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A wrenching episode of American Crime Story exposes the cost of “don’t ask, don’t tell”

This chapter of the show’s Assassination of Gianni Versace season is its most pointed, political one yet.

Finn Wittrock as Lt. Jeff Trail, Andrew Cunanan’s first victim.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 11 through 17 is “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the fifth episode of FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

Perhaps the best way to describe this season of American Crime Story isn’t in words, but in one of its most frequent music cues: a long, eerie violin note stretching between major and minor keys, scratching at the screen like branches on a windowpane.

Sometimes the plaintive string slices through scenes to punctuate banal terrors, springing from the insecurity and paranoia engulfing its central characters. Most often, it creeps out of the silence as the camera fixes its gaze on Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the serial killer whose unnerving magnetism was his greatest asset and biggest tell. Every time, it is disorienting and terrible, piercing and unrelenting.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not, in other words, the pulpy recreation of Versace’s luxe life and shocking murder that many assumed it would be. Instead, every episode has been its own slow-building horror movie — and, thanks to a narrative structure that jumps backward through time from the murders to the events leading up to them, there’s little in the way of relief from the tension.

One of the show’s most distinctive throughlines is also the one that gets a particularly devastating showcase in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As the episode cuts between 1995 and 1997, just about every story hinges on the constant, grinding frustration of being stuck in the closet, the potential humiliation of getting unwillingly dragged out of it, and the paralyzing fear of malicious homophobes discovering the truth.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” centers on Jeffrey Trail’s constant, awful struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his patriotic duty

In the first three episodes, the closet loomed large as the bane of Versace’s career and a source of Cunanan’s caustic disdain. In the fourth (“House by the Lake”), the show dove into the past of Cunanan’s second victim David Madson (Cody Fern), heartbreakingly revealing his terror of coming out to his father. But the looming specter of the closet takes center stage in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which follows the tragic journey of Jeffrey Trail, a former Navy lieutenant and Cunanan’s first victim, to its violent end.

As played by a steel-jawed Finn Wittrock, Trail is a man bound by duty, determination, and a deep-seated fear of his peers realizing he’s gay. The episode tracks his experience in the Navy, his first encounter with a charming Cunanan in a gay bar, and his constant internal conflict over how to reconcile his sexuality with his chosen career. Casting a shadow of inevitable tragedy over the whole thing is Jeffrey’s introduction to the show in the previous episode, when Cunanan killed him by smashing his head in with a hammer.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is an unrelentingly wrenching hour. So much of it hangs on the terrifying precipice Jeffrey had to keep from falling over every day in the Navy, and his barely restrained fury at an institution he loves mistreating him so badly, before finally pushing him into the abyss of Cunanan’s rage.

Jeffrey Trail (Wittrock) and Andrew Cunanan (Criss) meet in the oasis of a gay bar.

There is a glancing attempt in this episode to tie Jeffrey’s struggle with being closeted to Gianni Versace’s, as both prepare for starkly different interviews in which they tell the truth. Jeffrey, his profile cast in total shadow, gives an anonymous interview to a CBS reporter in a dingy motel about being closeted in the military; Versace (Édgar Ramírez), accompanied by his long-term partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), sits down with the news publication the Advocate in a lavish hotel suite for his official coming out. Both men are resolute, adamant that this is the right thing to do — but both are also deeply scared, steeling themselves for the inevitable hell to pay.

More than anything, this episode highlights the value of the approach writer Tom Rob Smith has taken to American Crime Story, giving depth to Cunanan’s victims who didn’t make many headlines at all before they counted Versace among their number, and, more broadly, exploring the very real dangers of homophobia. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not the detailing of a murder spree as much as it is a taxonomy of gay tragedy,” Richard Lawson wrote in his review for Vanity Fair. “It illustrates the maiming effect of the closet and the ways a society’s codified reverence for money and clout can badly entangle with private yearnings forced into the margins, into the dark.”

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” lives in those exact margins. Terrified that he will be found out, Jeffrey clings to the heterosexual mirage the military forces him into — a violation it dares to recontextualize as his duty to uphold. The score’s creeping malaise lurks around the edges, swelling as his paranoia spikes, loading every stolen glance with imminent danger.

In just about every way, this episode makes the political wrenchingly personal

In a series of heartbreaking scenes, Jeffrey steps in to stop sailors from beating a gay peer into a bloody pulp and is immediately seized by terror that they might suspect he’s only doing that because he, too, is gay. (A fear that proves to be accurate.) One of the episode’s best and most devastating moments comes when he tries to comfort the gay sailor, finally allowing himself to be just tender enough — laying a sympathetic hand along the other man’s bruised face — that the man can understand he’s in the company of someone who intimately understands his pain.

Eventually, the episode circles back to Jeffrey’s relationship with Cunanan, revealing that they met during Jeffrey’s first time in a gay bar. In these moments, Dan Minahan’s direction takes on distinct point-of-view shots, adopting Cunanan’s concentrated glare when he’s angry and even Jeffrey’s reluctantly intrigued gaze at the bar’s glistening go-go boy. And yes, getting the context for why Cunanan snapped so hard at Jeffrey — jealousy over his relationship with David Madson combined with disdain for Jeffrey’s allegiance to the Navy that spurned him — is exactly as painful as it sounds.

But just like when it concentrated on David’s individual hurt in “House on the Lake,” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” makes its most brutally effective points when it trains its gaze on Jeffrey. If I had to pick one moment that sums it up, it would be when Cunanan accuses Jeffrey of being “confused ... and you don’t even know it,” and Wittrock’s face bursts wide open as Jeffrey finally lets himself explode. “I see it, I feel it, I hate it,” Jeffrey cries, looking for all the world like he just tore his own heart out of his chest.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is The Assassination of Gianni Versace’s most overtly political hour, explicitly laying out the traumatic effects of its titular policy and condemning the system that put it in place. When it digs this deep and this personal, it’s hard to argue the power of the series’ blunt-force approach to gay trauma — especially not when the history it’s retelling isn’t so long gone after all.

Being reminded that this sanctioned homophobia is much closer in our rearview mirror than it may appear, and in fact still exists in other forms today, is harrowing. But it also makes for a heart-stopping, crucial piece of television storytelling that rightfully recasts America’s history of homophobia as a violent and unforgivable crime.