“Manhunt,” like the pilot episode, jumps back and forth in time and between characters, an approach that I’m still not sure totally works. Versace is still alive (save for a brief moment in the cold open that takes place after his death) and Andrew is on the run for a different murder: Lee Miglin. Yet “Manhunt” doesn’t, as I expected it to, then jump back to introduce us to Lee and everything that happened there. (That, presumably, will be in a later episode.) It just takes us to Andrew’s arrival in Miami.
What “Manhunt” does do quite successfully is plunge further into Andrew’s world, a blend of fact and fiction. It’s fascinating and disturbing (the best blend of Ryan Murphy’s strengths) the more we see how skilled Andrew is at lying, whether he’s breezing through a story about being a “fashion student” who wants to meet Versace or when he’s confidently telling new friend Ronnie all about how Versace proposed to Andrew. It didn’t work out, Andrew says with the casualness of a less-important conversation, but they’re still friends. His fictional relationship with Versace is so strong that Andrew becomes defensive, insisting that the more someone knows Versace, the more they’ll love his clothes. To Andrew, Versace is “a great creator—a man I could have been.” He doesn’t want to elaborate. (And that’s to say nothing of the mini-monologue Andrew gives a dancing partner at the end of the episode, able to confidently say he’s a banker, a spy, a propane salesman, etc. all in one breath.)
“Manhunt” also introduces one of the major real-life controversies surrounding The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: the fashion designer’s health. In Vulgar Favors, author and Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth alleges that Gianni Versace was HIV-positive and that she was told this, on the record (some people also believe this is why Versace’s body was cremated and rushed out of the country so quickly). Versace’s family denies it but Orth still stands by it. Assassination includes this in the cold open which flashes back to a sick Versace, accompanied by Antonio, getting blood tests and treatment in a hospital. Perhaps to give themselves some leeway, the episode doesn’t say it’s specifically HIV (Donatella did say Versace beat cancer six months before his death) but it’s more than implied.
HIV was heavily looming over the culture at the time so it’s necessary here—Ronnie is HIV-positive, and explains how he once thought he had only one month to live—but whether or not Assassination needed to include it specifically with regard to Versace’s unconfirmed status is certainly another question, especially as it feels a bit shoehorned into the cold open. But it does work in the conversation between Ronnie and Andrew: Ronnie is immediately open and talks with an underlying sadness; Andrew lies about how he lost both the “love of my life” and his best friend to the disease, both in one year. There is nothing Andrew won’t lie about in order to fit in, or in order to capitalize on people’s emotions and sympathy to make sure they remain on his side. (The earlier scene where he’s practicing “I don’t want to be a pain” for something as simple as switching his hotel room is telling, too. He wants to make sure he remains in the hotel clerk’s good graces—just in case.)
As for other series-long thematic elements at play, “Manhunt” brings up two in one scene: being closeted (which popped up last week, too) and BDSM. Andrew, in dire need of cash, picks up a businessman he meets on a beach—a man who readily admits “I can be submissive”—and goes back to his hotel. It’s vaguely reminiscent of both junior-league American Psycho and Murphy’s campier American Horror Story elements as Andrew wraps the man’s entire head in tape and listens to him struggle while dancing around in a speedo, all scored to “Easy Lover.” Jump to afterward and the man is visibly shaken from the encounter, quietly urging room service to come back in 30 minutes, and keeping his distance while Andrew enjoys some surf and turf.
As soon as Andrew leaves, the man bolts the door and calls 911… but he ends up not reporting anything. From the ring he slips back on his finger, the assumption is that he’s closeted and married to a woman—and if he reports anything, he’ll likely be outed. It’s an uncomfortable scene for a number of reasons, and one surface-level reading—that the limitations of being closeted helped Andrew continue for so long—doesn’t feel right. (As for the BDSM factor, well, truthfully I can’t speak to how it will play out in the long run with this season, but Orth’s emphasis on linking Andrew’s interest in BDSM pornography/activities to his murder spree was often frustrating to read in a way that made me deeply uneasy, but hopefully it’s done better here.)
Distilling “Manhunt” into one short recap is annoyingly hard, because it was telling so many stories at once, and some better than others. There’s the investigation and how agents claimed Andrew was a “predatory escort” who targets “closeted, older, wealthy” gay men, and assumed he’d be in Ft. Lauderdale rather than Miami, thus not allowing Detective Lori Weider to warn bar owners/community leaders in Miami (or to put up flyers, which the pawn shop employee would have definitely had hanging on her wall). There is Versace and Donatella’s backstage conversation which didn’t hit as well as it could, maybe because it was trying too hard to link back to his alleged illness or to hammer home what Andrew took away from the world (though that is necessary to reiterate!). However, Versace and Antonio’s conversations in which Antonio says that he wants just Versace, not the other men, were all lovely to watch and felt more natural. Ronnie and Andrew’s drug moments were just disquieting enough—Andrew’s abrupt taped-up shower was chilling—and Max Greenfield portrays Ronnie with incredible depth.
Mostly, I keep thinking about timeline. It doesn’t yet feel effective, but it is interesting that it mirrors how we often learn about serial killers: We hear their names, we learn about their murders, and then—if we choose to keep digging—we read their personal details (any relationships, mental illnesses, drug or alcohol abuse, etc.). Finally, if we stick around, we might learn a bit about the victims themselves. And that, too, is something that I keep thinking about while watching: How much time will Assassination dedicate to the victims? Hopefully, more than most true crime series, especially as it keeps unfolding backwards.
- Seriously, there are about 50 other things I’d like to yell about if I had the space. Dascha Polanco—an obvious standout on Orange Is The New Black—is putting out an effortlessly low-key performance, and I hope she becomes an ACS mainstay.
- The restaurant employee calling 911 on Andrew, but being unable to remember his name, and the police getting there just a bit too late reads so much like fiction, but it’s not! One thing about the Versace/Cunanan case that I am utterly fascinated by is how many super-close calls there were, and how often Andrew escaped unscathed.
- Okay, one final thing: The soundtrack is superb.