During the second episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, whose nine-episode run ended last night, came a moment so warm and simple that it felt like an embrace. As Versace (played by Édgar Ramírez) sketched at his desk, his boyfriend Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) tussled on their nearby bed with some guy so hot he didn’t even need the camera’s focus for that to be felt. Antonio got out of bed and asked Versace to join them. Versace said would. “Go play,” he told Antonio. He glanced over at them, and as the camera pulled in for a close-up, his eyes softened and his mouth began to spread into a mild grin. There was no tension, no apparent jealousy or irritation; what was palpable is what those in the polyamorous community might call “compersion,” a sort of anti-jealousy or the pleasure derived from your partner’s pleasure, specifically when the source of that pleasure is someone other than you.
At that moment, I realized this show wasn’t so concerned with spending much time explaining its finer points to its heteronormative viewers—if you didn’t get what was going on there, the levels of joy that open relationships yield at their healthiest/most consensual, that scene was likely lost on you.
It was so refreshing to see a show speak to queer people—namely, gay men and the people who understand them—so directly, so boldly. Even though Versace was built to look back (and then, via its reverse-chronological structure, back and then back some more), I can’t imagine this show being possible before right now. It takes years to build up this kind of confidence.
The story that show runner Ryan Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith chose to tell—about serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree in 1997 that culminated with the titular assassination—turned out to be a goldmine of issues that have faced gay men in the past 20 years, many of them still relevant today. HIV. Coming out. Being outed. Don’t ask don’t tell. Homophobia. Casual homophobia from fellow gay men. Aggressive homophobia from fellow gay men. Racism (specifically anti-Asian). Religion. Gay panic. Suicide. The way you put your life in someone’s hands when you make yourself so vulnerable as to hook up with a stranger in a private setting.
There were appearances from beloved actors Judith Light and Cathy Moriarty (I hesitate to call them gay “icons” but surely to some, they are). There was the knowing thrill of getting to see Ricky Martin play gay in a fictionalized 1997, back when he himself was in the closet (where he remained for 13 more years). There were not one but two songs by Laura Branigan (in terms of commercial impact versus ardent gay following, Branigan was approximately the Carly Rae Jepsen of her day) featured: “Gloria” and “Self Control.” Ditto that for Lisa Stansfield (less of a gay touchstone than Branigan but no less great): “All Around the World” and “This Is the Right Time.” In fact, if Versace were nothing but its soundtrack, it would have made me feel more seen that most shows—so many of its songs feature on the all-time best-of playlist on my iPhone, obvious choices (Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life,” Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity”) and deep cuts (Deee-Lite’s “Runaway”), alike.
More than any show I’ve ever seen, Versace had a sneering, almost punk attitude toward straights, the oblivious brand of whom were often symbolized by cops. We saw multiple minds blown, grasps on human interaction go limp, as police investigated Cunanan’s murder spree of four gay men: Versace, David Madson (Cody Fern), Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), and Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell). (Cunanan’s fifth victim, William Reese, was believed to be straight, and certainly not targeted for his sexuality.) After D’Amico’s incredulity after a cop inquired as to whether he was paid by Versace for sex or to be his partner, the cop excused himself: “Sorry—this is new to me.” At Trail’s murder scene, one cop spotted a porn DVD left by Cunanan to out him and announced to his partner, “Power Bottoms?”
“The hell is this?” asked the partner, surveying the rest of the toys on the bed, like a bottle of poppers, a ball gag, some duct tape. “It’s a gay thing,” said the first. “So what are we talking about?” “Guy turns up. Maybe they know each other, probably they don’t. They do what they do. All this... extreme stuff. It goes wrong. David ends up in a rug. The other guy runs. Doesn’t steal a thing.”
The show also rather deliberately illustrated that the problem with Versace and D’Amico’s purported open relationship wasn’t in their practice, but judgement from outsiders—symbolized here through Penelope Cruz’s portrayal of Versace’s sister Donatella. She berated D’Amico: “He wasn’t enough for you. This house, this life. You wanted more. More fun, more men.” At least the TV Donatella did—much of the dialogue in the series was speculative, filling in holes where interactions weren’t documented, or perhaps didn’t exist at all.
