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'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' premiere recap: When doves die

Price Peterson
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Darren Criss in American Crime Story. (Photos: FX)

Warning: This recap of “The Man Who Would Be Vogue” episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story contains spoilers.

The best part of Peak TV is how excellent television no longer has to appeal to everyone. Sure, we can discuss giant hits like The Walking Dead with total strangers, and Grandma won’t stop talking about Breaking Bad. But increasingly — and often thanks to producer Ryan Murphy — mass audiences are not what the best shows aim for. About 14 people watched last year’s best series (Twin Peaks), and just try bringing up Insecure at a dinner party. We’re not all watching the same great shows anymore, but man, what a time to be a fringe TV viewer.

This is to say that The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the stellar new entry of Murphy’s already perfect American Crime Story series, will be most appreciated by the chicest of bubbles. It’s gaudy, terrifying, campy, tragic, heartfelt, gorgeously filmed … and probably too specific in its milieu to excite a mainstream audience. But if the past 1.3 years taught us anything, it’s that bubbles may not always win elections, but damn is our art better. Definitely comment below if you disagree jk.

“The Man Who Would Be Vogue” was one of the most spellbinding and compelling (and timely!) episodes of television I’ve ever seen, and we should talk about it!

We began with a typical morning in Miami, particularly if you are a wealthy Italian designer at the top of his game in the mid- to late ’90s.

This, friends, was Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez), and between his gilded beach palace and servants in black tennis shorts, we could gather that he was pretty successful. Not so successful that he didn’t eat revolting honeydew melon for breakfast but doing well enough by most standards.

By this point Versace was so famous that obese, pale Midwesterners would wait outside his home begging for him to autograph old issues of Vogue. Now THAT is fame.

A few blocks away at the beach, a young man named Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) was just finishing up screaming at the ocean. He had a big day ahead of him. He was ready to MURDER.

And in a wordless, artfully directed, heartbreaking sequence, Cunanan ran up and shot Versace right there on his front steps. Several times. In the face. In other words, this ended up being not that great of a morning for him. Probably a Top 5 worst morning, if we’re being honest.

We then flashed back to the first time Cunanan met Versace, at a gay dance club in San Francisco. Right off the bat (which is a baseball term and therefore probably not relevant to this scene), we learned that Cunanan’s ambitions to hang out with a famous man were outshined only by his ability to lie and exaggerate the details of his own life. Despite Versace’s initial reluctance to talk to this weirdo nobody, he was eventually intrigued by Cunanan’s claims of Italian heritage and other rich-boy jazz. Cunanan was IN.

Except we then saw Cunanan replay the evening’s events to the skeptical straight couple he’d been living with, omitting certain details like how it’d been in a gay club (Cunanan was posing as straight to his roommates) and making it sound like Versace was picking HIM up. But I loved when the roommate dude looked at his wife and they rolled their eyes knowingly. Cunanan clearly loved to spin fanciful yarns, but it was also clear his friends were no longer believing his wild tales.

Like his college friend over here, who called him out for lying to everybody about not only his sexuality but also his ethnicity and social class. Except what he SHOULD have called Cunanan out for was his glasses that attached to only the bridge of his nose. What kind of Bond villain was Andrew Cunanan trying to dress as? Anyway, regardless of all this, he was verifiably invited to the opera that Versace had designed gowns for, and that meant he needed to HUSTLE if he wanted Versace to believe that he was knowledgable and worldly.

I am honestly not sure what those papery rectangle stacks are, but they appear to have “words” on them and in this case Andrew Cunanan was reading them? I don’t know, ask an old person. (I’m 57.)

But yeah, Versace seemed to be the only person in the world NOT skeptical of this young, handsome liar. After the opera, as Cunanan literally basked in the spotlight while onstage, he told tales of growing up on Indonesian plantations and a Bentley-driving gay father. Perhaps Versace could tell this dude was making things up, but he seemed intrigued by the improv. Cheers to con artistry!

One of the less-reported details of Versace’s murder was the fact that he wasn’t the only victim. Well, there had been at least four other victims before this, but there was another victim in this incident. That white dove! A white dove was murdered right alongside Gianni Versace, and that is the only thing that made this tragedy even sadder. Well, also the fact that Versace’s shoes fell off.

