In some ways, the second season of American Crime Story is even more ambitious than the first, drawing upon Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors to detail the life and crimes of Andrew Cunanan, from his childhood in San Diego to his killing spree that culminated with the murder of Gianni Versace in Miami in 1997. The series opens on the day of the murder, and moves backwards in time from there, tracing Cunanan (Darren Criss) and Versace’s (Edgar Ramirez) lives in tandem as they are embedded in the 90s, the late 80s and then the entire panorama of late twentieth-century homosexual, gay and queer politics in ever more complex and inextricable ways. Yet despite the presence of Versace as a point of reference, the focus is squarely on Cunanan, with showrunner Ryan Murphy devoting roughly one episode to each of his victims, who in combination with the series’ other characters, might well represent the most diverse and expansive collection of non-heterosexual characters ever committed to a single audiovisual text – a panorama of non-conformity that by its very nature spans across homosexuals, gays, queers and all the other categories of sexual difference that are implicated in the very different trajectories of Cunanan and Versace, who are both, in their various ways, framed as transitional figures in sexual identity politics.
As that might suggest, the scope and sweep of this second season of American Crime Story is enormously ambitious, shifting between Miami, Minneapolis and the West Coast, while tracing the story as far back as Versace’s childhood in the 1950s and Modesto Cunanan’s (Jon Jon Briones) life in the Philippines both before and after Andrew’s childhood. In the process, Murphy presents a variety of characters who are defined more by their oblique relation to the categories built around homosexual identity in any one time period than by anything else – characters who may sometimes live up to stereotypes, to be sure, but for whom stereotypes are frequently and pointedly presented as the one mechanism they have for mediating their desires and identities to the world at large. Time and again, the series presents men on the verge of a romantic epiphany, or caught in a moment of fleeting romantic fulfilment, only for the prohibitions against homosexuality to come in and undermine them – not necessarily or exclusively through physical intervention, but through a blockage that all of the characters seem to experience, at one point or another, in terms of mediating their desire for pleasure to themselves, as if the prospect of long-term satisfaction is unthinkable beyond a certain point, imbuing the present moment with a finitude and a finality that dissociates homosexuality from any enduring prospect of futurity.
While the action may shift as the series proceeds, the orientation towards homosexuality is very much anchored in the tones and textures of Miami, which determines the overall look of the second season much as Los Angeles did for the first season. In a kind of hyperbolised version of the film soleil and Florida noir that was so voguish at the time that the events took place, Murphy doubles down on the elaborate crane shots and fluid tracking shots of The People v. OJ Simpson, building a palatial and operatic sense of space that finds its natural canvas in Versace’s house, and the entire Versace empire, whose sense of baroque extravagance – somehow very 90s and very classicist at the same time – suffuses the entire film with its sense of flamboyant yet tactful spectacle. In essence, Versace’s house functions in the same way as Lance Ito’s courtroom in the first season, signalling a point at which the distinctions between private and public life, and the discourses of social and identity politics, are forced to negotiate with one another – a space that is only exceeded, in that respect, by the 90s gay clubs that form a common denominator between the film’s different locations, and which are presented here as the most fluid zone within which private and public selves were mediated at the time Cunanan’s killing spree occurred. Within those spaces, Murphy’s baroque cinematicity feels like a way of outlining a mindset expansive and yet reticulated enough to be private and open in the same instance, imbuing his vast mise-en-scenes with a cruisey sense of hiding in plain sight that is even more pointed than in OJ.
For all those reasons, then, and with the addition of Ricky Martin as Versace’s lover Antonio D’Amico, Versace is an even more lavish exercise in 90s style than OJ, partly because it spans the entire decade and shifts amongst a number and locations, and partly because it features a number of architects, or aspiring architects, amongst its cast of characters, with Cunanan himself tending to be framed as a social and affective architect more than anything else. That 90s aesthetic is also intensified in and around Murphy’s depictions of Miami, which is here presented as the 90s mediascape par excellence – oversaturated and hyperporous at the same time, it seems to offer a multitude of lines of flight from the constrictions of the rest of the continent and the mainstream media, only for Cunanan to find himself constricted by the sheer hyperbole and intensity of its simulacral spectacle in the final episode, as I discuss in a moment. Yet this orientation towards Miami and the 90s – the two are the same thing – isn’t merely a matter of nostalgia, nor of Murphy and the series being haunted by the decade in a self-indulgent or self-aggrandising manner either.
Instead, Versace continues the project of American Crime Story as a whole – a project that started with OJ and continues here – of both historicizing the rise of identity politics in American culture, while also querying the conservative backlash against identity politics that has caused it to be dissociated from social politics in the contemporary political landscape. More specifically, American Crime Story is fascinated by the extent to which identity politics and class politics mediate one another, even or especially as it takes place within a contemporary discursive field in which queerness tends to be framed as the least significant of the discriminatory categories – the first category to be put aside, and the most disposable when political pundits appeal to a higher cause, whether that cause be conservative, such as nationalism, or radical, such as class action. In both cases, Murphy suggests, queerness is essentially discarded as a point of reference, and yet the astounding insight of American Crime Story is that queerness may well be the most privileged lens for examining class relations – specifically in its insistence class can only properly be understood as an intersectional phenomenon, and as operating through precisely those contingencies of identity that class analysis and appeals to class action so often homogenise out of existence.
