American Crime Story S2E8: Creator/Destroyer
And just like that, with one week to go, they’ve got it back.
After last week’s wobble of an episode, American Crime Story is back this week with Creator/Destroyer, another outstanding entry into what’s shaping up to be one of the best seasons of the year. And it got me thinking about what this show does well – all the episodes I’ve really loved in the last couple of months (A Random Killing, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) have been character studies of one kind or another, and it’s that in-depth episode-long exploration of the influential figures in Andrew’s life that the show truly excels at. And this week, as we delve into Andrew’s father Modesto Cunanan and his relationship with his son, the show takes us to some uncomfortable new places.
Musical theatre veteran Jon Jon Briones stars as Modesto, and is appropriate that he comes from the stage to the small screen as there are so many sequences here that are shot as though they’re part of a play: the camera pulls back to let the actors interact, quietly observing with a wide frame from afar (American Horror Story veteran and The Most Handsome Man Alive Matt Bomer makes his directorial debut with Creator/Destroyer, and fair play to him because it’s a solid first effort). And that’s the best thing this episode can do – just let us watch this unfold.
A generous hour-long running time is used well to really let us get out teeth in Modesto and his influence on Andrew. There’s no doubt that the show’s version of Andrew was defined by his father; as I wrote a few weeks ago, Andrew believes the world owes him something and he is constantly looking to collect, a value instilled in him by a father who believed that his hard work and sacrifice could be cashed in for his version of the American dream.
Modesto, like the Andrew we have seen over most of the course of this season, is a con-artist functioning at painfully high stakes for next to no reward except being viewed as a success by people who don’t really matter. And, like Andrew, he’s got a penchant for spectacle – in one of the season’s most disturbing moments, Modesto pretends that he hasn’t gotten a job he interviewed for, and then reveals the truth with a flourish. His unsettled wife, clearly and visibly afraid, uneasily celebrates with him, despite the jaw-clenching tension she faced down when he led her to believe that he didn’t get the job. Jon Jon Briones does a truly spectacular job as Modesto (he’s maybe the best guest star of the season, and that is really saying something with the likes of Finn Wittrock, Cody Fern, and Judith Light to contend with), imbuing him with this black edge of cruelty that even he doesn’t seem to realize is there.
But, obviously, this is still a story about Andrew and it’s their interactions that form the backbone of this compelling episode. This episode’s blunt title really sums up the story they’re trying to tell here, as Andrew’s father sculpts him into the epitome of the wide-eyed, entitled American Dreamboat, only to utterly undo that as his years of conmanship come apart and lead him to abandon his family with no money and no home. Andrew corners his flinching mother, assuring her that his father wouldn’t have left them without a plan, and follows his dad to his native Philippines to confront him.
It’s the scene that follows this meeting that really defines the episode: Andrew confronts his father about the fact that he lied and cheated and stole his way to what passed for success, and he’s right – his father held him to standards that he himself conned his way into, emotionally (and, it is implied, sexually) abusing him and turning him into this overinflated hollow shell of a person in the process. But Modesto strikes back by pointing out that the American dream that he chased and that he wanted for Andrew doesn’t actually exist for men like him, no matter how clean-cut and charming his story is. As an immigrant, he had to lie, he had to cheat, he had to steal to get a foot in the door. And neither Andrew nor the rest of his family, whether out of fear or ignorance, complained when things were going well. He’s right, too, and that’s an uncomfortable realization. The cards were always stacked against Modesto, but it’s his family who end up saddled with the gambling debt.
Watching these two men, who promised each other more than they ever delivered on or ever could, confront each other – Modesto at the bottom of his nadir, Andrew just toppling over into his – in the sweltering, oppressive Filipino heat is fucking compelling. When Andrew bursts into tears at the end of the scene, it feels as cathartic and desperate to us as it does to him. We’ve seen Andrew on the back foot before, but here he’s got no way out, no backup plan. He’s faced with the failure of his father, and all he can do is cry, the violence that will lash out of him turned in on himself as he presses a knife into the palm of his hand. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, a deeply unsettling place to be as a viewer, and a credit to the hard work this episode puts in to shift the power dynamics in a way we haven’t seen before.
For all that this season really hasn’t delivered on what the title promised, and for all that I find the connective tissue episode of Cunanan’s stroy less interesting, every time they have centred in on a character and really gotten their teeth into him, ACS has been a spectacular show. And, as someone who finds character far more compelling than story, this season feels more and more like it was made for me on that front. With one episode to go, I can’t wait to see how American Crime Story finishes the story of it’s most interesting character, as we go back to the start and join Andrew at the end.
(header image courtesy of The New York Times)