And then we came to the end. FX's revolutionary miniseries delivers the blunt force of 'not guilty,' and that's just at the finale's halfway mark
On Oct. 2, 1995, only 13 percent of Americans owned a cell phone. About the same percentage were connected to the internet — dial-up, to be sure — while a full half of Americans had never even heard of this thing called the World Wide Web. This was the situation in the country on that afternoon, when Americans heard that the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial had reached a verdict after four hours of deliberation. The brevity with which they came to a decision was historically significant. Before and during the civil rights era, all-white juries routinely acquitted obviously guilty white defendants in a fraction of that deliberation time. And it also gave everyone in America, still foaming with O.J. fever, adequate time to get in front of a TV for the next day’s festivities.
In the remarkable conclusion to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson (scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and superbly directed by Ryan Murphy), the verdict occurs right at the halfway point. And that fact is near the top of the episode’s many smart decisions. Like the ship sinking in Titanic, we know that Simpson is going to be found not guilty. Even millennials who weren’t born or, if they were, wearing diapers in 1995 know that (I think). And so the verdict itself, though magnificently staged, is in some ways the least interesting part of the finale. The 35 minutes of tears and cheers and postmortem analysis that follows is where the show soars with carefully deliberated gestures that offer an appropriate send-off to each of the main characters.
But to begin at the episode’s beginning, there is the matter of Simpson’s statement before the court, in lieu of testifying, on Sept. 22, almost exactly one year to the day since the start of jury selection. Said jury was not present when he made his remarks — and while Johnnie Cochran insisted to the press that O.J.’s words were “unscripted,” the Los Angeles Times reported that he had been rehearsing them for two weeks, per a defense source. Plus, though no video appears to exist online, O.J.’s mini-monologue was televised, which is why Marcia Clark pleaded — literally saying “I beg you” twice to Judge Ito — that Simpson not be allowed to speak up.
But as with Republican primary debates, once one’s name is mentioned, they are given a chance to reply. Simpson explicitly dropped Clark’s name in his comments (“I have confidence, a lot more than Ms. Clark it seems, in [the jury’s] integrity”), and so she jumped from her chair to address Simpson via Judge Ito. “May he take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll have a discussion?” she asked. Ito muttered a sheepish “thank you” to Clark. Simpson reportedly did not flinch. No doubt, as implied earlier in the series during a practice session with a female attorney, Simpson had been coached on how to react — or rather how not to react — to his (woman) adversary across the room.
The prosecution’s summation was many hours long and wide-ranging but focused largely on the history of real and verified domestic violence against Nicole Simpson in O.J.’s past. In this real-life clip, Clark approached the jury with an outpouring of gratitude that was a spot condescending. At 52 minutes in this video, she says, “Your selflessness and your devotion will long be remembered by many.”
Though Darden (who Clark had originally barred from taking part after the glove demonstration but later relented) manifested a theatrical moment — portrayed here in the show — when he pointed at the defendant and asserted his conviction hat he was a murderer. Darden later recounted in his book In Contempt:
Cochran, of course, delivered more of a sermon than a summation. Fun is had with a scene of the charismatic lawyer sitting at his office desk and brainstorming the one-liner that would soon become immortal. “If the glove’s too small, easy call,” he says to himself, quizzically. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” (The man busted rhymes: In a 1998 mock trial, Cochran defended a woman who’s husband died on the aforementioned Titanic, and quipped, “If you design or build a boat, it must be able to stay afloat.”) The famous “glove” line, which Cochran predicted would be his epitaph, was in fact ghost-written by Dream Team member Gerald Uelmen, as Cochran described in his book:
NEXT: The jury rapidly deliberates, and time slows down as the verdict is read.
