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American Crime Story finale: The People vs. O.J. Simpson is a brilliant show about how we live today, set in 1995

For once, a TV sensation lives up to the hype.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson and his lawyers react to hearing the verdict in FX's dramatization of the trial.
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.

The People v. O.J. Simpson isn't a courtroom drama. It's not a campy retelling of the "trial of the century." It's not even a true crime thriller.

Okay, yes, it is occasionally all of those things, but as "The Verdict," the final episode of the 10-part miniseries, winds down, it reveals that The People v. O.J. Simpson is also something else: a ghost story.

The ghost that haunts the series, however, isn't any conventional spirit. It is, instead, the trial itself, the inescapable force that thrust a spotlight on everybody associated with it. On the whole, The People v. O.J. Simpson has a satirical bite to it, but "The Verdict" firmly situates its story in the realm of tragedy. Nearly all of the people involved in the trial — regardless of your opinion on Simpson's guilt or innocence — were destroyed by their association with it. It became the defining moment of their lives, and one that's been extremely difficult to escape.

Even more haunting than the trial, though, is the miniseries' final image: happy, smiling, living photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the two murder victims. Until this concluding scene, the series hasn't ever depicted them directly — not even as bloodied corpses, as many other crime shows would do. Somehow, the two people whose deaths the trial was supposed to achieve justice for were completely forgotten.

No wonder the trial itself haunts these people. It has unfinished business.

The People v. O.J. Simpson uses what we know against us

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
If it doesn't fit, you must acquit, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) insists.

I posited around the miniseries' midway point that its greatest trick has been to illustrate just how completely the O.J. Simpson trial predicted the modern world we live in, beyond simply the 24/7 nature of the news coverage that essentially invented many of the tropes of reality television.

But the series also cannily relies on that notion to stir terror in moments of particular importance — as when attorney for the prosecution Christopher Darden (a magnificent, magnetic Sterling K. Brown) suggests that, hey, it might be kind of fun if O.J. were to try on the famous gloves right there in the courtroom. Watching in 2016, we know the spectacle will doom the trial; back in 1995, Darden thinks he's just had a great idea.

This divide between people's great ideas and the failure we know they will yield is a hallmark of the period piece, but particularly of the period piece on television. Whether it's Mad Men or The Americans, TV is terrific at depicting characters who fall on the wrong side of history, who are doomed to fail simply because of their allegiances.

The People v. O.J. Simpson turns this benefit of hindsight into a near art form. Even Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), the attorney who successfully wins acquittal for Simpson by arguing, accurately, that the Los Angeles Police Department has a shameful history of abusing its power when it comes to black men, believes that he has turned the bright spotlight of the trial upon police mistreatment of black suspects.

Again, we know that Cochran is too hopeful. The Simpson trial was a momentary blip when public attention was focused, somewhat, on police violence. (Arguably, trial diehards were always much more interested in the spectacle.) What good Cochran gleans from the moment falls to ruin as surely as everything else, and the audience is left to ponder the irony that the man Cochran successfully set free with this defense strategy almost certainly committed the crimes he was accused of.

The series comes down on the side of guilt or innocence — subtly, at least

People vs. O.J. Simpson
The series ultimately bears great sympathy for the Goldmans.

Before The People v. O.J. Simpson began its run, its chief writers (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and producers (who include TV super-producer Ryan Murphy, also director of "The Verdict") insisted at a press conference that the series was officially agnostic as to Simpson's guilt or innocence. Sure, the early episodes seemed to suggest that he was irrefutably guilty, but later episodes would explain why the jury eventually voted not to convict.

And yet now that the entire 10-hour miniseries has aired, it's all but impossible to conclude that Simpson is anything but guilty, based solely on the text of the program itself.

All of the most compelling arguments assume his guilt, and The People v. O.J. Simpson frequently points out how the defense's strategies largely consist of distracting the jury from those more compelling arguments with flashy spectacle and labyrinthine conspiracy theories. (The members of the jury, for their part, seem to just want to go home after months of being sequestered.)

And yet I can sort of see what the producers were thinking all the same. The People v. O.J. might believe Simpson murdered two people, deep in its heart of hearts, but it also seems a little baffled by the way those murders led to such a massive spectacle, one that swallowed up a very real tragedy, along with dozens of actual people.

Guilt and innocence become immaterial in such a circumstance, because the narratives of these people's lives are taken from them and cast to the wind.

The series ends — as all true stories must — with a series of title cards that explain what happens to the trial's principal participants after it ends. And what's shocking is just how many of their lives seemingly end up twisted beyond recognition.

Former colleagues turn on each other. Others leave the law entirely. Still others die, far too young. Even Simpson himself is now in jail, albeit for a completely different crime.

In the end, the series dares us to find empathy for O.J. Simpson himself

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) gets a congratulations hug from Johnnie Cochran.

Simpson (played here as the ultimate enigma by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is also a key to the finale's most daring conceit: It devotes its entire closing act to Simpson's return to his home, where he learns his life has shifted irreparably. After essentially arguing that Simpson got away with murder, The People v. O.J. Simpson asks you to feel empathy for him over the way his life has been completely disrupted.

We watch Simpson cry after getting out of his very own shower. We see him ask after his two youngest children (whose mother was Nicole), only to realize Nicole's family doesn't want him seeing the kids.

And then we hang back as he slowly realizes that the old life he had, the one where he was pals with everybody else in Brentwood, is gone. He's seen as a murderer by his former compatriots — or, worse, as someone who threatened to rip off the bandages hastily applied to Los Angeles's racial divides in the wake of the police officers who beat Rodney King being acquitted.

The People v. O.J. Simpson ends on an enigmatic image — Simpson gazing up at the statue of himself out in his yard, the sounds of his football days echoing in his imagination. The statue looms as its own sort of ghost, a reminder of the life he once had as a celebrity. There's an almost religious quality to the scene; the statue is lit from below like a cathedral, with Simpson standing as its supplicant.

Of course, if you believe Simpson killed his ex-wife and another man, it's not hard to imagine he knit this fate for himself, even as he doesn't know all of the lawsuits and convictions awaiting him in the future. The characters of The People v. O.J. Simpson all have tragic flaws, tiny little pieces of themselves that can never be set right, which then get broadcast on a national scale, to be picked apart and analyzed by armchair psychologists at dinner parties. That scenario extends even to the title character, who wants only to be liked but hides a terrifying, volcanic fury.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is a rare thing — a genuine TV sensation that's also really, really good and only deepens the more you consider it. This is affecting, effective pop filmmaking, but once you start scratching its surface, you find so much more underneath. It feels like the best show out there about the way we live today — even if it's set in 1995.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is available for digital download or on FX Now.

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