Warning: This recap of the “House by the Lake” episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story contains spoilers.
Entertainment doesn’t always have to be fun. Really, its main job is to provoke sensations in us that, even when unpleasant, help reframe our experiences or bring insight into our lives. That is how fictional stories can feel not only true but essential.
Most of “House by the Lake” transpired between two now-dead men, so it’s impossible to know the thoughts, fears, or inner lives of either party leading up to their deaths. But in spending an hour exploring the final days of David Madson (via a seering performance by Cody Fern), we know not only about his decency and humanity but about the life and (literal) death struggles of gay men in the 1990s. Aside from the camp value of the fashion scene (and Penelope Cruz’s instantly classic performance) there has been almost no fun to derive from The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great and important and endlessly heartbreaking. Let’s talk about this episode!
We began with what appeared to be a ’90s-era infomercial from the Minneapolis Tourism Board that strangely did not include any Prince music!
It looked like a nice place back then, and definitely not the kind of place where a senseless, gay-rage-fueled murder was about to take place.
This was one week before the Lee Miglin murder, explored in the previous episode. Andrew Cunanan was hanging out with his successful architect buddy David in David’s sweet loft. But apparently David had made two fatal mistakes: He didn’t like-like Cunanan back, and he had openly talked about his successful career. Those are Cunanan’s biggest turnoffs, if we’re being frank.
Making matters worse, David was clearly in love with their friend Jeff. (Finn Wittrock had a free afternoon at some point, apparently.) So when Cunanan summoned Jeff to the loft, it was not to hang out and watch Friends or ER. It was to murder him with a hammer right in front of David.
From this shocking and disgusting act onward, the episode became a tense hostage crisis in which a terrified (and heartbroken) David couldn’t get away from Cunanan.
Cunanan may not have been fully sane, but he fully had a gun. All David could do was pretend things were normal, that they were still hanging out, and look for any opportunity to sneak off.
The horror and sadness of these scenes were so overwhelming that I was borderline relieved when we got to see a close-up of the latex dummy meant to be Finn Wittrock’s body. It was so bad — and it looked like Andrew McCarthy?
Thus concludes the only remotely fun thing about this otherwise heartbreaking episode.
After Cunanan forced David to ditch the loft with him, a co-worker swung by to check on David and found blood stains on the buffed concrete. Later, when detectives arrived, we got the sinking feeling that yet again the investigation would be hobbled by their evident discomfort and unfamiliarity with gay people. Certain immediate assumptions were just Occam’s razor-type mistakes, like the identities of the victim and killer. But when they came across gay paraphernalia (including gay porn on DVD! In 1997!) it’s like they immediately wrote off the crime as part of some sick, gay underworld thing. When really it was just a psycho who murdered his friend out of jealousy — a thing that happens to 100% of straight people, according to Investigation Discovery.
The episode also explored David’s background, in particular his relationship with (and coming out to) his father. This included touching flashbacks in which young David signaled that he was not like other boys (in that he hated murdering ducks) and his man’s-man father assured him that was OK. I was already tearing up.
As he sat trapped in Cunanan’s passenger seat, David even wept when he thought about how now the world would know he was gay, and he wondered what his parents would say, or what their friends would say. Again, if you are not a gay person who lived in the 1990s, try to imagine feeling so terrified of basic existence in society. And in addition to that, imagine there is a disease decimating your peers. If there’s one thing we can take away from this (admittedly hard-to-watch) series, it’s that life was truly hell for a lot of good people back then. Because, man. He is literally a hostage but is now most concerned that his parents’ store will lose business.
In a lovely surprise, Aimee Mann ended up playing the folk singer at a dive bar Cunanan and David stopped into. While David considered trying to escape through the bathroom window, Mann sang a cover of The Cars’ “Drive” that verged on sublime. This guy knows what I’m talking about:
It had been a while since we’d seen Cunanan express anything resembling a human emotion, so this was unsettling. Part of him must have known he was past the point of no return. Yes he had successfully gotten the man he loved to go on the open road with him. But if we’re being real, he did not achieve this by very honest means.
In another flashback we learned that David had worked extremely hard in architecture school and won a prestigious award, perhaps mainly to impress his father enough so that when he came out to him, his father wouldn’t be overly angry. And in the scene where he finally did it, his father did express disappointment, but even more devastatingly, he seemed disappointed that his son couldn’t tell him this without also delivering “good news.” The whole thing would have been unbearably sad if the father hadn’t seemed like a decent, loving man at his core. So many weren’t/aren’t as lucky to have dads like that. Ugh, the ’90s.
In the episode’s final heartbreak (which we knew was coming), David attempted to finally rebuke Cunanan and run away from him. The episode allowed us to think he’d dodged Cunanan’s bullets and taken cover in a lakeside cabin, where he enjoyed one last visit with his father.
But no. He had not outrun the bullets. He’d been struck down right there, then finished off by a reprehensible madman.
Cunanan lay down to cuddle the friend he had just slaughtered, but from our perspective he did not deserve the companionship even a corpse would afford. Just ask this cricket:
For the past two weeks we’ve seen Cunanan embody every gay fear and insecurity (both society’s and gay people’s own) and use his warped mind to destroy upstanding, good men. Good men, the kind he could never be. A smarter person than me could write an articulate essay about how Cunanan was a product of his time, or a symbol, or whatever. But the more important takeaway from these two episodes, I think, was the greatness and dignity of Lee Miglin and David Madson. Though Cunanan ultimately wielded the tools by which they died, The Assassination of Gianni Versace wants to remind us that the world they existed in was at the very least complicit. It’s a dark thought, but a necessary one. And that’s how a show as complicated and frankly stomach-churning as this one is as essential as television gets.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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