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Bad Dreams

FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” examines a lethal delusion.

Pari Dukovic/FX

Andrew Cunanan, who shot and killed Gianni Versace on the front steps of the designer’s palatial estate on the morning of July 15, 1997, was good at bragging. In the second episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, a new FX miniseries about the crime and the years that led up to it, Cunanan (Darren Criss) lands in Miami’s South Beach. It is the last stop on a three-month killing spree, in which he has already murdered four men in three different states. Boasting energetically to a new friend, he claims he was once engaged to Versace (he wasn’t), who took him to dinner at the fabled San Francisco restaurant Stars (he didn’t). He launches into a reverie on Versace’s gift for design, and when his friend replies with, “Sounds real nice,” Cunanan is not pleased. “I don’t see something nice. I see the man behind it. A great creator. The man I could have been.”

Cunanan’s curdled sense of self-importance runs through the next seven episodes of the series, which travel backward from Cunanan’s crime spree to his troubled childhood. His parents, a depressive Italian-American mother and a Filipino immigrant father, poured all their hopes into young Andrew. He slept in the cavernous master bedroom by himself and attended a swanky private school in La Jolla, California, even though his parents could barely afford the tuition. He wore a red leather jumpsuit to school on occasion and was voted “Most Likely to Be Remembered” in his senior yearbook, but his own page gave almost no information about him. Instead, he inserted just one quote, attributed to the French King Louis XV: “Après moi, le déluge.” After me, the flood.

Cunanan’s first victims were Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and David Madson (Cody Fern), two young gay men he met through the San Diego and San Francisco nightlife scenes when he was in his twenties. Trail, a former naval officer, befriended him when his ship was docked in the San Diego harbor. Madson, a promising young architect from Minnesota, and Cunanan had met in San Francisco in 1995, when Cunanan spotted him at a restaurant bar and sent a cocktail over. That night, according to writer Maureen Orth’s account (the FX show is partially based on Vulgar Favors, her 1999 best-seller about Cunanan’s crimes), the pair had a “nonsexual sleepover” inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where Andrew was staying thanks to an allowance he collected from a wealthy, older La Jolla businessman named Norman Blachford.

Blachford, whose partner of 26 years had just died when he met Cunanan, allowed him to move in to his mansion and decorate it, giving him credit cards, a $33,000 Infiniti, and a $2,500 living allowance. Cunanan was apparently ashamed of being a “kept” man but also flaunted his nouveau riches, spending lavishly on friends and acquaintances. When he met Madson, Cunanan felt a genuine emotional connection and obsessed over the architect romantically for the next two years. By the time Trail took a blue-collar job in Minneapolis, where Madson also lived, Blachford had dropped Cunanan, who was now alone. Cunanan flew to Minnesota, killed Trail with a claw hammer inside Madson’s airy loft, and then shot and killed Madson four days later on the banks of East Rush Lake, an hour outside town—perhaps out of jealousy or despair.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace sticks with Cunanan throughout his spree. Versace (Edgar Ramírez) and his longtime partner, Antonio (Ricky Martin), only appear intermittently, like pops from a flashbulb rather than fully developed characters. This feels purposeful: Cunanan was preoccupied with fame, perhaps to the point of psychopathy, and he put celebrity on a pedestal. He saw himself as destined for greatness, and it is this tragic misconception of himself that makes his story so very American. Versace was an openly gay immigrant, succeeding at the highest levels of American business. This must have enraged Cunanan, the openly gay son of an immigrant, who saw in Versace the anointed prince that he longed to be.

Shortly before the first episode aired, members of the Versace family distanced themselves from the new show, which they thought “should only be considered as a work of fiction.” In Vulgar Favors, Orth asserts that Cunanan had met Versace in San Francisco around 1990, when the designer created the costumes for a San Francisco Opera production of Capriccio. Although it’s not clear whether the two met only in passing or were much better acquainted, we see this encounter in a scene in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. If they had dated, as Cunanan often boasted to friends, Cunanan’s violent act may have been personal: Some reporters at the time speculated—with a homophobic slant—that Cunanan may have been an “HIV killer,” out to get revenge on former boyfriends. (A medical examiner later testified that he was not in fact HIV positive.) Versace’s family holds that he never met Cunanan, that the designer was a victim of his own fame and of one man’s twisted rampage against a sparkling culture that rejected him.

