American Crime Story Review: “Descent” Is About Love, and Even More So Its Absence

(Episode 2.06)

TV Features The Assassination of Gianni Versace
American Crime Story Review: “Descent” Is About Love, and Even More So Its Absence

Data point: Full-blown personality disorders such as sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism and borderline disorder tend to occur co-morbidly; meaning if you have one, you probably have at least two. (Narcissist/sociopath is a common constellation, as is borderline/histrionic).

Related data point: Most experts in matters of the human psyche agree that personality disorders are not congenital. They are forged, probably built in early childhood by repeated, systematic destabilization of the child’s developing ego. This fact could almost make you feel sorry for a person with a full-blown personality disorder, except that they are so effing destructive that feeling sorry for them is somewhere between insane in its own right and impossible. There are a few moments in The Assassination of Gianni Versace where the temptation to feel pity for whatever happened to create the freakish empty husk that is Andrew Cunanan is relatively strong. Several such moments occur in tonight’s episode, “Descent.” Then you’re inevitably visited by a character he’s killed in a previous episode, and all you can do is feel sorry for the whole damned world.

1996. La Jolla, Calif. Fancy car pulls up to opulent beachside mansion. Cunanan (the increasingly chilling Darren Criss) swaggers out of the car and into the house, cold and arrogant, swinging glossy shopping bags from Ferragamo, then strips naked and dives into a swimming pool. (Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” has never been used to more perfect effect.) He rubs leftover coke residue on his gums in giant walk-in closet, carefully wraps a gift, and gets dressed. Andrew is definitely living large, his creepy grandiosity in full flow. A situation you’d think he probably wants to maintain.

It is one year before the murders of David Madson, Jeff Trail, Lee Miglin, William Reese and Gianni Versace.

So, it’s Andrew’s birthday, and the wealthy older man he lives with is throwing him a lavish party. We’re not yet clear on how he scored this, um, gig, but Norman’s got some protective friends who don’t love Andrew, and when Andrew’s friend Lizzie (Annaleigh Ashford, whom we met in the season premiere) sits down with him, Andrew explains that the whole party is designed to attract David (Cody Fern) and he needs her to help make it look like Norman (Michael Nouri) is not a rich man he’s preying on in exchange for sex. He needs David. Loves David. “He’s a house,” Andrew says. “A home. A yard. Picking kids up from school… he’s a future. I’ve only ever dated the past.”

“Who are you trying to be?” Lizzie asks, plaintively. She cares. For a second, you almost care, too. You wonder what happened in his house, his home, his school-kid days, his past. Something creepy, no doubt.

“Someone he can love,” Andrew replies.

Wrong answer.

Data point: Sociopaths and psychopaths are very similar. But not the same. Both have unstable egos, a shifting and uncertain sense of self that can explode into abrupt displays of grandiosity, excessive risk-taking behaviors, wild tapestries of lies, or rages. Some people with these disorders are aware that they have them, aware that they do not experience normative human emotions; some are not. But a sociopath is highly unlikely to murder you; serious physical violence is in the deck with psychopaths.

I think if I could magically enter this narrative and save only one person from Andrew Cunanan, it would probably be Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), who at this point has left the Navy with very mixed feelings, still sees Andrew as a friend (and obviously has utilized him as a procurer) and shows up at the party with a hiking trail guide as a gift, only to be dragged into the bedroom and told to put on one pair of designer loafers and make sure David sees him giving Andrew the other. “I need him to see that I’m loved.”

“I do love you, buddy.”

“I need him to see that.”

Adding insult to injury, he tells Jeff that as far as David knows, Jeff’s a naval officer. “You want me to impersonate an officer?” The look of pain and confusion on Trail’s face as it seems to dawn on him that he has tied his coming out to someone who doesn’t remotely understand what it took for him to leave the military and now wants him to pretend to be the person he was when he had to pretend he wasn’t gay—wow, that is a stone with a wide, wide ripple effect. He’s so freaking honorable and good. You’d want to jump into the scene and get him the hell away from Cunanan even if you didn’t know his cranium had a blind date with a hammer coming in a year.

David shows up. As an architect, of course, he’s blown away by the sleek, capacious, glass-walled house, the lawns and clusters of banana trees sweeping toward the ocean—he’s wondering how Andrew’s pulled this off. Then, never one to disobey an order, Jeff “gives” Andrew the shoes, Andrew makes a humiliating fuss about them, and for some reason, with all his attention to detail, it has not occurred to Andrew that Jeff and David, two attractive, honest, non-desperate men, will hit it off instantly.

And it all starts to unravel.