“And then there’s that friggin’ demon,” F. Lee Bailey says of 61-year-old white juror Anise Aschenbach. “She hates me. I’ve gotten that look from all my ex-wives.” Bailey was correct. Aschenbach did hate him. (“I couldn’t stand the creep,” she told journalist Jeffrey Toobin, whose book The Run of His Life is the basis for The People v. O.J. Simpson.) And, indeed, in the deliberation room, Aschenbach was the only juror to speak up in favor of conviction. It’s tacitly suggested that another white woman on the jury — the only other, in fact — voted guilty on the first secret ballot but she never came forward to confirm and did not participate in debate about the case.
It took the assembled group only three minutes to pick its foreman, Armanda Cooley, a 51-year-old administrative assistant. She and Aschenbach are shown basking in the success of their juror’s revolt in episode 8. The episode is wise not to spend too much time on the deliberation because it is the ultimate in an off-the-record conversation — though several of the jurors, including Cooley, have written books, and Toobin uses quote marks when summarizing their discussion in his.
One of the many pleasures of The People v. O.J. Simpson, which didn’t even occur to me until the finale (perhaps it was in the heavy-hearted moment when Aschenbach makes eye contact with Clark), was the viewers’ ability to observe the jury. Except for eighth-tenths of a second when an alternate juror’s face was shown, which caused a small tempest of scandal during the trial, they were never once glimpsed. But most fascinating to me, especially given the constant comparison to Charles Dickens I’ve made since the show premiered in February, is that fact that jury foreman Cooley is played by actress Susan Beaubian. And in a coincidence that’s too meta for words, 28 years ago Beaubian appeared in The Naked Gun — as the wife of O.J. Simpson’s clumsy cop character Nordberg. (This is the only video that I’ve embedded twice in these ten recaps. I used it in the one for the premiere episode to establish O.J.’s Hollywood bona fides.)
Ryan Murphy’s propensity for tight close-ups is well established. As is his favorite shot, the Steadicam push-in, which he uses with relish during the scene here when we see a quick montage of Ito, Darden, Shapiro, and Cochran’s reaction to the news that the verdict was in. But in a technical flourish that’s both elaborate and astonishingly simple, florid but unpretentious, Murphy employs split-screen for the moments surrounding the reading of the verdict of by the clerk, Deirdre Robertson. (I love that the show included Robertson’s nervous slipping of the letter J into Simpson’s first name so it sounds like Orenjal.) And here is the moment of impact, focusing appropriately on the individuals that formed the four corners of the square that was the Simpson saga.
The verdict sequence is filled with extraordinary cinematic details. When Judge Ito is handed the envelope containing the verdict forms, the scene cuts to a leg anxiously shaking under a table — as the camera pans up to reveal that it is O.J.’s. (Might it have been Ito’s? Or Darden’s?) The verdict is read in almost exactly the real time, as it happened, and yet the clock seems to slow down as the words wash across the courtroom. And the world. Scenes of celebration among black Americans are contrasted with the plastered-in-disbelief faces of white Americans.
And those examples in the show’s montage are, of course, not anecdotal. Ask anyone you know who was in a racially diverse, public place when the verdict was announced: The contrast between white and black reactions was universal. Kudos to the show for including the shot of Oprah Winfrey, stoic with her microphone poking from her crossed arms, as black women dance and cheer all around her — an image as fascinating as it is racially complex.
A quick comment here about Sarah Paulson’s eyes. In an interview with me last November, she talked about how Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, chose to include all the takes of her wiping her hands as if everything was dirty to her. (It’s an incredible, subtle nuance that lends another layer of sinisterness to her character in that film.) And likewise, in addition to Paulson’s Everest of talent and commitment and expertise, Murphy and company deserve credit for never editing her performance in an overblown way. And much of that is achieved through he facial expressions.
Marcia Clark is never depicted as a caricature — which is almost exclusively how she was depicted during the trial — and Paulson’s eyes, often when she’s slowly closing or rolling them or raising her brows, suggest the impatience and pain and all-around befuddlement at the circus scenery around her. Or on rare occasions, badass pride. Paulson’s eyes give Clark layers of nuance that add depth to her characterization that our eyes, in turn, are excited to search for and more often than not, find.
