There are worthwhile reasons for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to shift its focus immediately after its opening moments from the particulars of the murder of Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) to the increasing delusion and gradual deterioration of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). Cunanan is a less recognizable figure than Versace, thus a fresher source of largely untold stories. More than that, though, the FX series uses Cunanan’s pathology to fit Versace’s death within a larger philosophical idea, just as The People vs. O.J. Simpson did when regarding the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial at the intersection of race, celebrity, and criminality.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace investigates the potential consequences of relegating populations to the shadows: Cunanan, an openly gay man who killed four gay men, is an aggrieved psychopath whose targets are made vulnerable by the secrets they harbor. As Cunanan’s crime scenes are uncovered, the series unflinchingly highlights the outmoded taboos of its period, with cops and journalists who react to the crimes as either random acts or the consequences of (in their estimation) deviant sexual behavior.
Before murdering anyone, Cunanan plays an enthusiastic escort to wealthy, mostly closeted older men, as well as a willing shepherd to younger gay men struggling to learn to live their lives more in the open. He uses his sexual frankness to ingratiate himself to others, both as a means of chasing wealth and, on some level, squashing his loneliness. And in the process, the series offers a trenchant critique of marginalization: In almost every case, if his victims were afforded conventional freedom and mainstream acceptance, Cunanan would have been less able to maneuver his way into their lives.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace’s timeline is purposefully disorienting, jumping as it does back in time with each successive episode with the goal of slowly and operatically revealing the impetus for Cunanan’s criminality. As the the final outcome of this story is so well known, the series derives its suspense from the lesser-known particulars of Cunanan’s past.
Several episodes are devoted to the events surrounding Cunanan’s murders of David Madson (Cody Fern), a Minneapolis architect and ex-lover, and Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), a former Navy officer and estranged friend, but the series isn’t intent on merely reenacting Cunanan’s gruesome killings. The sight of Trail’s caved-in head and the conjecture that informs one scene in which Cunanan cuddles David’s dead body can feel at worst needlessly exploitative and at best dubious, but the series consistently and thoughtfully returns to the thread that connects Cunanan to his victims: the notion of identity.
Throughout, Cunanan fixates on seeming “impressive” (his own oft-repeated word). He’s a grifter who’s prodded about his fluid sexuality, and the series itself seems to suggest that his sexuality is incidental to his attraction to older, wealthy men. He’s also a pathological liar, appearing literally unable to stop spinning tales about his colorful biography even when handed ultimatums by others—a phenomenon nearly as horrifying to behold as his killings. Above all, he’s enraged by men who’re comfortable with their sexuality and, as such, can’t be cowed by him. The series includes scenes of Madson coming out to his father, Trail speaking to 48 Hours about leaving the military at the dawn of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Versace coming out publicly in The Advocate. Cunanan concocts personal grievances with each man, but The Assassination of Gianni Versace resists portraying his imagined victimhood as anything other than jealous resentment.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace resists relegating Trail, Madson, and real estate developer Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) to footnotes in the murder of a famous fashion designer. The loving voicemails that play on Trail’s answering machine after his death, like he tender flashbacks to the loving and realistically fraught relationship between David and his father, underscore the substance of the lives that Cunanan ended. The series is calibrated to recreate the spectacle of a very public tragedy, with actors who bear striking likenesses to their real-life counterparts, and locations—from Versace’s garish Miami mansion to David’s cold, sleek loft—that are realized with a slavish attention to detail. The series is defined by an unsettling unreality that evokes the morbid interest that surrounded these events in real time. With its dogged adherence to authenticity, it creates the feeling of witnessing something illicit, suggesting that we’re complicit in fulfilling Cunanan’s quest to make an impression, by opting to relive his spree at all.