Norman’s bitchy friend corners Andrew and lets him know he’s wise to his shtick. Jeff and David are enjoying each other’s company way too much. Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) shows up and Andrew makes a big display of not recognizing him. (Lee’s faintly desperate to be alone with Andrew; it’s also hard to watch, knowing what’s coming). Lizzie snaps a picture of all of them, Jeff and David with their arms already around each other and rage beginning to simmer in Andrew’s eyes.

After the party, Andrew sandbags Norman with a list of demands. Norman coolly responds that you don’t become as wealthy as he is without doing “due diligence,” and proceeds to out Andrew—he knows Andrew’s real name is Cunanan, not DaSilva; he knows he’s lied about his past and his family; he knows that Andrew targeted him, that they didn’t meet by accident. Norman’s composure and self-assurance in this scene are outstanding; he even offers to pay for Andrew to go back to college. “I’ll allow you all the lies you want,” he says, “except one: that I’m a fool.”

Andrew does not get his list of demands, smashes a glass table, and leaves in a seething rage.

Jeff Trail gets a phone call from his dad. Apparently someone named Andrew has sent him a weird postcard, suggesting that they’re lovers. Jeff confronts Andrew, saying the suggestive postcard felt “like a threat”: He grabs Andrew by the shoulders and yells, “Stay away from my family!”

Andrew’s amazing response: “I never realized you were capable of violence.”

Jeff tells Andrew he’s moving to Minneapolis—though it’s not for David, he says. He wants to be closer to home and he’s tired of the heartbreak of seeing naval ships in port. Andrew of course takes it in a spirit of goodwill and equanimity. Actually, no, he doesn’t. He sneers and acts betrayed and screams at Jeff to stay away from David.

Then he calls David and manipulates him into coming to Los Angeles, stages a credit-card-killing weekend at a five-star hotel with lobsters and a rented Mercedes convertible. He takes David shopping, buying him a wildly expensive suit. Over an extravagant dinner, David tries to let Andrew down gently. He says he believes Andrew doesn’t make a lot of positive connections and that he’s glad they’d had one great night together, but that they can’t just keep reliving their first date. In an attempt to see if they can take things to the next level, David asks for the “truth” about Andrew’s parents. Andrew gives a lot of sketchy answers. David says, “One day, you’re going to make someone very happy.”

Andrew goes back to the fleabag motel he’s been camping in since he left Norman. His failed attempt to seduce David has cost him almost $30,000.

In a bar, Andrew tells the bartender that David agreed to spend the rest of his life with him, then finds a drug dealer in the corner, asking him for “something stronger.” In the remarkable hallucinatory high that follows, he sees himself in a fitting with Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez). “I am the most generous man in the world,” he tells Versace, who obsequiously goes about the fitting while Andrew rails about how he has given people everything and been left with nothing. “This world has wasted me. While it has turned you into a star.”

“Was it the world, sir?” Versace replies placidly.

Andrew seethes: “We’re the same, you and me. The only difference is you got lucky.”
Gianni Versace puts the tape measure around Andrew’s neck. “Not the only difference, sir. I’m loved.”

Even high out of his mind on meth, Andrew Cunanan finds himself not measuring up.

And now the drug dealer wants money Andrew doesn’t have. So he goes back to Norman’s house. But he can’t get in. He screams at Norman through the locked glass doors while Norman calmly picks up the phone to call the police. There’s only one place left to go.

At least his mom (Joanna P. Adler) is happy to see him. She’s a little mentally unstable, but she’s glad to see him. She bathes him and sings an Italian lullaby, says he doesn’t smell like himself any more, and attempts to wash the not-him smell off. She tells Andrew how other moms are jealous because her son is touring the world with Gianni Versace, designing for operas. She is overwhelmed with pride over the things her son has done. Andrew becomes more and more visibly miserable. She doesn’t notice.

In the morning a seriously frayed and unstable Andrew Cunanan drives away, saying he’s going to Minneapolis.

One of the things that makes someone’s personality “disordered” versus “eccentric” is whether or not they are capable of internal validation. Narcissists, for example, have to constantly seek reflections of themselves in other people because they fundamentally do not know who they are; they lack a stable ego. Of course, there are lots of people who don’t have personality disorders who struggle with internal validation at least sometimes—hell, maybe it’s 100% of us. And probably everyone has had the experience of feeling rejected, unloved or unlovable. Maybe especially if you find yourself in any kind of demographic category that isn’t always accepted by others.

This episode is about love. Sometimes when people can’t locate any within themselves they have a hard time finding it in others. Occasionally, someone is driven actually insane by this, and might even do something unspeakable. We already know what’s going to happen to Andrew Cunanan. I wonder if he does.

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.

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