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The People vs. O.J. Simpson episode 6: how the O.J. Simpson trial predicted the future

The FX miniseries argues the trial was the perfect harbinger of modern America.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden prepare their arguments.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," the sixth and (so far) best episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, head prosecutor Marcia Clark goes to the grocery store. She's newly bedecked with a hairstyle that's been met with much mockery. Everything about her foray into public life has proved exhausting and demoralizing, but there's nothing she can do to stop it.

While at the store, Clark buys tampons. The clerk, smiling and thinking he's making a great joke, says, "I guess the defense is in for one hell of a week." After what Clark has been through, her deadened eyes almost seem to write off his comment as just another insult.

But to the audience, it's yet more awfulness for Clark to have to endure, a sort of last straw. And the episode — written by D.V. DeVincentis and directed by Ryan Murphy — frames it as such, too. Not long afterward, we see Clark slumped on the floor, leaning against the wall, having a breakdown.

I know what you're thinking — that didn't really happen. I certainly didn't believe it did, at least not initially. A grocery store clerk being so openly crude like that, thinking it was acceptable? No matter how often the women in my life tell me about the abuse heaped on them from all sides via the internet, I still find myself stopped in my tracks by situations like this.

But that encounter between Clark and the grocery store clerk did happen, as per Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life, the nonfiction book that The People vs. O.J. Simpson is based on. The Run of His Life is often called the single best account of the Simpson trial, and Clark's encounter with the clerk is included as part of the season's overall strategy, which is to suggest that the trial wasn't a singular event in history, but a prophecy of everything that was about to come.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson explores race and gender — and the ways we sometimes pit them against each other

O.J. and Darden
Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) meet when the jury visits Simpson's Brentwood mansion.

"The Race Card," the fifth episode of the miniseries, opens with a flashback in which defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, at that time an assistant district attorney, is pulled over and forcibly detained by the cops, because he's a black man driving a nice car. The officers let him go when they realize who he is, but he's already been humiliated in front of his children.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson is a visceral reminder that the arguments we've been having over race and gender in recent years are in no way new — or even a result of the way the internet has made issues related to identity politics more visible on a wide scale.

After all, the Rodney King beating happened just a few years before the Simpson trial, and viewed in that context, the defense's argument that Simpson had been framed by police officers eager to fell a black celebrity seems brilliant. You can even see this strategy play out in "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," as Clark watches her carefully built case dissolve before her eyes due to LAPD incompetence.

But The People vs. O.J. Simpson is also fascinated by the way America so often pits race and gender against each other in a zero-sum competition that theoretically shouldn't even exist. After all, Simpson had been visited by the police prior to his divorce from his ex-wife Nicole Brown (whose murder he was charged with) because of domestic abuse allegations.

Consequently, two incredibly uneasy truths about American life are forced to do battle in Judge Lance Ito's courtroom: 1) women who fall victim to powerful men are rarely protected, and 2) American police are likely to target black men for suspicion for no particular reason. The genius of Simpson's lawyers is that they realize they can exploit the latter to completely expunge the former, before Clark and her team can figure out how to use the former to their advantage.

Clark and Cochran have emerged as the series' unlikely heroes for very different reasons. Cochran is the sort of colorful, ethically flexible lawyer we've come to love on so many TV shows. But Clark is recast in this miniseries as a Sisyphean hero, crushed by larger and larger boulders. First, she's deemed unlikable; then she faces increasing amounts of crude sexism that are treated as largely acceptable by the news media.

From the first, The People vs. O.J. Simpson zeroes in on the ways American women are forced to conform to certain roles and stereotypes. It doesn't really matter that Simpson, according to testimony, once pointed to his wife's vagina and said he owned it, because a substantial number of the jurors are mad at Brown for thinking she could be with a man like Simpson in the first place.

But it's also a series about how we're all public figures now

Sarah Paulson on The People vs. O.J. Simpson
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) finds herself suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

If there's one thing "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" conveys better than any other episode, it's what happens when the mass media turns its eye on someone who was previously a fairly private citizen. The resulting degradation and defamation of Clark is endless, relentless, and slightly terrifying.

And yet everything that happens to her — from her attempt to have a flirtatious friendship in plain sight to the crude insults she involuntarily fields from grocery clerks and radio DJs — has become something of a rite of passage for any woman in a semi-public profession in America 2016. In the wilds of the internet, any woman, whether she's a celebrity, a game designer, or a teenager just minding her own business, can become an unexpected flashpoint.

Plenty of people have argued that those who don't want the bad things that come with the harsh glare of the spotlight shouldn't seek it out. But The People vs. O.J. Simpson shows how hollow that argument is. Should Marcia Clark have refused to take a high-profile case though she loved going to court and trying cases? Should she have not done her job, just because there were news cameras hanging around?

The miniseries posits Clark, then, as a sort of ground zero for the ways that women increasingly find themselves denigrated by those who don't seem to think it's a problem to judge them based entirely on their looks. Certainly, Clark wasn't the first to have this uninvited attention, but in the world of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the sheer weight of the media attention meant that she stood as a very new sort of figure.

But this idea is also present in the series' closest thing to satire — the Kardashian children (whose father is on Simpson's defense team) growing up thinking the wild excitement of the trial is exactly what life should be like.

The wave of celebrity is everywhere, and it doesn't care whom it picks up

Clark and Darden
Clark and Darden find themselves enduring ever greater ordeals.

If there's one element of The People vs. O.J. that's been justifiably criticized, it's the idea that the Kardashian children are too self-referential and arch. And while that's sort of true — the show probably didn't need to include the scene where they chant and spell the family name — it also misses the fact that the series doesn't just want to be a time capsule. It wants to echo forward to suggest we aren't that much better than our forebears.

Celebrity is everywhere in 2016. Sometimes it is achieved through effort and work. But sometimes it just arrives, and whether you ride the wave or try to avoid it, it's still going to wash you away, along with everyone you care about. The People vs. O.J. Simpson doesn't see the Kardashians as some dread omen of what's to come — it sees them as the natural product of an environment where some people know the wave is out there.

It's impossible to know what The People vs. O.J. will ultimately conclude about American life — I haven't seen the finale yet — but in its first six episodes, the miniseries has increasingly dug into the idea that our worst demons weren't invented 20 years ago by a murder trial but have always been there, just without a camera preserving their ugliness for the future.

This idea isn't new; you'd have to be a dunce to not realize the US has struggled with race and gender throughout its history. But what's thrilling about The People vs. O.J. Simpson is its argument that the societal tensions that destroy Marcia Clark's case are the ones that give Johnnie Cochran what he needs to push back against a rigged system.

The camera can reveal police atrocities; it can also put a woman under the spotlight and expose her to harassment. The wave of sudden celebrity can be a source of much-needed momentum or a destructive force — it just depends on who's looking.

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