Versace: American Crime Story Unnerves with the Portrayal of a Narcissistic Serial Killer
Before we begin our recapping journey for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, let’s be explicit about a few points. The Versace family has released a statement in opposition to the television show — which is based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth — calling it a “work of fiction.” So I’ll be recapping this as a work of fiction; the people I’ll be discussing will be characters, based on the show’s portrayal of real-life people. I’m watching this as a television show loosely based on true events, as a piece of entertainment, and not as history. Good?
Right away, Murphy is doing what he does best with AGV: We open with a sweeping baroque string score, and a shot of Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) waking up in his gilded palace, sliding his feet into slippers and gliding through his ornate home to a balcony where he overlooks Miami Beach like a king.
Down below, by the water, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) wears a red hat, with a backpack by his side that contains a copy of The Man Who Was Vogue, and a gun.
The tension builds: Versace takes a pill; Cunanan screams in the ocean. Versace leaves his home and someone shouts his name, but it’s only tourists who want an autograph, which he politely refuses; Cunanan vomits into a toilet; and Versace continues his glide to a newsstand to pick up copies of magazines. Already, we know the intersection of these two men feels viscerally wrong; it’s as if they live in different galaxies, or entirely different parallel universes.
But then it happens. As Versace is reentering the gates of his home, Cunanan sees his chance. Cunanan walks towards him, arm outstretched, and shoots. There’s our introduction.
The episode immediately picks back up with Cunanan jumping into a bed where two of his friends are sleeping, bragging about meeting Versace. It takes a few seconds to register that this is a flashback — we’re now in 1990, in San Francisco — and it only takes a few more seconds to realize what sort of person Cunanan is. The real work in this scene is done by actress Annaleigh Ashford, whose polite smiles and subtle head tilts fully encapsulate a friend who’s gotten just a little bit fed up with that friend who’s too much.
Cunanan claims that he met Gianni Versace last night, and his friends humor him. He describes a scenario where Versace approached him and he rebuffed him with a perfectly flirtatious retort. As the audience, we’re privy to the real scene: Cunanan found Versace in the VIP section of a nightclub and talked his way next to him, pretending they had met before, bringing up his mother’s Italian heritage. This scene works on two levels: first, establishing that Cunanan actually did meet Versace, and second, establishing Cunanan as a liar, with delusions of grandeur and a remorseless way of ignoring the truth.
Our opinion of Cunanan is confirmed when we see him in conversation with another friend who calls him out: Cunanan has lied about being Jewish, he tells his straight friends he’s straight and his gay friends he’s gay. He lies so often that even we aren’t sure whether he’s telling the truth when he claims that Versace invited him to the opera, for which Versace designed the costumes. Andrew is there, in the next scene, but it’s possible the opera is just another place he manipulated his way into without an actual invitation. Maybe he just bought his own ticket.
But no, at the end of the opera, Versace is there, not surprised to see Andrew Cunanan. Their demeanor is flirtatious, and it’s implied that their relationship might have become sexual. Obviously, there are no witnesses here, and no way to confirm whether or not that actually happened, and so the show provides plenty of plausible deniability.
Back in the present (or rather, the 1996 present), we’re treated to some of the beautiful, slightly extra symbolism that feels so exquisitely Ryan Murphy: a bloody dove, also shot; the tourist who had asked for Versace’s autograph running past the police barricade to get his blood on her magazine page (beats a signature!); the medics cutting through Versace’s medusa logo on his T-shirt in the hospital.
Cunanan freaks out for a while in his car, and then pulls out a clean shirt — this was clearly a pre-meditated murder, not just an impulsive shooting. The police know the suspect is in the parking garage, and whether it was planned or luck, they end up tracking and tackling a stranger in an identical red shirt.
From the identification information on the car, the police are able to ID the suspect as Andrew Cunanan, already wanted for the murder from which he stole the truck. We learn Cunanan has already killed four people, but the FBI had apparently done an atrocious job of trying to track him down. No posters went out with his face on them. A woman who ran a pawn shop had reported him selling something a week before the Versace shooting (using his real name, and real ID) and no one followed up. It becomes sickeningly obvious that if anyone had been paying attention, Cunanan could have been stopped before his most famous murder.
Within the walls of the Versace compound, Gianni’s sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz) arrives to establish dominion over the Versace empire. The FBI have been interrogating Versace’s longtime partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), trying to shift the conversation to frame him as a pimp or a cheater, and not as a boyfriend. It’s true that D’Amico brought men back for Gianni to sleep with, and their Greco-Roman inspired home was the site of all types of debauchery, but D’Amico tries to make it clear that he was different from the others. They lived together for 14 years.
Donatella is obviously not a fan of D’Amico. He symbolically extends his hand to her; she rejects him. And when she walks into a board meeting to discuss the future of the brand, she closes the door behind her, leaving D’Amico in the hallway. She doesn’t see him as a member of the family, and because the brand is Versace, he’s no longer relevant, especially because, in her view, he couldn’t accomplish his single task of keeping Gianni safe.
The FBI do manage to find Cunanan’s motel room, but when they break in, smoke and guns blazing, it’s not Cunanan in the bed but a twitchy junkie named Ronnie.
And there we have it: a pilot that sets all the pieces in motion and promises many more hours of fashion, intrigue, and stylistically splattered blood.
This article originally appeared on Ew.com