“They say people who don't have much more living to do come to live by the beach."
Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) arrived in Miami Beach, Florida in early May ‘97, having already murdered four people in the five weeks preceding his move. At the time, there was a nationwide manhunt for the twenty-seven-year-old spree killer, and a month later he made the FBI's Most Wanted List. Upon arriving, he struck up a friendship with a local hustler, Ronnie (Max Greenfield), who was suffering from AIDS. Andrew began tricking – targeting older, wealthy men, while free-basing with his new partner in crime at a rundown roach motel. All the while, Andrew would buy disposable cameras and snap photos of Gianni Versace's (Edgar Ramírez) mansion, telling Ronnie he knew the famous fashion mogul, and that they were even partners in San Francisco at one point (to which Ronnie would just shrug, knowing the kid was full of shit).
There were numerous instances where Cunanan was almost caught before putting two bullets in Versace on July 15, 1997. The FBI knew the shooter was headed to Miami Beach, and even alerted local authorities. However, when detectives offered to take FBI Agents Evans (Jay R. Ferguson) and Gruber (Christine Horn) on a tour of local gay night spots, and even help hang their B&W Most Wanted fliers, Evans waved off the invitation, instead wanting to canvas Ft. Lauderdale beaches for potential targets. Cunanan pawned a gold coin he took from the home of one of his victims using his real name and Miami address a week before murdering Gianni, but the shop owner (Cathy Moriarty) didn't know it was him, because there was no photo hanging on her usual board of potentially suspicious clients. A deli cashier (Bobby Ray Cauley Jr.) called the cops when Cunanan ordered a soda, stating he’d seen the killer on America's Most Wanted, but by the time patrolmen arrived on scene, Andrew was gone - disappeared into a local disco to dance the night away, a backpack with a pistol over his shoulder.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace's second episode - playfully gifted the double entendre title "Manhunt" - goes to painstaking lengths to recreate, embellish and invent these scenarios, as Criss' wide-eyed, hyper-focused performance continues to be the main focal point of American Crime Story Season Two. It wants us to know that this infamous murder could've easily been prevented if the FBI's bumbling (or was it homophobia?) hadn't been so blatant. Yet it also wants us to feel a deep sense of empathy for Cunanan, who is really nothing more than a lost boy in a great big world, trying to deal with the fact that nobody's ever wanted him, and that his invented identity will always be preferable to the "faggot" the rest of society views him as. To be honest, if it weren't for Criss - who truly is phenomenal and walks a fine line balancing both the sympathetic and sociopathic - the whole thing would collapse into a rather embarrassing set of stereotypes: the self-loathing queer who lies and kills because he just can't stand himself.
Ryan Murphy being Ryan Murphy, there's some grand exploitation thrown in, ostensibly just for good measure. "Manhunt" truly lives up to its name in a scene where Cunanan picks up a john (Robert Catrini) - a straight, white, rich businessman at the beach - who takes the killer back to his lavish hotel room for submissive sex. Cunanan duct tapes the man's face closed - creating a sort of silver homemade gimp mask - and then dances around the room in a pink Speedo-style bathing suit to Phil Collins and Philip Bailey's "Easy Lover" while his "client" writhes on the bed, unable to breathe. Just as it seems he's about to suffocate, creating victim number five, the gigolo cuts a hole and allows his john to suck in some air. It's a grotesque, harrowing scene reminiscent of Buffalo Bill tucking it back in The Silence of the Lambs (’91) before prancing about to Q Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses".
Thankfully, this trashy, scandalous scene is made a bit more digestible by everything involving Gianni and his partner Antonio (Ricky Martin) that's featured in this episode's numerous flashbacks to '94, where Versace is receiving treatment for HIV. As salacious as the sexual content in The Assassination of Gianni Versace is, this melancholy portrait of a famous artist struggling with terminal illness is probably going to be the biggest point of contention for most viewers. The Versace family has long denied that Gianni was HIV positive when he was murdered in '97, so using this possibly invented moment in his life as a jumping off point to explore both his sexual history with Antonio, along with his companion’s contentious relationship with Gianni's sister Donatella (Penélope Cruz) is a brazen narrative conceit. Donatella views Antonio as just another pretty clinger sucking her beloved sibling dry while bringing nothing to the table, while the man passionately confesses his love for the mogul in private, and would seemingly do anything – including introducing multiple sexual partners into their bedroom – to please him.
So, why introduce the AIDS narrative if the Versaces deny it to be true? For starters, it plays into American Crime Story's brand of both indulging the myths that surround these famous '90s atrocities (see: nearly everything about Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance as OJ Simpson in Season One), while simultaneously debunking them. One of the great falsehoods about Andrew Cunanan was that he too had AIDS, becoming part of his primary motivation for violently taking life. Writer Tom Rob Smith - working off Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors - is also playing up the tragic resurgence of Versace, as he roared back to health after falling ill in '94 and '95, trying to reclaim his seat as the world's most inspired designer (a throne that had been stolen by Alexander McQueen). The last six months of Gianni's life saw him vigorously combating whatever was ailing him and espousing the notion of living life to its fullest while ceaselessly creating - an idea that's channeled through a fictionalized backstage bit of bickering between Gianni and Donatella regarding the rather vapidly skinny texture of the models wearing his latest line. He doesn’t want sickly waifs, but women who look like they embrace existence.
This rather melodramatic mix of truth and provocation is what makes The Assassination of Gianni Versace so compelling (not to mention the show's usually lush production design). The concoction is proving to be a rather potent mixture, creating this swooning, swirling air of unfortunate destiny in which these doomed figures all collide, storylines revolving around sex, violence and AIDS proving that the difference between fact and fiction is irrelevant when it's all so goddamn gripping.