The second installment in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, the show doesn’t aim to establish which version is true so much as to expose the rot at the center of American culture—horrors that could only happen here. (Last season followed the trial of O.J. Simpson, dissecting the racial and gendered complexities of the case.) What we do know, from Orth’s book and from several other reports following the murders, was that Cunanan’s life was one of deception and delusion, of falsehoods and fibs and chicanery. He wanted to travel in the highest echelons of society, clinking glasses with socialites and captains of industry and cavorting on yachts. He didn’t like to work but loved to party, a less talented Mr. Ripley.

Throughout, Cunanan has to confront the mismatch between his aspirations and reality. From an early age, he bluffs about his background, telling classmates he is the son of wealthy aesthetes, that his father, Modesto (Jon Jon Briones), once served as Imelda Marcos’s personal pilot and that his mother has filled his lunch box with lobster tails. In the penultimate episode, we learn that Modesto has had to flee the country after embezzling fortunes from his clients. When Cunanan, now in his teens, goes to Manila to find him, Modesto is living in squalid conditions. Criss and Briones stare at each other for long minutes in this scene, filmed inside a tiny tropical shack. Cunanan realizes his father’s success was a lie, and that all of the confidence and self-regard he has absorbed from his bellowing belief must also be fraudulent.

Many people would experience this sort of trauma—the explosion of the family unit, the disgrace of a parent—and cave inward. Cunanan does the opposite. When he returns from Manila, his lies only get bigger. He claims that his father owns a pineapple plantation, that as son and heir, he is set to inherit millions. He tells friends that he has family in New York, Paris, and Rome, and that Signore Versace has asked him to travel around the world with him designing costumes. Even before the period when a quick Google search could swiftly puncture outrageous claims, all this bragging raises suspicion. In a conversation Madson imagines shortly before he is killed, he asks Cunanan to tell him one true thing about his life. It doesn’t happen. Cunanan was like a Gatsby so enchanted with the green light that he would kill for it, a man so bedeviled by the American dream that he became a walking nightmare.

Because the show tells Cunanan’s story backward, we often see his victims die before we get to spend time with them. We see Cunanan in the days leading up to the murder of Versace, then we see him bludgeon Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), a prominent Chicago real estate developer, in Miglin’s garage. We see him shoot a cemetery caretaker in Pennsylvania just so that he can steal his red pickup truck. When these victims appear again on-screen, beaming and unaware of their bloody future, it can feel like agony. They die in front of you all over again, and you are mourning them even while they are simply talking and moving.

The best episode of the series is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which follows Jeff Trail through the trauma of being gay in the military. In one scene, he tries to hang himself in uniform; in another gruesome moment, he takes a box cutter and begins to slice a tattoo from his calf, after hearing that officials can identify homosexuals by their body markings. The anguish and shame that Trail feels is devastating, especially as we know what fate lies ahead. He is forced to leave the Navy, but as he leaves, he gives an interview to a news program about the struggles of being gay and wanting to serve your country. The fact that this act of bravery—and its promise of a new, more open life—so closely precedes his death haunts the episode.

No one is safe in Cunanan’s world, but then, perhaps, it was never safe to be gay in 1990s America, even for gold-plated celebrities like Versace. The media of the time blamed the victim for his own murder as much as it blamed Cunanan. While Cunanan was “a killer on the loose,” Edward J. Ingebretsen has written in At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture, Versace was seen as “a different threat entirely, that of a profligate and well-traveled member of the upper class, whose mobility, like the killer’s, is also the stuff of myth.” The media wrapped Versace’s and Cunanan’s stories together, frequently drawing parallels between the two: both gay, fashion-obsessed men, enchanted by wealth. Yet they couldn’t have been more different—one of them created, while the other destroyed.

In the end, The Assassination of Gianni Versace belongs to Cunanan, because it is a singular story: the story of a boy who wanted everything in the world but never figured out how to get it. This is an American crime story, in that we see in the rearview how the consumerist ’90s could warp those who treated celebrity like a religion, how some were even willing to commit vile acts for a taste of rarefied air. Very little is, at its core, more American than that.