In the first season of American Crime Story, Cuba Gooding Jr’s O.J. Simpson was like snowball rolling down a mountain. His trial gathered together every wild idea about America, race, gender, class, celebrity.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace moves in different directions, backwards, and inwards. Wednesday’s third episode tracks Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) further back in time from the titular murder. But this episode also feels more intimate, miles away from the media circus of the bloodsoaked premiere. Much of the action in “A Random Killing” takes place in one location, a townhouse in Chicago. It’s home to the Miglins, an old married couple with old married secrets. Lee (Mike Farrell) is a real estate tycoon. Marilyn (Judith Light) owns a cosmetic company.
It’s great casting and great stuntcasting. Farrell and Light are remarkable in delicate performances, balancing public image and private struggle, and their appearances carry the weight of their accumulated decades of TV history. We meet Marilyn in front of the cameras on the Home Shopping Network. She is an entrepreneur-performer peddling fragrances and a certain idea of herself. “I started from nothing,” she says, “Just an idea and a longing to explore what perfume is really about.” She’s talking about the American Dream, and in Versace‘s sorrowful vision, both Miglins represent a complication of that familiar national myth. We see Marilyn introduce Lee at a fundraiser for the Governor, telling the crowd about her husband’s own Horatio Alger-ish journey to real estate tycoonhood. “My Lee is the American Dream,” she explains.
Pay attention to one of Marilyn’s first lines, from the Home Shopping segment. “Perfume,” she says, “is about our bodies talking to each other without words.”
The Miglin marriage is built on some wordless talking. Director Gwyneth Hoarder-Payton lingers in closeup on the Miglins’ face, and then cuts to long shots that emphasize how empty their big house can feel. And there is love here, a mutual feeling of profound pride. “I could never stand in front of those cameras,” he tells her, marveling at her skills, and perhaps fearing that the cameras could see into the hidden corners of his soul.
Like many of the main characters in Versace, Lee lives inside some variant of the closet. When Marilyn leaves, Andrew arrives. We already know things won’t turn out well, since “A Random Killing” begins with the discovery of Lee’s body. Versace writer Tom Rob Smith uses non-linear storytelling to heighten the tragedy. We keep meeting people at the moment of their death, so when we see them alive, in flashback, we feel that there is already something half-dead about them.
Mike Farrell is heartbreaking in the scenes with Criss. He radiates pride showing off architectural plans for a magnum opus, a skyscraper that would be the Tallest Building in the World. And he radiates shame when Andrew cuts through the facade. “You’re trying to impress me,” says the young man, almost sneering as he points out how Lee is pretending “that there’s a genuine attraction between us.”
“You can pretend too,” says Lee. Farrell gives that desperate line deep melancholy. How much of his life is pretending? Andrew kisses him, ravenously. “You’ve never been kissed like that, have you?” he teases. “How did it feel?” Lee, exultant: “Feels like I’m alive.”
Not for long. The murder is violent, and pushes “A Random Killing” into a higher state of melodrama. “Concrete can build,” says Andrew with a flourish, “Concrete can kill.” This episode begins a miniature Versace trilogy, a very strong run of three episodes that explore Andrew’s killings in tragic depth. Lines like that feel overripe, come close to portraying Cunanan as horror-film character. But this episode, and the next few, are stunning in their exploration of the devastation Cunanan leaves in his wake. The police find Lee’s body, and seem more concerned about the “homosexual pornographic magazines” left around his bloody corpse than his corpse itself.
The death leaves Marilyn in a state of besieged grief: Devastated by her loss, devastated by how society itself is assaulting her marriage. “How dare they say our marriage was a sham,” she says:
Lee and I shared our whole lives. We shared all kinds of adventures. We rode in hot air balloons. When I was lost in the desert, he rescued me. How many couples can say they have that kind of romance?
The episode’s final act is boldly unstructured. We follow Andrew across state lines into his most random killing; all he wanted was a truck. But his victim’s last words resonate throughout the episode. “I’m a married man,” he says. “We have a son, Troy. I’d very much like to see them again.”
The mention of a family activates something. Andrew pulls the trigger. Earlier, Lee had told Andrew about his great dream: He would build the tallest building in the world, and then ride up the elevator with visitors. “All those families, those children…I could just roam among them, eavesdropping.” It’s a generous image and a lonely one: A man apart, hiding in plain sight. Andrew himself had told Lee something that could be equally revealing. “I could almost be a husband, a partner. I could almost be. Almost.” The life he’s describing seemed closed to Andrew at that time; in the American legal system, a gay man could be a husband, a partner, but the situation would need to resemble the Miglin marriage, full of secrets, full of almosts.
The portrait of this marriage is complicated, free of cliché or simple answers. “How many husbands believe in their wife’s dreams?” Marilyn asks in the final scene, returned to the Home Shopping Network. “How many treat us as partners?” It’s a truly demolishing moment. Light’s performance such a wonder, nails tapping on formica, makeup as body armor. She turns to face us, explaining a lesson she learned about living on camera. “Think of the little red light,” she says, “As the man you love.” The man is gone, but the red light remains.