This The Assassination of Gianni Versace review contains spoilers.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace Episode 5
This episode gave a much-needed look into Jeff Trail, Finn Whitlock’s evocative character who we saw abruptly killed at the beginning of the previous episode. While this necessarily meant another look at David Madson, Jeff is the real focus here.
So far, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” makes the single best case for why the story of Cunanan’s spree killing belongs in the canon that Murphy suggests it for by including it in American Crime Story. There are many wrongs committed here long before Andrew Cunanan picks up a hammer. Episode by episode, Versace has turned its gaze onto various systems that marginalized LGBTQ folks in the 90s – many of which still do to this day. The military rightfully receives detailed, unflinching criticism.
If it weren’t a true story, so much about Jeff and this episode would seem completely unrealistic. Right off the bat, the inclusion of a member of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell-era military feels like a gift to the message Ryan Murphy wants to send with his story. The fact that he was an officer, from a military family, and well regarded makes him a perfect case study for why removing or banning gays from the military is so ridiculous. But the fact that Jeff gave an anonymous 48 Hours interview on the subject is mesmerizing.
The image of Jeff carefully putting on his dress whites before attempting to hang himself gives a deep portrait of this man: he saw little other way to resolve his dual identity as a gay man and an officer, a military man born to a military family. That our country gave him no other real option is clear. The fact that he and so many other men like him found a way to create a life for themselves anyway is a testament to their grit and courage.
The harsh reality of being gay in the 1990s is inescapable, from Jeff cutting off his own tattoo to keep from being identified to the way Andrew outted Jeff to his father, and then had the nerve to play it off like a mistake. Here, though, that move feels like a betrayal and a sick game, but not a preamble to murder. Perhaps the tallest order this show has written itself is to explain the unexplainable, who would do this and how. The first half of the installment has pretty successfully explained that, and the back half needs to explain how someone becomes that person.
Even more so in the previous two episodes, Andrew feels like a supporting player. He recedes in importance in the episode, and in Jeff and David’s lives, and he is painfully aware of it. Like with David (but thoroughly unlike with Lee, where it feels destined or at least predetermined), Andrew seems to tilt toward rage when he is called on his lies. Jeff skewers him neatly, calling out that Andrew has no honor, that he doesn’t even know what Andrew stands for. Neither does Andrew, other than being known and being memorable, it seems. Here again, as with Lee’s drawings, Cunanan pawing through Jeff’s uniform feels like a violation.
His fixation on those memorable moments – real or imagined – and being remembered, continues. Andrew says Jeff will remember their first meeting (he does, and without it Jeff would’ve cut him off long ago), and he tries to force a feeling of unforgettable on David during their night at the Polka place two years later. When Jeff talks about being interviewed, Andrew dismisses him saying he isn’t famous, so no one will care what he says. The moral fiber of the two men, and their fundamental guiding principles, is stark, even at a point when their lives aren’t so different.
It’s jarring, in a way, to see Andrew come upon Jeff nervous and uncertain after going into his first gay bar. The kindness and camaraderie Andrew showed Jeff is consistent with many accounts of those who knew him, particularly when he was younger. It isn’t until the episode loops back around to Andrew’s Minneapolis trip that the sneering, pretentious pretender we know reemerges. The Andrew who makes Jeff feel at home is someone who could be more easily seen as a lonely, self-conscious kid in over his head with his lies and looking for a friend. The challenge – and the strength – of the remaining episodes is how well they convince us of the transition from one man into the other.
Gianni’s story comes back, in a rather useful parallel between his “coming out” interview with The Advocate and Jeff’s interview with 48 Hours. It can be hard to remember just how risky this move really was, though I wish the show had tried. Gianni name drops Elton and only Elton, and in truth there were few other living, publicly out celebrities at the time. Donatella mostly speaks to how it will affect the business, and it’s clear that while she sees this as a company decision for Versace, Gianni sees it as a personal one.
While there’s certainly bravery in Gianni’s choice, the juxtaposition with Jeff’s story is a stark reminder of the way Gianni’s wealth, control of his company, insulated him from feeling the full force of his decision. As Donatella reminded him, not everyone lived as surrounded by beauty and kindness as he did. Jeff, too, had other privileges in his favor, like his race and the fact that he wasn’t visibly queer.
Many episodes of this installment of ACS have been disturbing, but this one falls more on the side of heartbreaking. The final image of Jeff’s sparse apartment as his mother leaves message after message on his answering machine is haunting. It’s made all the worse by the content of her messages, which remind us how excited Jeff was to be an uncle.