American Crime Story S2E5: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

by thethreepennyguignol

Damn, but this show is on a roll.

After a slight wobble last week, American Crime Story continues it’s ingenious peeling back of Andrew Cunanan’s layers as the story focuses in on the first victim of the previous episode, Jeff Trails, as played by Finn Wittrock.

And, thank goodness, Versace and company actually make an appearance in this episode. Yes, it’s more as a framing and contrasting device than anything else, but it’s still good to check in with these three great performances (from Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, and Edgar Ramirez, in that order) and remind ourselves of the moment that all this is working back from.

But this episode plays to the strengths that the series first hit on in A Random Killing, by once again exploring the place of male homosexuality in the 90s. The title, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, obviously references the rules in place regarding homosexuality in the army, but it also seems to signify the contemporary society’s uneasy relationship with the LGBT community at the time: in theory, sexuality is not something that matters, but in reality, no-one wants to know, and the punishment for owning your identity can be brutal.

And the two coming out stories of this episode – of Jeff Trails and Gianni Versace – help to illuminate the different ways that this brutality presented itself at the time. Jeff’s story, as a navy lieutenant who is outed after intervening in the near-fatal beating of a fellow gay sailor, is one of the most tender things the show has done to date – Finn Wittrock, often kept to big, brash roles in American Horror Story, finds an easy charm in Trails that renders his closeted life all the more bitter. He faces not only the potential and ever-present danger of literal violence from his crewmates, but the loss of his identity as a military man – he carves a tattoo off his leg in an attempt to conceal himself as a witch hunt begins on the submarine he’s working on, and the blood staining through his pants in an uneasy conversation with his captain is more symbolic than anything else. He’s hurting himself to hide himself, but it isn’t working, and the stain on his reputation is permanent and gory. His coming out, in the literal shadows of an anonymous TV interview about homosexuality in the military, is a stark contrast to Gianni’s formal exiting of the closet.

Versace faces less palpable threats, but equally unsettling ones, as he comes out in a glamorous interview with his partner of thirteen years on his arm. As an ever-pragmatic Donatella points out, no matter how much he feels drawn and destined to the idea of being out about his identity, it poses a potential threat to the future of the business and his reputation as a whole. Against her wishes, he chooses to follow through, and comes out in unequivocal fashion – the episode’s high point is the visual contrast between these two moments, with Jeff cast in shadow even to the audience while Gianni and Antonio are lit by searing camera flashes. But the fear, the knowledge that these decisions will only likely hurt both their reputations and potential ruin all that they’ve built for themselves, is very real.

In fact, it’s an episode of great direction; there are loads of straight-on shots, the camera acting as a mirror for these characters, but sliding away from those who are still concealing themselves, forcing them to the corner of the frame in a representation of their hidden identities. Cunanan, taking a back seat in this episode to great effect, initially represents the open book Jeff wants to one day be with head-on shots, but as the story continues the camera circles him and refuses to settle, jumpy and uncommitted, qualities Andrew himself is revealed to embody as his relationship with David Madson disintegrates.

The strongest aspect of this episode, though, is the near-painful melancholy that runs through it, as we lead up to the exact moment of Jeff’s murder at the hands of Andrew: we know it’s going to happen, but Trail doesn’t, and hell, it’s not even clear if Andrew does. There’s an intimacy in the moments we see of Jeff, illuminated by Wittrock’s stellar performance; whether it’s him planting a kiss on the belly of his pregnant sister, holding the beaten soldier he saved in his arms in a rare gesture of solidarity, or carefully putting on his uniform before a suicide attempt, that renders what we see of his murder in the last episode even more painful in retrospect. That the episode cuts off before we see the hammer swing is a deliberate choice, rendering Andrew’s actions less important than the man we’ve grown to know who happened to be his victim. And, as someone uncomfortable with the way that true crime often backseats it’s victims, I think that’s an important thing to focus on.

Much like A Random Killing exploring the murder of Lee Miglin, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell recommits to the intimate and well-intentioned deep-dive into the suffering of the gay community at the hands of both the homophobia still present in a society that just didn’t want to know, and how that allowed Andrew Cunanan to operate with such efficiency. As the season passes it’s halfway point, American Crime Story is on a roll.

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(header image courtesy of Slash Film)