This week’s American Crime Story review takes a look at the latest episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Spoilers follow.
Jeff Trail made a brief appearance last week before being brutally murdered. On this week’s episode, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, we get to see Jeff’s story. This episode isn’t so much about Jeff’s murder – we’ve already seen that after all – as it is about the heartbreaking trajectory of his brief life. If last week’s episode, “House By the Lake”, served primarily as a bait-and-switch moment to show us what this season of American Crime Story was really about, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is the episode that truly underlines the thesis. It’s also the best episode of the season, without question.
First, however, we spend some time with Gianni Versace. In his first appearance after being absent for two episodes, Versace is in Italy in 1995. He tells his sister Donatella that he plans to come out during an interview with the LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate. Versace had never publicly spoken about his sexuality, and now, in 1995, he feels the time is right.
Donatella is not happy – she reminds Versace that they’re opening stores in countries where homosexuality is a crime, and she worries that the rock stars and actors and royalty Versace dresses may no longer want to be associated with the Versace brand. She also reminds Versace that when Perry Ellis was diagnosed with AIDS, people stopped buying his clothes.
This is the overall theme of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – coming out of the closet can be devastating. The lives of Gianni Versace and Jeff Trail are contrasted this week, and despite their similar sexual preferences, the two men’s experiences couldn’t be more disparate. By episode’s end, Versace will have come out comfortably, whereas Jeff will end up the first casualty of Andrew Cunanan.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
What makes The Assassination of Gianni Versace such an ultimately heartbreaking season of American Crime Story is the way it takes the time to introduce us to its victims. Yes, the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were tragic, but we never really met them as characters last season. The show kicked off after they had already been killed.
Technically, Versace begins after its victims have been murdered as well, but the show’s backwards-moving narrative device has the power to resurrect these characters from the dead. Only to snuff them out again. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is particularly brutal in this regard, because it spends almost its entire length introducing us to Jeff Trail; we want to stop the clock and keep him alive longer; stop him from showing up at David’s apartment to meet his cruel fate. But we can’t.
Andrew Cunanan arrives in Minneapolis four days before Jeff’s murder, and proceeds to bully his way into David and Jeff’s lives. David is sympathetic, but Jeff clearly wants nothing to do with him. Jeff is a former Naval officer working a dead-end job, filled with regret. When we meet Jeff here, we see him talking with a new coworker who was also in the military. When the new employee politely asks why Jeff left the Navy, he snaps. “I made the decision!”.
This leads to a flashback to 1995, two years before Jeff’s murder. Jeff is relatively happy with his life in the Navy, but he also lives with the fear that sooner or later, the secret of his sexuality will come out. This fear intensifies after he saves another gay sailor from being beaten by a group of other sailors. This one event triggers the path of the episode, as Jeff grows more and more intense and nervous that he’s going to be found out.
In one particularly disturbing sequence, Jeff learns that there’s a chance that another gay sailor is going to identify other homosexuals in the Navy. This sailor apparently doesn’t know names, but can recognize his sexual partners via their tattoos. This story sounds utterly made-up when you remove yourself from it, but for Jeff, in the middle of it all, it has a ring of truth. His solution is to try to cut a tattoo off his leg with a box cutter; an action that doesn’t go according to plan.
Later, Jeff’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, and he attempts to hang himself. This, too, doesn’t go according to plan, and Jeff eventually ends up at a gay bar, where he first meets Andrew Cunanan. Once again, we want to stop the clock; to warn Jeff that befriending Andrew will be the biggest mistake of his life. But Jeff is alone, in need of comfort, and Andrew – in his own manipulative, sneaky way – can offer it.
During the course of the evening, Jeff tells Andrew he plans to conduct an interview with the show 48 Hours about gays in the military – an action Andrew thinks is a mistake. “The Navy are going to witch hunt you, Jeff,” he says. But Jeff feels he has to go through with it. The interview Jeff gives is brilliantly contrasted with the interview Versace gives to The Advocate. As Jeff meets in a cheap motel room in secret, hidden in shadows, Versace is seen in a well-lit, expensive hotel. His interview with The Advocate frees him, while Jeff’s 48 Hours interview simply makes things worse. There’s no catharsis here; no emotional weight lifted from Jeff’s shoulders. Instead, he recounts how he saved the gay sailor’s life earlier in the episode, and adds: “It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought about taking it back, just so people wouldn’t know about me.”
Back in 1997, in the days leading up to Jeff’s murder, the situation between Jeff and Andrew grows more and more radioactive. Andrew is in Minneapolis, under the assumption that he, Jeff and David will spend time together. But Jeff wants nothing to do with Andrew. We learn that Andrew once sent a postcard to Jeff’s father in a feeble attempt to out Jeff to his parents, which has only made the relationship between the two men more strained. Yet Jeff is still nice enough to let Andrew stay at his apartment for a night while he crashes at the home of his pregnant sister.
The idea is for Andrew to vacate the premises before Jeff gets home, but Jeff finds him waiting there, at which point Jeff’s rage simmers until he can’t keep it tamped down any longer. He accuses Andrew of ruining his life, and says that he wishes he had his old life in the Navy back.
“They don’t want you,” Andrew says. “They never wanted you. I want you.” When Andrew adds: “I loved you–”, Jeff snaps, cutting him off and shouting, “No one wants your love.” It’s in this moment you can see the wheels turning behind Andrew’s eyes. You can see the decision slowly forming; the decision to kill Jeff. Andrew realizes that he can no longer manipulate Jeff; no longer use his lies to bend Jeff to his will. In other words, Jeff has become useless to Andrew, and in Andrew’s mind, there’s nothing left to do but end his life.
“No One Wants Your Love”
Andrew is mostly in the background in this episode, and that’s for the best. After two weeks in a row of his excessively destructive behavior, the character has long overstayed his welcome. Darren Criss continues to do great work on the show, but it was wise for American Crime Story to shift the focus away from him this week.
The star of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is obviously Finn Wittrock, who gives an honest, heartbreaking performance as the increasingly conflicted Jeff Trail. As a character, Jeff bottles up most of his emotions, and Wittrock does good work playing up all that simmering angst and rage. He’s even better when he lets the emotions come to a head and snaps, such as when he yells at a co-worker, or at Andrew.
Director Dan Minahan, who also helmed last week’s episode, goes light on the stylish touches this week. There aren’t as many dramatic flourishes in camera movement or placement, and that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps sensing that this week’s script, by Tom Rob Smith, was powerful enough as-is, Minahan knew it would be better to keep the direction subtle and let the actions speak for themselves.
We’re now moving beyond Andrew’s murders. The following episodes will travel back even further into Andrew’s life, and peel back the lies and deception to show us who he really was. One can’t help but think this makes The Assassination of Gianni Versace a front-loaded show, where all the true action happens in the first five episodes, and the back-half of the season is more subdued. Still, American Crime Story has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
– You can watch an excerpt from the real 48 Hours interview with Jeff Trail here:
– You can read the real Advocate interview with Versace here.
– While this episode is primarily focused on Jeff, the scenes we get with Andrew stand out due to Andrew’s desperate, unsubtle attempts at control and manipulation. At one point, Andrew and David go to a club to meet friends from David’s work, and Andrew spends the entire evening being loud and abrasive, constantly trying to get the upper hand.
– On next week’s American Crime Story, we see what triggered Andrew’s complete descent into murder and madness.
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