The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story recap: 'The House by the Lake'
Andrew Cunanan commits his first murder and takes a deranged road trip
We’re continuing backwards through Andrew Cunanan’s past, now all the way back to Minneapolis, one week before the murder of Lee Miglin in Chicago.
Cunanan is a master at ingratiating himself to people, worming his way into their lives and becoming close to them before he flips and reveals his terrifying face beneath the mask. That seems to be the situation with architect David Madson, with whom Cunanan appears to share a slightly tense but intimate relationship.
David is on the phone with his company and learns that he’ll be able to give a big presentation. “I’m so happy for you,” Cunanan says with ice in his voice. Everything about his body language is sinister: the slight hunch in the shoulders, the rigidity with which his arms fall to his side. As an actor, Criss has mastered the inexplicably creepy mannerisms of a killer.
Cunanan is about to take the dog for a walk when the buzzer rings — it’s Jeff, and Cunanan tells David to go let him in. “Give you a chance to talk about me,” Cunanan says, bitterly jealous. And they do talk about him: David and Jeff have both gotten Cunanan’s number; they know he’s strange, and a liar. They laugh about him. Until they get back to the apartment and David hears the dog whining from where it’s tied to a table. Cunanan slams the door shut and brutally beats Jeff to death with a hammer, splattering the entire apartment in blood and leaving his face red with American Psycho splotches.
“It’s okay,” Cunanan says, cooing to the stunned David. Still in a daze, understandably, David allows himself to be led to the bathroom, to be showered, and to not fight too hard when Cunanan tells him not to call the police. He does it with the slime of a practiced manipulator: They’ll lock you up to, people hate us for being gay, your dad will have to turn you in if you tell him. And David — perhaps too stunned to think rationally, or too scared by the gun in Cunanan’s waistband, agrees. “No one else will get hurt as long as you’re by my side,” Cunanan says.
The police show up to the apartment after one of David’s coworkers comes with the landlady to be let in, knowing that David would never just not show up to work. By then, Cunanan and David are long gone, David terrified into complicity and Cunanan getting what he wanted all along: the two of them stuck together, partners in crime, without Jeff around to steal any affection.
The police make the logical assumption that it’s David’s body rolled into the rug and guess that — based on the gay pornography on the bed — he had had a romantic encounter that turned sour and the murderer split. A neighbor lets them know that he had a man staying with him that weekend, an “Andrew Cunaynin?” who had black hair, unlike David’s blond. And so the body becomes Cunanan in the policemen’s minds. They leave as soon as they realize that the corpse isn’t David: It means he’s still alive and they’re in his apartment without a search warrant. Everything they find could be inadmissible evidence in court. Eventually they come to the truth: They find Jeff’s wallet and realize the true identity of the body — but not until David and Cunanan have gotten a hefty head start on their twisted road trip.
This episode is called “The House by the Lake” because it’s what David fantasizes about — the place he went with his dad when he was younger. They drank coffee together. David’s dad tried to get him to help him hunt, but it terrified young David. “I never want you to be sad,” his dad says in the car as they leave, telling him it’s okay that he doesn’t like hunting. That relationship between David and his father is at the core of this episode, which could have been just a bloody procedural crime-style episode. We’re anchored around David — the way he came to terms with his sexuality and how rooted he is by his father’s perception of him. That’s where his mind goes when he and Cunanan are driving. He wonders how his parents will react when they find out what happens.
David is rightfully terrified by the way a woman glares at them in a parking lot, but Cunanan is unfazed. He correctly assesses that she’s looking at them “like she hates [them]” because they’re gay, not because their crime has been reported. Cunanan is the same cool, calculating manipulator he’s always been, at least until the two stop in a bar (where Aimee Mann is playing guitar, in a cameo). David says he needs to go to the bathroom and breaks the tiny window above the toilet seat, contemplating escape. Cunanan just sits at the table, listening to the live music until he finally breaks down into sobs, the most genuine emotion we’ve seen from him, as if his first murder was able to crack though his exoskeleton into whatever exists beneath.
David, in his worst decision in a series of terrible decisions, returns to the table and touches Cunanan’s hand. We see in a flashback how he told his father he was gay. He falls asleep in the car, and when he wakes up, it’s as if they’re on a different world. The car is stopped in the woods; Cunanan seems to be gone, and David wanders without shoes. Until reality comes back, and Cunanan reappears from behind a tree, bearing his gun.
In a diner, David reminisces about the night he and Cunanan met with something akin to reverence: Cunanan had seemed so worldly and wealthy, outrageously popular and sophisticated. The two had stayed in an expensive hotel room, and David had told himself he would work as hard as he possibly could to be as successful as Cunanan had appeared to be. But it was all a lie, and David realizes that now. Cunanan never worked for anything. He was a skilled liar and manipulator and killed Jeff because he was in love with him and Jeff had seen what Cunanan really was. And here is David’s fatal mistake: He lets Cunanan know he sees it too.
The two drive in miserable tension for a while, while Cunanan repeats, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Their entire plan, the future he envisioned for them, required David’s love and respect. He has no use for this bitter and resentful man who sees him as a fraud.
“Why couldn’t you run away with me?” Cunanan asks when he’s out of the car, pointing a gun at David. “We had a future, David.” The past tense is essential there. David tries in vain to convince him that they still have a future, that he can lie and play the part Cunanan wants, but it’s too late. David runs, and Cunanan shoots him in the back.
David imagines making it to a shack in the field, opening the door, and finding his dad — they’re back in the house by the lake, and his dad is offering him a cup of coffee. But it’s just a fantasy. He’s lying on the ground, bleeding out, and Cunanan stands over him and shoots him in the face. Cunanan spoons David’s dead body for a while before getting back in the car.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace