American Crime Story Explores the Real Meaning of Narcissism in "Ascent"

(Episode 2.07)

TV Reviews The Assassination of Gianni Versace
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<i>American Crime Story</i> Explores the Real Meaning of Narcissism in "Ascent"

Being nothing is terrifying.

Once upon a time, Donatella Versace wore a lot less makeup and dressed like a frump and tried to “assist” her brother, who took her to task for not being… him. “I don’t have time to be kind,” Versace (Edgar Ramirez) says to Antonio (Ricky Martin) in tonight’s episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “Ascent.”

“You don’t have time to be cruel,” Antonio replies. Donatella (Penelope Cruz) probably never realizes that the man she resents the hell out of was the catalyst for Gianni to help prepare her for his impending death by mentoring her.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is working at a local pharmacy, where the elderly Filipino manager tells him not to read Vogue “on his time.” Andrew’s getting restless. And angry. And experimenting with lying his pants off to a random customer, who seems singularly uninterested in how Andrew only works at the pharmacy because he’s wrapping up his PhD. At home, he violently berates his mother (Joanna Adler) for buying bargain-brand ice cream and then tells her he’s going to take care of her, get her out of the crappy condo and into someplace bigger, better, more important. After another long night of helping still-active Naval officer Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) get laid, Andrew gets an idea and goes to a shoddy-looking escort service. “I can’t sell a witty Filipino,” the charm-school graduate at the desk says. “Even one with a big dick.”

“Then I’ll sell myself,” Andrew replies.

In Milan, Gianni and Donatella share a totally non-incest-y—yet highly erotically charged— moment in the atelier. It’s something hard to capture, and this scene does a beautiful job of it: the distinctly sexual charge between a creator and a muse. I’ve never been a fan of Penelope Cruz, and I admit the real-life Donatella Versace gives me the willies, so for me to be riveted by a close-up of her, as Gianni slowly removes his belt and (in a curious echo of the hallucinated fitting scene in the previous episode) tightens it around Donatella’s neck like a dog collar, tells me something is going really right here. You can see rising pulses, galvanic skin response; her vulnerability, her fear, her insecurity, her love for her brother, a kind of blended submissiveness and power that seem to be filling her from simply wearing the mockup of the dress they can now both see in their heads. You can see him tightening his grip on that piece of leather as if it were life itself, a dying man who doesn’t want his vision to die with him, grasping at the still-unexpressed potential in her. He wants her to wear it. She says, “I’d look absurd.” They attend a Vogue gala in New York, and when Donatella unveils the dress, she instantly becomes the most fascinating woman in the room. You can still see it in her eyes, that she knows this isn’t really her creation, that it isn’t her real self—but you can see a shift beginning to happen. Whatever her mixed feelings, she’s finding her place in her brother’s world.

Back in southern California, Andrew Cunanan prepares to… sell himself, to a quartet of wealthy older gay men, at least one of whom is an AIDS widower. Andrew is good at selling himself. Two of the three men even seem to buy his elaborate story of having tried to make it work with a young wife but fleeing the marriage because he couldn’t live a lie any more. (The third, the acerbic David Gallo, makes it crystal clear he doesn’t buy any of it.) The other two men, Lincoln and Norman, find themselves vying for Andrew’s attention. Lincoln wins. Andrew trades his “availability” for an expense account.

Donatella returns to Milan flush with success, and the mixed reviews the eye-popping dress is receiving are all good news to her—Versace has never received this much attention from the press. But while people are gossiping about the dress, they’re not buying it. Economic downturn, desire for practicality. Donatella makes one of her first confident, pragmatic, and expansive suggestions—that some Versace designs have a runway version and a scaled-down, prêt-à-porter version for the everyday consumer. It’s a reasonable and wise idea, so Gianni’s response—a complete tantrum during which he rips pieces off the celebrated co-creation—cuts pretty deep, and only worsens when it becomes clear he is suddenly going deaf.