For American Crime Story, media is where that intimate and privileged interplay between queerness and class relations plays out. It was no surprise that OJ focused as much on the way in which Marcia Clark was mediated to the public at the time, since only by focusing on that dissemination of her image could the real class relations of the case be brought into focus – relations in which OJ might be disadvantaged, to be sure, by his African-American background, but in which his status as a footballer, and his promulgation of a certain kind of normative hyper-masculinity, assured him a broader and perhaps an even more pervasive privilege within the operation of the case as a whole that has rarely if ever been articulated as clinically as it was with Murphy’s series. So too, it is with the second season, which pointedly refers to the death of Versace as an assassination, rather than a murder. That’s not to say, of course, that Cunanan is presented as having explicitly political motivations, or that the event is political in any direct manner, but that the series insists that his crime and his broader arc – like that of Versace – is not only inextricable from politics, but is the most powerful vision for considering how politics was mediated, and mediated itself, at this time.
To that end, Murphy frames the Versace case, like the OJ case, as a sustained media event, with the key difference that the manhunt – the most mediated part of the OJ case – is now expanded to the entire film, just as the ambit of the brief police search for Cunanan is distended by the entire backstory that unfolds between the first and final episodes. From the opening scene, in which a man takes a Polaroid photo of the Versace crime scene, and his wife then rubs it in Versace’s blood for authenticity, this media event is framed as a forensic heterosexual scrutiny of homosexual cadavers, or traces of homosexual cadavers, as Murphy spends an extraordinary amount of time on the meticulous examination, reconstruction and then preparation of Versace’s body for his eventual funeral. As with the first season of American Crime Story, the procedural element doesn’t stabilise this mediation, since the investigators are for the most part fairly homophobic themselves – not in the sense of openly discarding the importance of both Cunanan and Versace’s trajectories, but in a certain knowing detachment from homosexual witnesses and points of reference that sees a new level of indifference creep over the case as its inextricability from homosexuality, and the inextricability of homosexuality from broader patterns of political mediation, becomes impossible to ignore, and critical for comprehending the murder itself.
In that sense, Versace is suffused with a galvanising sense of what Eve Kosofsky described as shame consciousness – the kinds of subjectivity that don’t emerge so much from direct and physical oppression, but rather from the experience of being barely tolerated, the awareness that “first people weep, then they whisper.” For Sedgwick, that shame consciousness was in part responsible for the diversity of queer subjectivities – diverse ways of dealing with shame – and something of that diversity informs the second season of American Crime Story as well, as we’re introduced to a panorama and plethora of characters who have all managed to contend with shame in ingenious and often charismatic ways. Yet the beauty of the series is that it also continually yearns for, and often glimpses, a state of being beyond shame, with the epiosdes tending to get quieter and more burnished as the series moves back in time, as Murphy lingers on beautiful moments of haptic contact and skin-on-skin tactility between men that escape the shame matrix if poised and presented in just the right way. In fact the series’ sense of style and décor often plays as a way of poising things in just the right way for homosexual romance to flourish – so fragile and particular are the conditions in this context – just as Cunanan is primarily presented as an architect, a curator and an orchestrator; a point of mediation between homosexual men and their desires that sees him continually trying to deflect shame as a mediatory principle, both on his part and those of his lovers, but forced to internalize shame in ever more dramatic ways.
In that respect, both Cunanan and the possibilities of homosexual representation at this particular time reach their apex in the stunning final episode, which returns to Miami once again. With all of Miami Beach and South Beach shut off by police checkpoints, Cunanan is forced to take refuge in a houseboat on Biscayne Bay, where he is left with nothing to do but watch media versions of himself using an enormous projector that he sets up against an blank wall looking out over the water. Much of the last thirty minutes simply details what he is watching – news broadcasts about his escape, Versace’s funeral and, finally, live footage of the police closing in on his houseboat – as the palette grows pinker, the 90s décor is broken down into its most basic syntax, and the entire ambience of the film seems to dissolve into a lurid Floridian sunset that never quite leads on to the comforts of darkness.
In these final moments, then, Cunanan reaches the representational horizon of how homosexuality can be mediated at this moment, and his own capacity to function as that site of mediation. In a riposte to the more upbeat and inspirational depictions of queerness in contemporary media, then, Murphy imbues queerness with a sense of finitude – an awareness that queerness is both a privileged class relation and a privileged point of mediation for class relations that is always inevitably defined and contained by the mediatory conditions that subtend it at any one time. If Miami is the logical conclusion of the 90s – a mediascape – then it also represents the limit to 90s mediation as well, as Murphy concludes with a tacit warning against mistaking his excoriating vision for nostalgia. Hyperporous and oversatured at the same time, Miami here corresponds to what Sedgwick defines as one of the key elements of a close epistemology – feeling too visible and too invisible at the same time – as the lurid lighting seems to throw Cunanan’s face into horrific angularity but also relegate it to deeper shadows with every scene as well. The series ends, then, in the only way it can, with three gestures of closeting – three mediatory horizons – with Modesto Cunanan appearing on television to deny his son his gay, D’Amico finding himself denied as Versace’s lover at his funeral, and Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light) emphatically denying that her husband, Cunanan’s penultimate victim, was homosexual too.
While Miglin may be a minor character in the series – she only appears in two episodes – it is her denial that forms the closing note, as well as the most moving and resonant gesture of closeting. In part, that’s because she denies her husband’s orientation while appearing on live television, in her professional role as a television saleswoman. Her speciality is perfume, and in this last scene, she restores her husband’s heterosexual reputation at the same time that she unfolds a new brand, turning his identity and his desires into a fragrance that disperses across the mise-en-scene, partly absorbed into it, and partly exceeding it, but incapable of being properly expressed through it. And it is that fragrance that the hypersynaethesia of the second season of American Crime Story is ultimately gesturing towards – a sensory augmentation that both culminates exceeds the limits of what could be seen and heard at this point in time – limits that inevitably lead to Cunanan’s suicide here, but which demand the viewer to augment their own present tense in turn, or at least question the finitudes demanded of queerness as a class of experience in our own time too.