FX’s American Crime Story
Season 2, Episode 6: “Descent”
Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Written by Tom Rob Smith
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Ascent” – click here
Open on La Jolla, California in 1996.
Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is living the good life. He shops at Saks Fifth Avenue. He goes home to a luxurious house, he drives a beautiful car. He strips bare naked and swims in the pool outside. But nothing is ever so plain with Andrew. His life is one lie built atop one embellishment on top of many more of both. It’s a mountain.
We’re a year prior to the murders of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), David Madson (Cody Fern), Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), poor William Reese, and finally Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramirez). What a trail of carnage in the wake of Mr. Cunanan’s violent journey.
It’s Andrew’s birthday, and the place he’s staying belongs to his older lover Norman (Michael Nouri). He says he’s “curating” art for Norman, yet his friend Elizabeth Cote (Annaleigh Ashford) believes otherwise. He’s talking about getting David in his romantic clutches. And he still can’t just admit it to himself and say: I’m gay. He says he doesn’t “like labels.” This simple conversation between Lizzy and Andrew illustrates just how badly the latter’s starved for an identity; he’s just not sure for which identity he’s searching.
Anyway, soon enough Jeff arrives at the party. Andrew wants to use him to reel David in, to show that he’s “loved” by others. Oh, it’s cringeworthy levels of desperation, and it’s also profoundly sad, as well. We’re starting to see what caused the later divide between these two former friends, as Jeff and David take to one another quickly after first meeting. So much tragedy will follow what happens here. Doesn’t help that Cunanan sprinkles his nose with cocaine behind the scenes. He’s also got David Gallo (Terry Sweeney) on his case, looking out for Norman who recently lost a lover to AIDS and who is a more “conservative old queer.” What’s obvious is Gallo sees right through Andrew.
“That room is full of people that love me”
“Then that room is full of people who don‘t know you”
There’s also the fact Lee clearly had a thing for Andrew, and the younger man treated him like a needy dog rather than a man. It’s brutal to see how Cunanan treated others around him; his murders weren’t the only ways he violated people, though certainly they were the worst. Later, he draws up a list of demands in order to stay with Norman – a laundry list of expensive commodities, from “first class flights” to cars and everything in between.
We discover Andrew didn’t even give Norman his real name, claiming his last name was DeSilva. The old guy’s found out all about his past, including that he lived with his mother Mary Ann. This really throws the younger man into disarray. His whole life of lies unravels in front of Norman, he wails that regular life is “too ordinary” – work, school, business. All Norman wants is to share a life with Andrew, but the latter’s only concerned with having all the money and things he desires, and being with Madson.
Things are spiralling into madness. Andrew sends the postcard to Jeff’s father, by accident but on purpose. And this sends Trail directly to his old buddy, wondering why he’d have done such a thing and outed him unwillingly. This was all just more manipulation on the part of Cunanan. He sent the postcard to threaten Jeff. Not only that, more of the self-hate and self-loathing comes out every single time Andrew utters the word “faggot.”
It’s also ironic when Jeff gets semi-aggressive physically with his friend, and Cunanan is seemingly shocked by his violent outburst. Such a grim juxtaposition with what we already know comes after these events. Everything’s punctuated by Jeff moving for a job, where he’ll be closer to Madson. And this is what ultimately threatens Cunanan.
What does Andrew do in the face of adversity? Pump up the lie more. He gets a breathtaking room in a hotel for him and David, all charged to plastic, naturally. Everything about this man was image. There was never anything real about him, just smoke and mirrors, the appearance of wealth and power. It’s true psychosis to watch Andrew try using everything except HIMSELF to try making David fall in love with him. He’s a narcissist; a narcissist that somehow hates himself and loves the IMAGE of himself. He invented someone far more interesting than he believed he could ever have been. Again, despite all the bloody horror of his actions, he’s a tragic, sad character. You can’t call someone like him a monster, simply for the fact he’s all too human.
It’s all the worse because David clearly wasn’t interested in having more than just a friendly relationship with Cunanan. The architect gave it a shot, he genuinely tried to get to know the real guy inside his so-called friend. Yet Andrew was never able to tell the truth. For anybody who knows the truth about his background, what he tells David in this scene is utter lies; this is the saddest scene in one spectacularly sad episode.
After the getaway, Andrew returns to real life. The bills are piling up, his credit is running dry, and to dull the pain of existence he turns to harder drugs than ever before by injecting crystal meth. During a meth high he imagines himself going to Versace, being fitted for a suit. He rambles on and on to Gianni about his generousness. “A man with nothing to give is a nothing man,” he says. It’s all part of his psychosis, believing he should be a star, whereas someone like Mr. Versace isn’t as talented, that he “got lucky” and got famous. We’re seeing the growth of Cunanan’s inner rage, his drug habit, and his mental illness, all of which will eventually collide to make him into a horrific murderer.
Andrew’s meth habit turns him into a junkie, and he’s got no money. This prompts him to go back to see Norman one night. The old guy won’t let him in, instead calling the cops to try driving his former lover away. Everything drives Andrew back to his mother, Mary Ann (Joanna Adler), who takes him in and baths him and nurses his emotional wounds. It’s more obvious seeing his life at home with mom that Andrew’s issues likely stem from his family, whether hereditary or otherwise. Such a far cry from seeing him so falsely confident, lying to people, playing the big shot, juxtaposed with his normal, simple life with mother. He even lies to her, too. He can’t be himself, to anyone; not Mary Ann, not himself. The only way he’ll ever find identity is through someone else, even if that means murdering them.
This, for me, was an especially powerful episode. Really shattering to see the human side of someone who’s routinely considered a monster, which is a dangerous term to use because it absolves killers(etc) of humanity. And we can’t deny they’re human. To do that is to forget that murder and violence are products of human beings. So, in a way, seeing the humanity in Cunanan might not give us answers, but it gives us a clearer picture of why the questions ever arose.
“Ascent” is next.