This The Assassination of Gianni Versace review contains spoilers.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace Episode 3
“What terrifies you more, death or being disgraced?”
If I were to pose a similar question to Andrew Cunanan, it would be this: What terrifies you more, never amounting to anything or everyone knowing about it?
Andrew Cunanan is obsessed with big, important men. Being one, being perceived as one, taking them out, and taking them down by revealing some secret shame. It’s hard to imagine that Andrew Cunanan could exist in this way if he didn’t hate himself. He clearly hates himself for many reasons, but chief among them are the fact that he isn’t a somebody and the fact that he’s gay.
Ryan Murphy is walking a fine line here: queer characters, real and fictional alike, are far too often portrayed as psychopaths, murderers, craven perverts. But this case, in the careful hands of someone who knows those tropes all too well, reminds us that Andrew’s failings are his alone, while simultaneously showing how the same self-hatred that causes him so much shame and causes others so much hatred or fear is exactly what made his victims vulnerable in the first place. It’s what kept investigators from catching Cunanan sooner. Versace is equally as attentively loving to its victims as it is attentively horrified by its spree killer.
The strength of American Crime Story is that it lets us visit all these other worlds in such a way that suggests there is a fully-fledged show happening about each one, and we’re just briefly visiting it where our two paths overlap. We might imagine that in a parallel television universe, there is another limited series starring Marilyn, focusing on her second act as a self-made cosmetics mogul in the male-dominated 80s, after her career on stage, all the while married to her steadfast husband Lee.
Everything about Lee Miglin is heartbreaking, and Mike Farrell plays him beautifully. He clearly just wants to be loved and seen for who he is. He struggles with what he sees as a sin, as shameful base urges. His basement shrine – and it does feel like his, not theirs as a couple, right? – is extensive. Candles and portraits are one thing, a custom kneeler is another. His prayer – “I try, I try, I try” – shows a man struggling to fit a mold that will never be his and hating himself every time it doesn’t work. He has lived a whole, successful life, but it’s as someone else. Lee represents so many other men, who loved their wives but were not in love with them. Men who could never fill the void that comes along with denying who you really are.
This is the most brutal episode of the installment so far, although I expect to say that a few more times before we’re through.
The bitter cruelty with which Andrew toys with Lee makes it all the more devastating. I kept finding myself thinking, but he’s going to murder him. Surely that’s worse? And it is. Oh, it is. The impending murder hangs over the first half of the episode, building stress in our bodies as we wait for the inevitable, knowing it will be ruthless and cruel. And yet. There is something heart-wrenchingly sadistic to playing with your food before you eat it. We can never know for sure what went on between Lee and Andrew, aside from a few key facts. But we know they spent time together. We know this was not their first meeting. While the lines were almost certainly different, it’s hard to imagine that the gist of their encounter was much different than what Ryan Murphy posits here.
It’s darkly impressive that an episode with such unvarnished violence can still garner gasps from an act as simple as ripping a sketch down the middle and burning it. Only a well-drawn character can elicit such emotions, and here I mean Lee. We’ve only just met him, but we feel his pride in his Sky Needle, the unbridled joy he would experience in touring it anonymously, overhearing the laughter of children as they saw the view from his own creation. When Cunanan destroys the drawings, he is desecrating Lee’s life’s work. He is desecrating Lee.
This episode was built on tension, more so than the previous ones. It feels like at any moment, the Miglins’ kindly neighbor will turn a corner to find the Miglin’s pristine white home covered in blood. Or that any one of Andrew’s sudden outbursts will turn on a dime into murder. You worry about Lee’s dignity and privacy, and Marilyn’s, when their neighbor inevitably discovers Lee’s body in a compromising position.
This was our first episode without Gianni, anything or anyone from his world. It’s a wise choice, particularly since the last episode was weighed heavily toward Andrew, and the Gianni storyline felt shortchanged, less impactful. I’d rather see a better story about Gianni later on than feel like dribs and drabs of his life are shoehorned in. Besides, I can’t imagine that we would feel as completely drawn in to the world of the Miglins without spending as much time with them as this episode does.
I want to call attention to Marilyn, played with strength and empathy by Judith Light. This is a stunning performance, and she had a tall order to fill. From the get go, there’s a tenseness to her body, a stiffness to her affect. She doesn’t say a word, but we know that she knows that something is wrong. Later on in the episode, Judith is able to show Marilyn’s steely reserve while somehow revealing her inner turmoil: the depth of her grief, her unwillingness to rethink the true partnership that was her marriage, her loyalty to Lee and the dignity she felt he deserved. Her choice to process Lee’s murder as a random killing is completely understandable.