American Crime Story S2E7: Ascent
With a run as good as the one this season of American Crime Story has been on, there’s always going to be an episode that doesn’t stick the way the rest of them do. And this week’s outing, Ascent, is precisely that.
I think one of the biggest issues with the episode – and probably my biggest issue with the show overall, if I’m being honest – is that it simply isn’t the story of the assasination of Gianni Versace, as the subtitle declares it to be. Maureen Orth’s book, on which this season is ostensibly based, is subtitled “Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and The Largest Failed Manhunt in the History of the US”, and that feels like a much more accurate (if more unwieldy) way to describe this season as a whole. It’s quantifiably not about Versace – it’s about Cunanan. Versace has been consistently secondary to the story, to the point where his scenes feel kind of crushed-in to justify attaching such a famous name to the story. And this episode had a whole lot of them.
We’re back in 1992, as Andrew begins to establish himself as the smooth-talking escort we saw at the beginning of last week’s outing, but more importantly, we’re also hanging out at the House of Versace as Gianni grapples with his illness and pulling Donatella into the business in preparation for what he thinks is his impending retirement and/or death.
And the thing is, all the pieces are there to make this an interesting episode. Penelope Cruz, grossly underused so far, has a deep grasp on Donatella that renders her almost a more natural point of comparison to Andrew than Gianni: she’s ambitious but nervous, unsure of her place in the world, practical and romantic in equal measure. Gianni losing his grip on the company and his life in general – particularly his relationship with his beloved sister, which is put under strain as the public seems to lose interest in actually buying his clothes – is an interesting counterpoint to Andrew on the ascent in this episode, but the fact that the Versace part of this story has been so second-fiddle to Andrew’s story that it feels like too little too late. Hell, this series could equally have been titled “The Assasination of Jeff Trail”, because he’s had as much if not more screentime and development than Versace and his family (no shade to Finn Wittrock, who has been by far and away one of the standout performances of the year so far with his self-contained, impossibly likeable yet idiosyncratic Jeff).
And that’s an issue when you’re trying to pull them to the forefront, when the show had Gianni and Andrew at it’s centre in the premier. We’ve got two episodes left, and the show is still struggling to find a way to justify naming this show for someone who has barely been in it. Not to mention, I was actually really impressed with Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico and there’s just been a flat fuck-all for him in terms of screentime this season, which is a disappointment. That all said, I could listen to Penelope Cruz say the word “company” all day long, so that’s something?
Andrew’s plot this week is also lacking the deftness that it displayed in previous episodes. Last week survived focusing an episode around him because he was crashing and burning; there’s something far less compelling about seeing this smooth-talking sociopath get everything he wants. Yes, there are a few moments where he loses control (one of the episode’s better scenes feature him finally snapping at his delusional mother and shoving her into a wall, a reminder of Cunanan’s unsettling physical presence), but there’s also something distasteful to me about the distant realization that, for the most part, this is how Andrew Cunanan likely wanted to be remembered in pop culture: charming, successful at what he set his mind to, sexually and romantically desirable. I know that’s a line a show like this always toes exceptionally closely, but it’s one that gives me the fucking jinkies. I wrote in one of my first reviews for this season about the ethics of telling true crime stories at all and specifically how this one could be handled tastefully, and I’m not sure that episode was a good example of that.
And that’s not even touching on the fact that the writing takes a notable turn for the worse this week, with the show apparently worried that you’re not going to get just how clever it is and having Andrew and other characters lay out exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. Gwyneth Horder-Payton’s direction, which has been consistently fabulous over the course of this season, is also lacking something here without the strong thematic throughlines that she was able to prop up with excellent visuals in previous weeks.
So, overall, Ascent is the weakest episode of the season so far. I have every faith they’re going to pull it back, because they’ve shown a strength of focus, of direction, of writing, and of performance in previous weeks enough for me to believe they can do just that. But this week was a slip for an otherwise near-perfect run, and, with the end in sight, I’m interested to see if they can stick the landing.
(header image courtesy of The New York Times)