FX’s American Crime Story
Season 2, Episode 7: “Ascent”
Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Written by Tom Rob Smith
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Descent” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Creator/Destroyer” – click here
1992 in Milan, Italy. Donatella Versace (Penélope Cruz) is trying to find her place within the fashion empire, though, at times, struggling. Moreover, there are clearly things wrong behind the scenes with Gianni (Édgar Ramirez), who’s ill, and not in the right state of mind. He’s making it tougher on Donatella, he wants her to “be great” instead of just guiding others. But it comes out of the fact he knows he’s sick, and that without someone trustworthy to hand the empire to before he goes the whole company could be in trouble. Meanwhile, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) actually picks up for the sister, which is unusual. He makes clear that his lover has “no time to be cruel” at this point in his life.
“This dress is not my legacy: you are”
Skip to San Diego, California. In a pharmacy, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is working away diligently like a good employee, watching the clock, and serving people with a smile while he reads Vogue in his downtime. He has trouble getting to work on time, though. And he’s always, always lying, even about the most insignificant little things; wholly pathological. What’s obvious is that Cunanan had no direction in life whatsoever. He just worked at the pharmacy, read fashion magazines, then went back to the apartment her shared with his mother Mary Ann (Joanna Adler). He whines what could be the tagline of his life after getting upset over his mother getting cheap ice cream rather than Häagen-Dazs: “Because I want the best!” It’s a petty thing, and almost seems silly. Of course it IS silly. Although it’s an important scene in understanding his eventual trajectory, where it all started on a basic, everyday level until working into a psychotic state where he’d kill just to be famous and known by all.
What’s saddest about Andrew himself is that he was genuinely a smart guy, he simply lacked that direction, and because of that he went wildly off the rails. Seeing him with Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) before their eventual falling out is tough, as well. To know they were once, somewhat, real friends despite all of Andrew’s lies. We see more of how most of Cunanan’s relationships with older men was solely about the money. He wanted money and fame and prestige so much, he’d do anything to get it, even if it meant ignoring what he actually wanted romantically just to get what he so desperately desired financially. Delusions of grandeur that did nothing to elevate him, but rather did so much to degrade him, as well as drive him further into depression, drugs, and a violent narcissism.
First stop? An escort agency. That certainly did no favours for his narcissist self-image, and his rejection there only pushed him towards self-employment as an escort to older men. It’s easy to see how, someone interested only in economic status like him could’ve completely lost any semblance of an identity or personality in the pursuit of “being what people want.” It’s compelling to watch the juxtaposed characters of Andrew and Donatella, each on a mission to sell themselves but in vastly different ways.
In New York City for the 100th anniversary gala for Vogue, Gianni and Tony arrive for the red carpet where they meet Donatella. The brother’s ready to introduce his sister to the world as a big star. Beforehand, they talk about their childhood in Italy, and also how far they’ve come, and how much they’ve grown. Wearing an almost leather bondage-style outfit, Donatella impresses everybody, as the cameras flash all around the brother-sister duo like stars erupting in the night sky.
At the same time, Andrew is plotting his own introduction to the world of high society. He’s got his eye on Norman (Michael Nouri), whom he purposefully runs into at the bar of an opera house, setting in motion what will come to be their torturous relationship down the line. There, the young man also meets Lincoln Aston (Todd Waring) and David Gallo (Terry Sweeney), winding up with an invite for dinner later. Andrew winds up alone with Lincoln, offering himself up as a sugar baby.
Back at Versace HQ, Donatella is celebrated after all the publicity over her appearance at the gala. Not everyone in the media was thrilled, though many certainly were, and Ms. Versace only cares that people are talking. Then there’s poor Gianni, whose mood only gets worse all the time between the “global downturn” away from grandeur and his own deteriorating illness. Donatella begins feeling that brother treats her with a misogynist hand at times, parading her in public for promotion while silencing her in the workshop. And Gianni seems to just take everything as personal attack. It’s because his health is rapidly slipping away, starting with a serious loss of hearing. Later, Donatella will tell the staff of Versace that her brother has a “rare form of ear cancer.”
Soon enough, we see Andrew send that first fated drink to David Madson (Cody Fern) across a bar. Another beginning of a relationship that will culminate in absolute horror. I love how American Crime Story is able to tell the story in a non-linear, backwards fashion, and the story takes what would be a beautiful, romantic moment in another series becomes part of an ongoing tapestry of terror. We see the initial night Cunanan and Madson spend together, we feel the intensity of emotion, the unexpected romance – however, we know where it goes, and instead of being sexy or loving this is so poignantly sad to witness.
The night with Madson cost Andrew his relationship with Lincoln; it was all on the older man’s dime, after all. This sent Mr. Aston back out on the scene looking for young men. He finds one, Kevin Bond (Adam Brooks), and takes him back to his place. Although it’s non-sexual, Andrew wanders into the house just as Kevin attacks Lincoln, beating him brutally to death. Kevin sees Cunanan and all he says: “He tried to kiss me.” A horrifyingly real moment of the gay panic defence. Not as if the person we know becomes a killer later is going to call the cops.
In the aftermath of the murder, Andrew and Norman bond over the fear of being gay in a society that’s hostile towards homosexual men. The young man offers to “make a home” for the older man. Again, this is a relationship we know doesn’t end well; not as tragically violent as the others, but still, not well. What’s most interesting, in a sick way, is that Andrew uses the stories from the lives of others to build his own identity. He’s a patchwork of other people, he is never himself. Was there ever an actual Andrew Cunanan? Or has he always been an amalgamation of the identities of others? Even watching a gay man get murdered was another thing Andrew used to create himself, albeit in an awful, homicidal sense.
Perhaps saddest is that Andrew breaks a promise to help his mother when leaving to live with Norman. It’s heartbreaking to watch Mary Ann all but beg her boy to take her with him. There’s also a moment of physical abuse when he throws her into a wall. A first, sure sign – violence against women – of something seriously wrong in this mother’s son’s life. All excused under guise of the ever cited “accident.” Then began Andrew living a bigger lie than ever before, after he and Norman shacked up.
“If they could see me now”
Yet again, time after time, another spectacular episode of American Crime Story. I can’t get enough of how they’re examining such a broad social issue of intolerance towards homosexuality, as well as the various societal reasons gay men were forced to suppress their sexuality, while also looking at Gianni Versace’s later life, murder, and Cunanan’s whole brutal career as a conman-cum-serial killer.
“Creator/Destroyer” is next. We’re almost at the end of the ride. Can’t wait to see how Ryan Murphy & Co. are going to end the season because there’s so much intriguing plot and character development going on even so late in the game.