The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story recap: 'Ascent'
Donatella struggles with the spotlight while Cunanan craves it
Two people are struggling with very different problems: Andrew Cunanan, working at a pharmacy, has delusions of grandeur; and Donatella Versace is crumbling under the creative pressure of having to fill her big brother’s shoes as his illness progresses. The common theme is a fear that one’s talent doesn’t match up to one’s ambitions.
Donatella has Gianni in her corner: Even as her sketch becomes instantly sidelined in a meeting with designers (either out of its ineptitude or her own insecurity), when she retreats to her brother, he fights for her. He knows she wants more and that she will have to become more in order to keep the brand afloat after he’s gone. “This dress is not my legacy,” he says to her, when the two begin collaborating on a piece. “You are.”
The closest Cunanan comes to fashion is flipping through Vogue at the counter where he works, before it’s snatched away by his boss. We get an early glimpse at how easily young Cunanan lies (“I’m actually finishing my PhD at UCSD,” he preens to a customer) and a glimpse inside his psychology when he faces his limited identity. “Being told no is like being told I don’t exist.” That line should be tattooed on his forehead — Cunanan wants power and relevance. He wants every door open for him. He wants to exist.
Flirting at a bar, he doesn’t do as well with the younger, hotter gay crowd as Jeffrey does, and it’s an older man who sidles up next to him at the bar. “Either there’s money in your wallet, or there isn’t,” the man says. Money is harder to lie about than a PhD, Andrew realizes. We don’t know (although we can guess) what happens with the man, but when Cunanan returns home, his mom is worried about why he’s been out so late.
Cunanan’s mother is the unexplored tragic figure in this show so far, so painfully pathetic and willing to indulge all of her son’s narcissism for the fantasy that he might achieve the better life he dreams of. When Cunanan slams a quart of ice cream on the floor because his mother bought the cheaper brand, not Haagan-Dazs, she scoops a bowl up and praises his intelligence. She is Cunanan’s perfect, willing audience.
We get the first glimpse of Cunanan’s Filipino heritage when he arrives at an escort agency in a suit that looks like “he’s going to church.” The woman there inspects him like a show pony, but gay men, as it turns out, unlike straight men, do not want Asian Americans, “even with a big dick.” Cunanan can lie, he can pretend to be Portuguese, but the woman says she can’t sell him. And so Cunanan will sell himself.
Meanwhile, Gianni is dressing Donatella, almost erotically, in the dress they designed, a dress that will finally allow her to take center stage. And when it’s finally revealed, on the red carpet of the 1996 Met Gala, it does: the black, bondage-collared dress means all eyes are on her, the star for the first time, posing with dozens of cameras surrounding her.
Cunanan said he was hardworking in the escort agency, and he proves that he was (for once) telling the truth. Like Norman alluded to in a previous episode, Cunanan researched him like a mark, showing up at a French play in La Jolla because he knew he’d be there. When Norman meets Cunanan, he’s a young, charming theater lover with a Portuguese last name. So what if he ends up staying overnight with one of Norman’s friends? He achieved what he wanted: a stipend and an expense account.
The money is good enough that Cunanan can go back to his friends like a king, treating them all to dinner and drinks and then acting every part of the philanthropic millionaire to a young David, alone at the bar. This is the night they met: David was charmed by a Cunanan at the height of his newfound power, both experiencing money for the first time, one of them better at acting unimpressed.
A heartbreaking scene shows Cunanan back at his mother’s place, packing to leave, pretending that he’s going with Gianni Versace to tour the world’s opera houses. His mother pleads to come with him until Cunanan shoves her into a wall. The doctor reports that her shoulder blade was fractured. She tells the doctor it was an accident.
Donatella and Gianni’s victory over their dress and red carpet walk is short lived; the dress is too outrageous for women to wear off a runway, and the look hasn’t sold. Donatella sheepishly suggests a second dress, and Gianni is furious. He snips off the harness. “Is it normal enough?” he snaps. But their fight ends with mysterious, panicked hearing loss. Gianni has ear cancer. He has to leave Versace to recover in Miami, and Donatella has to take over the day-to-day operations of the company, ready or not.
Cunanan’s sugar daddy Lincoln is paying his hotel expenses, which means he sees the midnight bottles of champagne Cunanan bought on David. Lincoln breaks up with him, but when Cunanan comes to his home to protest in person, he sees he already brought someone else home — a boy from the gay bar who claimed to be straight. When Lincoln reaches to reclaim the drink from the man’s hand, the man lunges and beats Lincoln to death with a nearby statue. The killer sees Cunanan. “He tried to kiss me!” the guy sputters. “I know,” Cunanan answers comfortably. The man runs. And Cunanan learns something: People kill gay men, and no one cares. The police caught him, but if that old man was trying to kiss him, who blames him?
He reunites with Norman, honoring Lincoln’s memory. Using a story David told him about wanting to build a home for his bullied friend in high school, Cunanan promises Norman he will build him a beautiful home where they can live together and be happy. (Cunanan’s version of the story is, predictably, more dramatic.)
The episode ends with Cunanan standing on the balcony of the new house he had Norman buy.
“If they could see me now,” Cunanan sighs.
“Who?” asks Norman.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace