In “A Random Killing,” it’s the silence that stands out. There’s silence on the other end of the telephone as Marilyn Miglin leaves a message for her husband, not knowing that he’s already been murdered. There’s silence when she swings open the door to find her house just slightly off—ice cream left melting on the counter, a used but uncleaned bathtub. The noises we do hear—exploratory footsteps, Marilyn clacking her nails on the countertop—reinforce the eeriness of the situation. Marilyn barely flinches when a scream breaks the silence to confirm what she suspected. She stares straight ahead before saying, barely above a whisper, “I knew it.”
It’s a masterful cold open, anchored by Judith Light’s performance, and it sets up an episode that’s more focused than last week’s “Manhunt.” Where “Manhunt” was sprawling and scattered, “A Random Killing” has a clear game plan and a narrower focus, zeroing in on the murder of Lee Miglin and the immediate aftermath. Lee, a real estate tycoon, was Andrew’s third victim—second in the backwards chronology of the series—and the details of the circumstances are perhaps the most muddled of all his victims.
As I mentioned while covering the pilot episode, part of American Crime Story’s task is to full in the blanks left out of Maureen Orth’s book. Lee’s family—primarily his wife Marilyn (something of a Home Shopping Network celebrity) and his son Duke (an actor who had a bit part in Air Force One, released a few months after his father’s death)—have always denied that Andrew knew Lee (or anyone; Duke’s actor-status had some rumors swirling). It’s always been emphasized as a random killing, a robbery because Andrew needed cash and a car, and Lee had both. “A Random Killing,” despite the title, says otherwise.
In this narrative, Andrew is Lee’s escort and shows up unannounced. Lee feeds Andrew. They briefly catch up. The two flirt in a way that older, impressive men sometimes flirt with younger nobodies: Lee pulls out his plans for the Miglin-Beitler Skyneedle, posed to become the tallest building in the world, which we know was never built. “Do you think I really want to spend all evening listening to how great you are?” Andrew questions Lee. But a part of Andrew probably does want to hear it: He’s obsessed with power and money, because he doesn’t have it. There is so much packed into this little scene, such as the frustration in Andrew’s voice as he challenges Lee’s claims that Lee wants to be an anonymous man eavesdropping on happy people in the Skyneedle, rather than forcing his name and bravado onto the building. This anonymity is baffling to Andrew, the man least likely to be forgotten. The two have an interesting dynamic, both pretending and not-pretending that this is not about money, but instead a “genuine attraction” though whatever it is—either in real life or in the series—isn’t enough to spare Lee from a brutal murder.
In the garage, Andrew puts a glove in Lee’s mouth and tapes up Lee’s face the way he taped up the businessman’s last week (though a bit more careful in this instance). Lee puts his trust in Andrew the way he would with a dominant partner, submitting to Andrew’s assumed-foreplay because he can’t have expected it would go as far as it did. Whether or not this scene works for you, I think, may depend more on the words than the actual violence. No doubt that both are horrifying, but it’s Andrew’s agenda that’s bone-chilling. He wants to effectively throw Lee out of the closet, making sure that when someone finds Lee, his body is surrounded by gay porn magazines. “I want the world to see that the great Lee Miglin is a sissy,” Andrew says, leaning in close enough so Lee can hear him clearly without his hearing aid, “The great Lee Miglin who built Chicago, built it with a limp wrist.”
It goes back to this season’s recurring thematic element of the weight of being closeted, and maybe the somehow still-existing belief that people—people with fame and power, especially—owe it to the world to be honest and open about their sexuality, regardless of whether or not they want to. For Andrew, the episode seems to be suggesting, it’s almost unfair that Lee is celebrated for being something that he’s not: a straight family man. Andrew doesn’t have that luxury, and he wants to make sure Lee doesn’t, either. Like last week’s incident with the businessman, it’s a scene that I can’t fully parse just yet, or not until I have the finished nine-episode picture. It’s unsettling and queasy, which is certainly the intentions of writer Tom Rob Smith, but maybe in a different way than it’s intended.
Everything else in “A Random Killing” is easier to swallow, and it all works pretty well. Andrew visits a Versace store in New York City, as if test-driving Versace’s life. The police catch a break when they figure out they can track Andrew in Lee’s stolen car due to the car phone … until media botches it by revealing that detail to the public and, in turn, to Andrew who swiftly pulls over to destroy the signal. Another frustrating note regarding the investigation: When Marilyn lists the items that were stolen, she includes Lee’s gold coins which are “unusual and easy to trace” if Andrew brings them to a pawn shop, as he did in Miami. Later, Andrew commits another murder—one that better fits the episode’s title—in order to switch vehicles, this time shooting a stranger in the back.
Light, as Marilyn, gives an impressive performance throughout “A Random Killing,” teetering between stoicism and breaking down. Marilyn has only just started to mourn her husband’s death before police all but say it’s time to start mourning her sham marriage. It’s a hard task, playing a woman who reactions are all internal rather than external: “How can a woman who cares so much about appearances appear not the care?” she asks, aware of how her lack of emotion must be coming off to the public. When Marilyn does begin crying, only for a second before regaining her composure, it’s heartbreaking. But “A Random Killing” leaves some things open-ended. When Marilyn sternly says, “We have no family connection to this Cunanan. We’ve never heard of him. It was a robbery, and a random killing,” there are so many layers to the statement: Are we supposed to take this as fact or is she practicing what to repeat to the press?
- Major props to Gwyneth Horder-Payton who did a stellar job directing in this episode, truly capturing the suspense. The wide shot of Andrew dropping concrete on Lee made me actually jump and shut my eyes.
- Marilyn telling the detectives that she’ll allow Andrew to steal items but “he won’t steal my good name, our good name. We’ve worked too hard making that name and we made it together” is a powerful sentiment, especially put next to Donatella’s similar statement in the pilot episode.
- I’m glad the show is putting in effort to showcase victims’ backstories instead of just depicting the murder and moving on.
- That ending! Such a great, devastating ending!