In Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, author Maureen Orth recounts a brief memory from Howard Madson — father of Andrew Cunanan’s second victim, David Madson — about the time he took his son duck hunting. “We shot this duck, and he cried so bad I finally hid the thing over by the tree,” he recalled. “David was just beside himself.” This week’s fourth episode of American Crime Story takes this tiny, poignant detail from the book and expands on it artfully, creating a scene that might be even more heartbreaking than Jack’s death on This is Us.
The episode tells the story of David Madson (Australian actor Cody Fern, in a star-making performance), who is forced to go on the run with Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). Shortly after a flashback to David’s hunting trip with his dad, he tries to flee during an argument with Andrew by a secluded lake. Cunanan shoots him in the back, and as he’s dying, David has a dream-like vision: He escapes into an abandoned trailer home nearby, where he finds his father, dressed in his camo hunting vest, patiently waiting to share a cup of coffee with his son.
The moment is absolutely gutting, and it exemplifies why true crime is such a perfect genre for American Crime Story megaproducer/mastermind Ryan Murphy. Adapting true stories allows Murphy to create the vivid characters and captivating, socially-relevant narratives he and his team are so known for — but the iron framework of facts surrounding true-to-life subjects forces Murphy to apply a discipline to his storytelling.
In contrast, American Horror Story plays to Team Murphy’s worst instincts – the temptation to shock, terrify and titillate (usually all at once) at the expense of story, and the need to go bigger and more “bats**t” each successive season. And so a legless, syphilis-ridden Chloe Sevigny crawling out of school stairwell in season 2 leads to a frightened Gabourey Sidibe masturbating in front of a minotaur in Season 3… which leads to Max Greenfield getting raped by a drill-bit dildo in season 5… which leads to Sarah Paulson and Angela Bassett being force-fed the flesh of Adina Porter’s leg in season 6… need I go on? (Maybe not, but I will: Season 7 featured a masked clown murderer with three penis noses.)
Both seasons of American Crime Story, though, have brimmed with humanity. The People vs. OJ Simpson completely rehabbed the public image of Marcia Clark — a woman who had been maligned, mocked, and sentenced to punch line status by the court of public opinion. By taking the time to tell Clark’s story through the lens of the challenges she faced as a working single mom, People vs. OJ (and Sarah Paulson’s Emmy-winning performance) gave a voice to a woman, and a population, that is more often silenced than heard. And with Versace, Murphy and his writers have pulled back the layers of a sensational crime to show us the lives and loves of the men who were overlooked: Cunanan’s first four victims, Jeffrey Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin, and William Reese. The show uses the stories of Trail, a gay former Marine, and Madson to illuminate the very real, very relatable fear many young gay men and women still face. “I’m playing over everything the police are gonna find out about me,” muses Madson, before his forced road-trip with Cunanan comes to a violent end. “And I realize, I’ve been doing this my whole life — playing over and over the moment people find out about me.”
Moving away from the Horror franchise would allow Team Murphy to free up time and creative energy for their myriad of other — less nihilistic — projects, which range from anthologies (Emmy magnets Crime and Feud) to a prequel (Netflix’s Ratched, starring Sarah Paulson) to a groundbreaking dance musical (Pose) to what may just be the best gay fever dream ever conceived (the Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow-starring The Politician). As Murphy himself has proven again and again, TV is a medium that can move, delight, and scare us immensely — and you really don’t need a killer clown to do it.