But Versace’s greatest cultural contribution was the way it contrasted the wide range of interpersonal issues amongst gay men. A masterclass in experiential diversity that could make The Boys in the Band read like one long monologue, Versace contrasted with rigor. It contrasted between Versace’s interview with The Advocate in which he openly and proudly discussed being gay in public, and Trail’s Dateline interview in which he talked about being gay in the military while shrouded in anonymity-preserving shadows. It contrasted between Versace’s sister attempting to dissuade him when he told her about the aforementioned interview, and Trail’s sister encouraging him to come out to his family. It contrasted between the lie Miglin lived as a closeted man married to a woman, and the lies Cunanan lived, which changed at any given moment to suit whoever was listening. It contrasted between the way Versace’s mother instilled in him the value of hard work, and the entitlement Cunanan’s father instilled in him by proclaiming his son innately special.
Versace devoted much of its time to meditating on an issue rarely examined in the mainstream: gay-on-gay crime. Cunanan (played by Darren Criss), who strove to be someone, exhibited tenants of the best little boy in the world theory, but to a murderous extreme. He was, in fact, the worst best little boy in the world, who apparently internalized his father’s idea of exceptionality to the extent that he coveted Versace’s status as a gay man whose power superseded his sexuality, where public acceptance was concerned.
“I think the pathology of Andrew is that he is, without question, the most homophobic character in this story, even though he’s gay,” Smith told Vulture. Like a closeted politician who votes against his people, Cunanan would, per Versace’s retelling, weaponize the vulnerabilities he detected by talking to gay men and being a gay man himself. Norman Blachford, who was 58 in 1994 when he began seeing and then supporting Cunanan, is depicted on the show as having said, “I’ve been living with this my whole life: We fall sick it’s our fault. We’re murdered it’s our fault.” “You can rob us, you can beat us, you can kill us. You’ll get away with it,” responded the show’s Cunanan, projecting empathy while the darkest of lightbulbs went off in his head.
“I want you to know that when they find your body, you will be wearing ladies’ panties,” he told Miglin before killing him. “Surrounded by gay porn. I want the world to see that the great Lee Miglin is a sissy. Soon the whole world will know that the great Lee Miglin, who built Chicago, built it with a limp wrist. The cops will know, the press will know, your wife will know, your children will know, the neighbors will know. Tell me something, Lee: What terrifies you more, death or being disgraced?” An episode later, a step back in time, had Madson admitting he was scared to get into the car with Cunanan after Trail’s murder. He wondered if he was afraid that Cunanan was going to kill him, which he actually did, “or was I afraid of the disgrace? The shame of it all? Is that what I’m running from?” The show, based mostly on Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors, argued that Cunanan exploited the sort of in-group conversations between gay men that typically foster bonding and relief. The degree of betrayal was astounding.
Last month, an essay on Attitude’s website argued, per its headline, that “Young Queer People Shouldn’t Be Obliged to Care About LBGT History—And That’s the Biggest Sign of Success There Is.” It was so poorly argued and fundamentally myopic that it scanned immediately as trolling, but it was heartening to see enormous response refuting its self-entitled intellectual laziness. Versace was the most graceful counter-argument to this mindset imaginable. In history, there are lessons that we haven’t seemed to learn, patterns yet to be broken. Like a pill hidden in a caramel, it wrapped a bunch of cultural observations in a salacious story. The show linked Cunanan’s ability to hide in plain sight for two months after his initial string of four murders to FBI apathy, if not homophobia, since at the time three out of his four victims were gay men—more recently, the slow response to investigate the deaths of alleged victims of 66-year-old Canadian landscaper Bruce McArthur raised similar concerns of police bigotry.
Cunanan was distorting his persona over a decade before people were curating elements of their lives to present to the world on social media. He was self-absorbed and unabashedly materialistic. He’s an extreme example who went to extreme measures, and like any melodrama worth investing in, Versace used those extremes to comment on a greater truth. Criss’s performance was just swishy enough to stop short of caricature and deranged to the point of ramming its head against the top—the show routinely featured him staring blankly into a space just above the top of the camera, as high-pitched music unraveled to score his mental state.
But Versace was allergic to glamorization, which initially may have seemed counterintuitive for a show that was nominally about fashion. Versace was in the business of breaking facades, of explicating just how toxic those facades could be. Its roughly reverse-chronological structure placed the grand guignol of Versace’s slaying up front, and then worked backward to explain, humanize, salute, and mourn. The Versace family called the show “a work of fiction” prior to its airing, and at the end of every episode ran a disclaimer that read: “This series is inspired by true events and investigative reports. Some events are combined or imagined for dramatic and interpretive purposes. Dialogue is imagined to be consistent with these events.” But the show proved that something need not have happened to be true. Andrew Cunanan’s murders were shocking, but more so was how relevant his story, and those of the lives he destroyed, remains.