Written By | Sewell Chan
Season 2, Episode 9: ‘Alone’
It turns out that “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” this gorgeous mess of a television series, was neither about an assassination nor, really, about Versace, the fashion designer who was shot to death on the front steps of his Miami Beach mansion in 1997.
It would have been more accurately called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Andrew Cunanan,” Versace’s killer, whose spectacular orgy of violence briefly dominated headlines around the world at the close of the American century.
Over the eight previous episodes, starting with Versace’s killing, the series drew us back in time, through Cunanan’s killings of four other people; his career as a drug addict and escort; his resentment of the fame and accomplishment of other gay men; his odd childhood; his troubled relationship with his doting but oppressive and mendacious father; and — in the closest thing to a “Rosebud” moment — an imagined encounter between Cunanan and Versace years before the murders.
The finale is a riveting hour of television, filled with anguish and revelation as Cunanan, played by Darren Criss, relives his crime spree through television and radio reports that fill the Miami Beach houseboat where he is hiding out — appropriately blown-up to larger-than-life proportions on a home theater projector, no less. But, like much of what preceded it, the episode is a muddle, never quite settling on a coherent thesis or a sustained argument.
That’s a pity, because the series writer — the novelist Tom Rob Smith, who also wrote the chilling British mini-series “London Spy” — has consistently given the characters flashes of brilliance and insight.
No moment manifests those qualities more than a monologue by Ronnie, a gay drifter whom Cunanan befriended as he was hiding out from the law during the two months before he killed Versace. Ronnie recognizes Versace’s significance. “We all imagined what it would be like to be so rich and so powerful that it doesn’t matter that you’re gay,” he says during a police interrogation.
But he is also angered that the authorities were slow to alert the gay community and to solicit its help in the manhunt — until, as Ronnie notes, one of the victims was famous. “You’re so used to us lurking in the shadows and, you know, most of us, we oblige,” he says. “People like me, we just drift away. We get sick? Nobody cares.”
“But Andrew was vain,” he continues, as a flicker of something almost like pride, or at least defiance, lights his eyes. “He wanted you to know about his pain, he wanted you to hear, he wanted you to know about being born a lie. Andrew is not hiding. He’s trying to be seen.”
Maybe. But at that moment Cunanan is, in fact, hiding out on a house boat. If he had a message to communicate about his pain, he did not share it.
The series is loosely based on Maureen Orth’s gossipy book “Vulgar Favours,” but the dramatizations and embellishments are so extreme that the series appears more a flight of wishful fantasy than an act of journalistic reconstruction. Also extreme is the director Daniel Minahan’s insistence on making this finale a retrospective of horrors.
Until now, the series was told in reverse chronological order. But the finale circles back to where it started, and it is bursting at the seams with tangential characters, visual cues and over-the-top emotions that leave a jumble of impressions instead of delivering a clear punch.
We pay a visit to Marilyn Miglin, a self-made cosmetics magnate who sells her wares on television and whose husband, Lee, a Chicago property developer, was the third of Cunanan’s five victims. She happens to be in Tampa, Fla., while the manhunt following Versace’s murder occurs. The local police urge her to return to Chicago for fear that Cunanan may be after her, but she refuses.
Her strength and resolve are admirable — and Judith Light turns in a magnificent performance — but we hardly learn anything that we didn’t know from Episode 3.
Similarly repetitive is a scene in which the father of David Madson, the Minneapolis architect whom Cunanan forced to flee home before he killed him, communicates his anguish in a TV interview. We knew from Episode 4 that the father and son were both pretty decent people.
The most strange and haunting moment of this finale comes when Cunanan, desperate and reduced to eating dog food, dials his father, Modesto, a disgraced former stockbroker who fled to his native Philippines after some shady financial deals. Andrew is sobbing, a man of 27 reduced to helplessness. “Dad, I’m in trouble,” he pleas. “I need help. I need you to come get me.” Modesto promises Andrew that he’ll drop everything and race to Miami to rescue him. “I will find you and I will hug you and I will hold you in my arms,” he says.
Of course he doesn’t. He’s a hustler.
The next morning, it’s clear to Andrew that Modesto isn’t coming. In fact, he hasn’t even tried to leave the Philippines. “My son is not and has never been a homosexual,” he tells television reporters as his son watches from Florida. He adds: “He was a perfect boy, the most special child I ever saw. The idea that he could be a killer makes me angry.”
Modesto tells the reporters that Andrew called him a night ago. Asked what they discussed, he replies: “The movie rights to his life story. I’m acting as the broker, calling Hollywood from here in Manila. Andrew was very particular about the title.”
The movie, he says, will be called “A Name to Be Remembered.”
It’s disturbing and nauseating, of course. But we already knew from Episode 8 that Modesto was a pretty despicable guy.
Then there’s a jarring shift to Milan, where Versace is honored with a ceremony akin to a state funeral. We are reminded — as we learned in Episode 2 — that his sister and de facto heir, Donatella, and his partner, Antonio D’Amico, have a frosty relationship. Antonio wants to move to one of Gianni’s properties, on Lake Como; Donatella says it’s up to the company’s board to decide. (Later, we are shown, Antonio is driven to such despair that he attempts suicide.)
Watching the live broadcast of the funeral, Cunanan kneels before the television and makes a sign of the cross: a shockingly sacrilegious moment, but hardly of great emotional power since Cunanan’s Catholicism hasn’t really been a theme at all. A scene with Cunanan’s friend Lizzie, whom we have barely heard from, is similarly lacking, as she begs him on television to turn himself in. Lizzie — a straight, older friend who asked Andrew to be the godfather to her children — has intrigued me throughout the series, but the underinvestment in her character makes her plea seem wooden.
The one time when Cunanan’s eyes suggest remorse comes when he sees his fragile mother being hounded by reporters outside her California home.
Otherwise, Cunanan’s victims flicker on the screen like Macbeth’s ghosts, and finally he is visited by one — himself, as a child of around 11. And then we have the final flashback, the “Rosebud” moment: a scene in which we return to the San Francisco opera house where, it is imagined, Versace and Cunanan met during a 1990 production of “Capriccio” that Versace designed.
Cunanan, at that point 21, tries to kiss Versace, but the designer turns away.
“It’s not because I don’t find you attractive,” Versace says. “I invited you here because you are a very interesting young man. I want you to be inspired by this, to be nourished by tonight. If we kissed, you may doubt it.”
Versace, in this telling, had some useful advice for Cunanan: Success isn’t about convincing people that you’re special. Success is about hard work. It is sad that Cunanan didn’t learn this from his deadbeat father, but it takes us nowhere in explaining the bloodthirst that followed.
Homophobia, mixed-race identity, sexual abuse, the lust for fame, the worship of celebrity — each of these themes has been brought forward and then discarded.
Like many a true-crime drama, this second season of “American Crime Story” was more interested in the journey than the destination. I get it. But in the end, like Cunanan himself, the show was a beautiful, glittery, violent, extravagant mess.