The second season of American Crime Story didn’t catch on quite the same way the OJ Simpson one did, which is too bad but also unsurprising. Part of the success of season one stemmed from its effectiveness in revealing new layers to a story we thought we knew extremely well, whereas season two views Versace himself as only the tip of the iceberg of the lives which were destroyed by Cunanan.
(I watched the bulk of the season over a few days, which was exhausting. Don’t be like me, kids.)
The season opens with the murder of Versace and the start of the manhunt, but for the bulk of the series, each episode takes us a step further back in time. We spend some time with Versace, but most of the time with Cunanan.
More importantly, we spend full episodes with the men he killed whose names should have been bigger news, and it increases our sense of dread every time as we know how their lives will end. We get to know them, to care about them, to see how they were vulnerable – through everything from their shame to their generosity – to his manipulation.
The flashback structure also made Cunanan’s youth far more shocking than a linear narrative. He lies like breathing throughout the series – some lies are obvious, some are immediately undercut by the show – until we arrive at his childhood and find that claims about his past we’d immediately dismissed turned out to be true.
Darren Criss is terrific as Cunanan, charming and disquietingly symmetrical, but always a little off, a little reptilian, even to the many being taken in by him. Despite focusing on his path to Miami, the series doesn’t glorify him; quite the reverse, with the final shot emphasizing how far from special he was in the end.
A primary theme of the series is the marginalization of queer people, specifically gay men and particularly through law enforcement. It begins immediately when Versace’s partner of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), is treated as a suspect and their relationship is perceived as a hookup or in some other way merely transactional. (Their relationship was also repeatedly diminished by the estate and Donatella.)
It was painful to watch, seeing his grief ignored, knowing that was only twenty years ago. Not only that it was awful and recent, but also how much it’s being forgotten and how much some people would like that world to return.
But beyond that, the show also demonstrates how the FBI did not take the case seriously. Posters weren’t going up. Outreach to the queer community wasn’t happening. Cunanan drove his victim’s truck for two months, used his own name, left his fingerprint at the pawn shop. No one noticed. White cisgendered gay men have the most societal privilege of the queer community, but it’s not enough to make society care when they’re dying. Not when they’re dying of AIDS, not when they’re being murdered.
As Ronnie, a Miami acquaintance of Cunanan, Max Greenfield delivers a terrific speech on this in a police interview scene in the finale:
The other cops here, they weren’t searching so hard were they, why is that? Because he killed a bunch of nobody gays? You know what the truth is, you were disgusted by him, long before he became disgusting. You’re so used to us lurking in the shadows. Ya know, most of us, we’re obliged! People like me, we just drift away, we get sick, nobody cares, but Andrew was vain. He wanted you to know about his pain, he wanted you to hear, he wanted you …he wanted you to know about being born a lie. Andrew is not hiding. He’s trying to be seen.”
By finally telling some version of their stories, by letting us see David Madson and Jeff Trail in particular as whole people, American Crime Story helps refocus the story from the serial murderer and the celebrity victim to the complexity of the lives of all the gay men who were caught up and destroyed.
It’s not a celebration of Versace. It’s not a glorification of Cunanan. It’s an elegy.