NEXT: Tears flow on both sides — and O.J. walks is set free into a different kind of prison.
The second half of the finale features shots of many of the central participants alone in their environments. Fred Goldman, his daughter Kim, and his ex-wife are shown isolated in a sad concrete parking garage (and then in their car), as they silently consider their next move. Robert Kardashian is seen all by himself in the courthouse’s public bathroom, vomiting in the sink. Johnnie Cochran is walking down a long empty hallway when he runs into Chris Darden for one of the episode’s most riveting (if invented) conversations. “When the dust settles, I’d like to bring you back into the community,” Cochran says.
“O.J. is the first black defendant in history who got off because he’s black,” Darden says. “This isn’t some civil rights milestone. You haven’t changed anything for black people here.”
But in the very next scene, Darden’s cynicism is given a rebuttal of its own as Cochran tearfully watches the President of the United States actually say that there is a racial divide in America. “And the only answer to that is for us to spend more time listening to each other,” Bill Clinton said. Cochran says, “That’s the victory.”
Bruce Greenwood as district attorney Gil Garcetti has been a completely unsung member of The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s cast — admittedly it’s tough to stand out within this dazzling ensemble — but the actor deserves praise for the scene in which he chokes up while comforting Clark after she’s admitted that she is ashamed of herself. (Clark’s revelation here is nicely echoed by the moment a few scenes later when she confides in Darden that she was raped when she was 17.) “There were a lot of temptations to play their game,” Garcetti says. “And you didn’t.” Many in the screening room audience I saw the finale with cried during this scene — as others did when Cochran watches President Clinton.
The motif of characters isolated in the world is naturally most meaningful and profound with O.J. Simpson himself. The show devotes it culminating ten minutes to showing O.J. alone — physically and spiritually. Marcia Clark, in an interview with EW last week, predicted that the episode might include a reference to Simpson’s banishment from the Riviera Country Club. And so it does. And she also speculated that the show would depict him as “thrown out of his life.”
Amazingly, though The People v. O.J. Simpson is now over, there’s still a lot more of O.J. to come. ESPN’s seven-and-a-half hour documentary O.J.: Made in America, an exhaustive chronicle of Simpson’s life and the case, will air on the network in June. Martin Sheen will narrate a pretty bizarre-sounding doc, which accuses Simpson’s son of being the real killer. And a wonderland awaits you on YouTube, including, for starters, O.J.’s fascinating first post-trial TV interview with BET, (where he actually states “There may still be a killer out there”) and Chris Darden sparring with Alan Dershowitz on Geraldo. “You blew a strong case,” Dershowitz howls. “Oh, so we blew it and a guilty man got off?” Darden fires back and then says, “You will sell you soul for a buck, and you will release a double-murderer out into the public for a couple bucks.” “You’ve made a lot more bucks than anybody else did on this case,” Dershowitz replies, rather weakly.
Get your DVR remote ready to pause for the show’s last five minutes, which provides postscripts and amazing side-by-side comparison photos for all the significant players in the series. And once again proves Murphy’s acumen with music. Re-using two tunes from earlier in the season, the soundtrack switches from Bill Withers’ R&B classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” to Schubert’s haunting, funereal “Piano Trio No. 2” at the appearance of Mark Fuhrman. (In an opposite way from how Marcia Clark has experienced vindication thanks to The People v. O.J. Simpson, it’s interesting to wonder what that loathsome ex-detective’s life will be like after the show’s massive success has reopened the festering scab that is his legacy.)
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But before the final salvos, “The Verdict” ends at exactly the spot where it should. Though the miniseries has been a TV addiction for both viewers that remember the trial and those who don’t, the saga feels closed and complete with that last image: O.J. dwarfed by a narcissistic idol of himself, as football chants ring in his ears and the pathetic, lonely little man realizes that running with a ball will indeed not be the gesture that he’s most remembered for.