Warning: This recap of the “A Random Killing” episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story contains spoilers.
Horror loses its bite when we learn too much about the villain. It’s not just that the unknown is always scarier than the known, it’s that we can’t help but develop a grudging empathy for a killer the more we get to know them. After Monster laid bare Aileen Wuornos’s many tragic tribulations before her serial killings, it became easy to forget she was a terrifying death-bringer for certain innocent people. Or in fiction, was there ever a bigger blunder than Rob Zombie attempting to explain Michael Myers’s childhood to us in the Halloween remake? Shockingly, finding out that The Shape had been bullied as a child completely robbed him of his terrifying, sharklike unknowability. But what happens when the reverse occurs, and a complex, borderline sympathetic villain is suddenly stripped back and streamlined into a dark void? Horror returns.
Three episodes in and it’s clear that Gianni Versace himself is only a side character in what is ultimately the horror saga of Andrew Cunanan’s crimes. But where the premiere introduced Cunanan as a verbal, witty, clever, and deeply troubled person motivated by jealousy and longing, this week reframed him as a straight-up horror movie slasher. His motives were opaque and unpredictable, his methods bizarre and hard to explain. I was terrified. Is there a chance the American Crime Story subtitle contains a typo? This week The Assassination of Gianni Versace was suddenly much closer in tone and effect to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. Which is to say, “A Random Killing” was one of the most disturbing episodes of TV I’ve seen in a while. Let’s talk about it!
We began with two women hawking perfume on the Home Shopping Network in the mid-’90s.
The perfume was ingeniously called “Pheromone,” and its mastermind was one Marilyn Miglin, the IRL baroness of a Chicago-area beauty empire. She was played here by the great Judith Light, who had been mercifully freed of her Transparent wig and personality. Judith Light was INCREDIBLE in this episode, which — though it was about the two murders Cunanan committed prior to Versace’s — centered the story around this woman and how she coped when her husband was murdered.
After her husband failed to pick her up from the Chicago airport, Marilyn arrived at her ominously empty house and recruited some neighbors to help check the place out. But from the long, tense tracking shots of the all-white, fancy home, we knew something was wrong. A stranger had been there. But what kind of maniac would leave ice cream out on the counter? The police definitely needed to be called! (Also there was a corpse in the garage.)
We then flashed back a week and met Marilyn’s husband, Lee, a well-respected and enormously successful commercial real estate developer. Right away we could tell the two adored each other, but in a married-my-best-friend kind of way. Lee was probably not interested in doing sex with Marilyn, but they definitely held hands in bed. We should all be so lucky!
Anyway, while Marilyn was away on her work trip, guess who swung by for a visit? Yep, Andrew Cunanan dropped in unannounced, and we gathered that Lee had hired Cunanan as an escort in the past. And though Lee clearly tried to be a gentleman toward his young companion, Cunanan took matters into his own hands. And in this case those matters were duct tape, a bag of concrete, and eventually a screwdriver.
Aside from brutally murdering older men, Cunanan loves to give a speech while doing so. In this case he monologued about how Lee was a powerful man attempting to build the tallest building in the world, but now Cunanan had power over him. So whereas we may have believed that Cunanan’s murders had been opportunistic, or methods for him to gain quick cash and stolen cars, it was now clear he was excited by the idea of destroying powerful men as a way of elevating his own status. Dark, dark stuff. And this extended sequence of torture and murder was one of the less pleasant things I’ve ever seen on TV. Poor Lee.
Rather than show you all that violence, let’s just settle for this image of Cunanan stabbing a honey-glazed ham! Think of it as sort of a metaphor for what had just happened in the previous scene.
Anyway, back to Marilyn. Her whole thing was, she was a sharp, professional woman who wanted the investigation undertaken in the most efficient manner possible. She verbally listed every item Cunanan had stolen from their home, and vehemently denied any knowledge of why Cunanan had surrounded her husband’s corpse in gay porn rags. The killer must’ve brought them, duh.
I also liked this strange moment when the investigators were asking Marilyn questions, but she just wanted to talk about her son’s burgeoning movie career. It’s almost poignant how in the midst of this tragedy, she was still trying to maintain her composure as a strong businesswoman and image protectress.
But of course, eventually she crumbled and gave a moving (and convincing) speech about how much she loved her husband, and that it HAD been a genuine marriage, despite whatever his leanings were. They’d been best friends and partners and each other’s support systems. And it goes without saying that Judith Light’s work was devastating in this episode. Hope she still has space on her mantel for more trophies, because dang.
Meanwhile, Cunanan was driving around in Lee’s stolen Lexus and browsing local Versace boutiques, which in my opinion is foreshadowing. But he soon realized that the built-in car phone was giving his location away whenever he passed a cell tower. It was time to find some new wheels!
And unfortunately for the poor undertaker who drove by Cunanan in a pickup, red was Cunanan’s favorite vehicle color!
Next thing we knew, he was following the man back to his mortuary, leading him into the basement at gunpoint, and then, well, you know. Truly heartbreaking. I have to be honest with you, I am not a fan of Andrew Cunanan.
We then ended with this moving scene, when Marilyn Miglin returned to the Home Shopping Network airwaves and memorialized her husband while clutching a bottle of her perfume. And while the juxtaposition of mixing pathos with consumerism could have been a salient satirical point, Judith Light’s pained emotions made it just simply devastating. In a series ostensibly about one famous murder, it’s clear Cunanan destroyed so many more lives than just Versace’s.
“A Random Killing” also served to make the point that many of the gay-related details of Cunanan’s crimes were swept under the rug in order to maintain reputations. Marilyn Miglin actively sought to prevent the press from knowing that her husband had known Cunanan prior to the murder, and while one can understand the protectiveness a victim’s family might have, it was this kind of public discomfort with gay men that hobbled Cunanan’s swift apprehension. Just another frustrating element to what has become an increasingly American horror story. (Get it? Like the show.) Great, if deeply unpleasant, stuff.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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