THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE Review: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

What was the cost of being gay in America during the '90s?

We've spent the last two hours of The Assassination of Gianni Versace without getting a glimpse of its namesake (Édgar Ramírez), so when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" welcomes the iconic fashion designer back into the fold of his own story, it's undoubtedly a welcome sight (even if the scene in question again revolves around him arguing with his sister, Donatella [Penélope Cruz]). Gianni wants to announce his homosexuality to the world, having survived a bout with AIDS and grasping that it's no good to simply live however many days he has left in the shadows. His lover and partner for over a decade, Antonio D'Amico (Ricky Martin), stands by Gianni’s side, and Donatella instantly blames him. He wants to be famous. He cannot stand to be a side player. She implores Gianni to think about the company (which is about to go public on the NYSE) - not to mention the future of all his employees - before sitting down and delivering what could be a devastating declaration. 

This season of American Crime Story has been incredibly political, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" dials the "serial killer procedural" element down a notch to focus on issues of class within the gay community, and how those standings affect individuals looking to come out of the closet. For Versace, it's an event - an interview in The Advocate where he demands Antonio be by his side during the entire chat - reclaiming his own sense of identity after cheating death for a little more time on the planet. But for future Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) victim Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock), his public revelation is an act of defiance against a military that's not only called him and others like him a "faggot", but also beaten enlisted sailors within an inch of their lives once their sexualities were discovered. As an enlisted officer in the Navy, Trail had to live his truth in shameful silence, before rescuing a subordinate after he was ritualistically bludgeoned by his peers. 

The threat of outing within the military - an act that would cost Trail not only his career, but possibly his family (as many members in his bloodline served, as well) - even forces Jeff to mutilate his body. After another officer tells the tale of a recently arrested colleague outing sailors based on the tattoos he recalled seeing during sexual encounters with other men, Jeff takes a box cutter and tries to carve some ink off his leg, leading him to bleed through his uniform while sitting in the Captain's quarters, where a pamphlet on Naval ethics and code of conduct is being handed out to every man who owns a leadership position on his ship. When Jeff decides to finally break his silence and give an interview to television reporters, it comes with the stipulation that his face be blacked out and his voice altered. It's a far cry from the well-lit, welcoming photo shoot the gay publication sets up for Versace. 

These political explorations are a welcome respite from the exploits of Andrew Cunanan, who - despite being compellingly played by Criss every episode - was starting to become a little bit of a repetitive character (though, to be fair, he's also a serial killer, so routine is kind of his thing). The non-linear structure, while often clever, does "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" zero favors, muddying some of the relationships. We see Jeff first through Andrew’s eyes, as he cons his way into a trip to Minneapolis (on American Express’ dime) in a last-ditch attempt at having a normal life by marrying the focus of last week's episode (not to mention Trail's best friend and lover), David Madson (Cody Fern). We already know how this all ends, so there's a bit of wheel-spinning going on as Jeff gives Andrew a less-than-fuzzy reception at the airport, and we recognize he's right to be distrustful of the sociopathic pretty boy.

So, why spend all this time illustrating Andrew's relationship to Jeff? One could argue Andrew - no matter how evil and deadly he is - still definitely played an oddly positive role in the Navy man's life. Andrew meets Jeff during the first time the officer steps into a gay bar. Andrew shows him the ropes (so to speak) regarding his queerness; proving to Jeff that his sexuality isn't awful, and that not everybody is going to hate him for being gay. Eventually, Jeff is the only one who spots Andrew spinning his web of lies, while David can't help but want to help his fellow queer. A susceptibility to this series of wild stories is what ends up costing both Jeff and David their lives, as Andrew begins doling out another new legend of needing to begin anew in San Francisco, all so he can get inside David's apartment and wait there like a patient predator. The fictions keep driving him forward, allowing Andrew to set traps for new prey. 

Beyond class, the friendships Jeff forms between Andrew and David illustrate just how difficult it is to come out of the closet on basic principle alone for some gay men. On one hand, they have the morals and values they've been instilled with throughout their lives - represented by Jeff's commitment to his familial institution, the military. He looks to the red, white, and blue, wanting to be a Good American in a United States that has said (from the President on down) that they don't want his kind representing it in combat. On the other hand, David is a successful openly gay man, and Andrew has no problem embracing his sexuality. “The bars, the meals, the men. Everything you gave me means nothing,” Jeff tells Andrew at one point, finishing with, “I want my life back. My real life, as a soldier.” For some, self-acceptance was just as impossible as societal acceptance, and Jeff Trail's life ended while he was still in a state of spiritual limbo, wrestling with his own truth every night, before waking up and going to work at a factory with the other vets, who he'd continue to keep his secret from. 

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