And then, in detail more graphic than any of us asked for, we watched as paramedics and doctors attempted to save a bullet-riddled Versace’s life. [Spoiler] They did not.

The sequences detailing the aftermath were visually clever and wrenching, from watching the surgeons peel off their gloves and exit the room, leaving Versace’s body alone … to the autograph seekers who literally sopped up blood from his front steps in order to create a souvenir to sell. But my very favorite was the woman who arrived at the scene in full couture and began to WERK behind the news lady.

Say what you will about her lack of propriety, but that lady had star quality.

For his part Andrew Cunanan seemed downright giddy with what he’d done, stalking through town spying on TVs and smiling at newspaper headlines. These were not the reactions of a remorseful, sympathetic person, and you can quote me on that.

Then somehow the episode got even BETTER? Because this was when Donatella Versace (Penélope Cruz) showed up to mourn, accuse, and succeed her brother in his business dealings, all with a barely understandable Italian accent. Seriously, Penélope Cruz is truly next-level. Hope she likes Emmys.

Speaking of incredible: Did you guys know Ricky Martin can ACT? As Versace’s live-in boyfriend of 15 years, he sobbed and projected misery like a seasoned Shakespearean actor. Adding to this particular scene’s pathos, we were brutally reminded that in 1997 people were still not comfortable with (or even cognizant of) the existence of gay relationships.

Even though the detectives were looking to investigate a murder, they seemed straight-up flummoxed by the fact that Versace had had male lovers. Worse, Donatella Versace decided that she didn’t want these details in the press, clearly believing that her brother’s homosexuality was a danger to their brand.

Actually, even way, way worse, was the fact that Andrew Cunanan was already a known suspect in other murders, but the police had plainly not done much about it, in part due to his and the victims’ homosexuality. Yep, that was a thing back then. Crimes against gays were frequently back-burnered or ignored altogether. In this scene, a pawn shop owner (played by the majestic Cathy Moriarty) saw Cunanan’s face on TV and then angrily alerted cops the fact that she’d reported him days earlier as having sold something in her shop. Yet the cops did nothing! Ugh, the ’90s were really horrible in certain/most ways.

But enough wallowing in the brutal realities of an unjust world — let’s talk more about Donatella! While obviously in mourning from the still-fresh murder, this episode made very clear that her business sense trumped all. Because Versace the company had been on the verge of going public, she now feared that power over the company would be taken from the family, so she and her other brother decided to keep it private. In my opinion this made for a good move, seeing as Versace is still sort of a thing these days. (Side note: I am not sure whether this miniseries will be reenacting Donatella’s Ice Bucket Challenge video, but here’s hoping there’s at least one episode devoted to it.)

This episode was also full of tons of extremely good and witty visuals, and that’s all credit to Ryan Murphy’s directorial eye. There were a lot of clever and downright beautiful details in this episode, but I loved elderly orange speedo man watching calmly as the Miami SWAT Team descended upon Andrew Cunanan’s hotel room. What was going through his mind? What was he thinking about all this? Hopefully we’ll find out in the next episode.

At the end of this episode Andrew Cunanan remained at large. A particularly filthy-looking Max Greenfield was found holing up in Cunanan’s room, so something tells me we’ll learn more about this guy. Cunanan himself had taken to roaming around Miami in a canary yellow polo shirt and matching hat, while grinning proudly at himself on the front pages of the local papers. It may have been a violent, inglorious, shameful way to achieve it, but this charlatan had really reached the next level.

“The Man Who Would Be Vogue” was quite simply one of the best first episodes of a show I’ve seen in a while. Relying on sweeping visuals over dialogue, and allowing gaudiness to exist beside sincerity, it gripped me right away. While we know this is not a happy story and it doesn’t end particularly well, it does feel as important and timely as ever, much like its predecessor The People v. O.J. Simpson. It remains to be seen whether this season will catch on with viewers and critics like that one did, but either way, it’s hard not to be grateful for something this special.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX

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