In San Francisco, with friends in a boutique hotel restaurant, Andrew explains he has become a “consultant” for an oil millionaire. Then he asks the group, “What do you think people in this restaurant see when they look at us, making all this noise, spending all this money. Who do you think they think we are?” But before the creepiness of that question has time to sink in, Andrew has noticed David Madson (Cody Fern) sitting alone at the bar.

In Andrew’s opulent suite upstairs, David’s almost ridiculously taken with the view, the potted orchids, the complimentary bedroom slippers. He’s nervous. Not as nervous as he should be, unfortunately. They hook up, and later David tells Andrew about a childhood friend who was bullied, how he’d promised to build her a house they’d live in together where no one could be mean to her again. “When I told her I was gay, she was so upset,” he says wistfully. “I guess she felt betrayed.”

Except it turns out that Lincoln’s a bit possessive and Andrew’s itemized bill makes it clear he was entertaining another man. He cuts Andrew off, picks up another young man at a bar, and brings him home. The guy says he’s straight, but he does seem to like money, and they end up at Lincoln’s house. The guy’s on edge, and Lincoln says he’s calling him a cab. Andrew walks in unnoticed. Lincoln takes the strange man’s drink. The guy snaps, and bludgeons Lincoln to death with a piece of sculpture. Then he realizes Andrew is there. “He tried to kiss me!” the man says in a daze.

“I know,” Andrew says, hands up. “You should run.”

At the theater where they first met, Norman invites Andrew to meet him and show him a memorial plaque he’s had made for Lincoln. Andrew explains that the killer has been caught, that he confessed to “snapping” and “losing control” when Lincoln made an advance. “And I suppose the police found that defense… understandable,” Norman says bitterly. Andrew talks Norman into moving to La Jolla from Phoenix. He tells a touching story about a childhood friend who was bullied and how Andrew had promised her that one day he’d be rich and successful and buy a beautiful house where they could both live. “I could do that for you,” he says.

Andrew’s mother simply can’t believe that her son’s leaving to tour the world assisting Gianni Versace in opera costume design. But then it sinks in that he doesn’t intend to take her, and she panics. She begs for an audience with Versace—he’s Italian, too; he understands family. She gets more and more worked up, and Andrew finally yells, “Stop it!” and shoves her into a wall. The urgent care doctor informs her she’s fractured her shoulder blade and asks what happened.

“It was an accident,” Mrs. Cunanan says tonelessly. “My son found me and called the ambulance. He’s always been a good boy.”

Andrew doubles over in tears.

In Milan, Donatella (now in her hallmark black leather and indoor sunglasses) explains that Gianni has a rare ear cancer and has decided to leave the company in her hands while he recovers in Miami. She reminds everyone how stubborn her brother is, that he will be back.

“We need to be talked about,” Donatella says. “If we are not being talked about, we don’t exist.”

Meanwhile, Andrew is moving Norman in to the glass-walled seaside mansion in La Jolla. “Ah,” he says, “if they could see me now.”

“Who?” Norman asks.


A creator falls (temporarily, for now). A destroyer rises (temporarily, for now).

While on the surface this would seem to be Donatella’s narrative, she’s really rather incidental to the story. This episode is about the drive to rise above one’s circumstances, but it’s also about the fundamental difference between a narcissist and a maker. Both might seek, be drawn to, find celebrity, money, access, privilege, attention. One of them does it by giving the world something. The other has nothing to give and resents the notion that he should. The myth of Narcissus is a poorly understood one; people tend to think Narcissus was in love with himself. Read the texts carefully and you’ll understand that his problem was of a fundamentally different nature—he didn’t have a self to love. The reflection in the pond that besotted and tormented him, the unattainable perfect Other, was his own face, and he didn’t realize it, and that failure of recognition drowned him. It drowns most of them, ultimately. It’s just a matter of how many people they destroy along the way.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.