We'll never really know exactly what caused Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) to embark upon his murder joyride across America, which would end in Miami Beach, with Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) shot dead on the designer’s front steps. The trail of corpses and witnesses who remember seeing Cunanan with his victims before their untimely deaths are really all we have to go off of, a body count that includes the spree killer's associate Jeffrey Trail (Finn Witrock), bludgeoned with a claw hammer in the Minneapolis apartment of Cunanan's ex, David Madson (Cody Fern). Just days after city authorities found Trail's body, Madson's corpse was pulled out of Rush Lake, Michigan by a pair of fisherman. But by that time, Cunanan was already well on his way toward Chicago for his ill-fated date with Lee Miglin.
Like last week's "A Random Killing", "House By the Lake" doesn't have a single scene featuring the namesake of The Assassination of Gianni Versace. However, the focus on Cunanan's first and second victims is starting to help the non-linear narrative chronology that creator Ryan Murphy and writer Rob Tom Ford have chosen to tell this tale make much more sense. Just how we jumped back in time to further understand and sympathize with Versace - who battled a supposed HIV diagnosis before getting gunned down right as he regained the creative spark he'd lost while sick - the last two hours have placed us inside the lives that were shattered by this sociopath's blaze of infamy. Much like Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light) struggled to keep it together while mourning the death of her closeted husband, here we watch as Madson deals with watching his secret lover get beaten to death with a simple tool, before being taken hostage by his terrifying beau.
In fact, this attention to empathy reminds us that not only were these real people who were killed by Cunanan - a fact that can sometimes become lost as we fall deeper into American Crime Story's design of refitting true crime atrocity into pulp fiction – but it also shines a light on individual gay experiences during a time when being queer in America was damn near impossible without getting persecuted for it (not that it's easy nowadays, either). Through a series of flashbacks, we dive into David's mind as he zones out on the drive Andrew forces him to take after the cops get called to Madson's flat. We see his relationship to his father - a burly alpha male who took him hunting and fishing like "real men do" with their boys - only to find that his son is a homosexual. In one of the series' most nakedly honest scenes thus far, the dad responds to his aspiring architect son's coming out from behind a workbench in his garage with rather startling emotional clarity:
“I won’t lie and say that it doesn’t make a difference. You know what I believe. And maybe this isn’t what you wanted to hear. Maybe you wanted to be told I don’t have a problem with it. I can’t say that. But what I can say is I love you more than I love my own life.”
Though this is a rather amazing moment of progressive thought for a late '80s parent, casually unsettling homophobia still creeps into the ‘90s police investigations of Cunanan's Minnesota killings. In a scene similar to how Versace's partner Antonio (Ricky Martin) was questioned by detectives about their sexual history mere hours after Gianni was killed, the minute these detectives discover David’s gay, their whole approach to the scenario changes. The gloves come on, shielding them from any homosexual blood. Despite eyewitness accounts from friendly neighbors, the immediate assumption when they learn that David is blonde, unlike the body in the living room, is that he has killed Andrew. These two fags obviously had a lovers' spat.
The thought process is practically painted all over their faces as they examine gay porn and sex toys found in the apartment that have nothing to with the crime at all. It’s a sickening moment of gut-level bigotry that never needs to be verbalized to be felt. When questioning David’s distraught parents, one officer bluntly informs them, “Oh, trust me, there’s a lot you don’t know about your son.” Juxtaposed against the flashbacks of David's surprisingly tolerant father, these scenes become all the more heartbreaking. Society was never going to accept gay men at this point in history, despite this rock of traditional masculinity and values being able to reconcile his seemingly faith-based disappointment in his son's sexual orientation with the simple fact that he'll always love him, no matter what.
Light's performance as Marilyn Miglin was brilliant last week, but Fern might outdo her here by creating The Assassination of Gianni Versace's most tragic figure thus far. Criss continues to earn every ounce of praise that's been heaped upon his performance as Cunanan this season - alternating from chilly, black-eyed stares, to callously dancing in the car to "Pump Up the Jam", to cuddling with Madson's body on the shore after he shoots him in the back. But David's decision to stay with his attacker (which Fern sells without a line of dialogue) - when he could've snuck out the bathroom window of a shithole bar they make a pit stop in - stands in stark contrast to the clandestine second life Lee Miglin was living (and would ultimately die because of).
As Andrew takes David’s hand in the middle of that dive, and the two listen to a shitty cover of The Cars' "Drive", we see Madson momentarily understand this lonely, desperate psychopath. Through all the abuse, punishment and (ultimately) death Cunanan doles out to this equal, the same struggle with loneliness and rejection can be found in his eyes. Just as Murphy & Co. are choosing to memorialize the dead, the dead empathize with their killers, ultimately leading to their final fates.