fear wrapped up in desperation wrapped up in a swaggering, ruefully unearned confidence. Newcomer Cody Fern impresses with his dazed, grief-ridden performance as David Madson, and a brief cameo from Finn Wittrock (more likely to play the serial killer than find himself victim of one before now in Ryan Murphy shows) is a treat for anyone who never got over season four of American Horror Story (see also: me).

One of the things that the show has most impressed me with these last few weeks is the way it has used the grief of the people left behind after Cunanan’s murders to lay out it’s themes. Donatella, in the first episode, laid down the law on her brother’s legacy, while Marilyn Miglin last week was left reeling from the loss of her husband both in a literal sense and as the man she believed she’d known. This week, Madson furiously calls out Cunanan’s obsession with image and his inability to cease his rampage in the face of the devastating damage it is meting out to him, his victims, and those they leave behind. Grief, as depicted by ACS: Versace, is a raw thing – an unpeeling, if you like, that lays bare everything these characters need to say. In a show which has not been the most subtle these first four episodes, allowing that grief to open doors to honesty allows it to explore more than it might otherwise.

And I appreciate that blatancy up to a point, because it allows this neon-hued, disco-anthemed show to live up to the full potential that it’s big, brash story sets out to fulfill. But this week, it feels more pointed than anything else. I like boldness and frankness in a show, but House by the Lake has it’s characters more or less just lay out precisely what they feel at every turn. David Madson’s father, upon his son coming out to him, gives a long speech that feels very written in comparison to Judith Light’s sublime spin out of control last week; there’s a bluntness to this episode, in parts, that feels more lazy than it does deliberate. Cunanan sits and bawls over a sad song in a bar in a scene that could have been something, and let’s be honest here, taken from a much less prestige show than this one. The handsome cinematography and strong performances can’t cover for the fact that sometimes the writing in this show takes a serious wobble, and this episode was the best example of that.

Not to mention the fact that we were introduced to this story through Gianni Versace, and for the first two episodes, saw his story unfolding alongside Andrew’s. But, for the last two weeks, we have taken what felt like a break and now seems like a full-blown detour from his story to focus in on Cunanan. While Cunanan is no doubt the focus of the show, it feels clunky to so utterly forget about a character whose life and whose world took up such a big chunk of the opening act of this story. Why bother with giving Donatella and Antonio such defined and important roles if they were going to take a sliding back seat to Cunanan? When they move away from the spotlight of this story, the only recurring main character we’re left with is Andrew, and, as I said last week, he works better as spice to the story than as the main thrust of it, thanks to that wild performance and sometimes difficult characterization.

So yeah, this week was something of a let-down for me. Frankly, I’m ready to head back over to the world of Gianni Versace once more, even if that means leaving behind some of the ostensibly jucier true-crime elements of Cunanan’s story. Now that all the murders have happened on-screen, I suppose we’re naturally headed back to Miami and to the story that we started out with, but this detour has lasted just a little too long for my liking and I don’t like the way the show seems to have forgotten about the rest of it’s main cast.

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