Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace.
Photo: Ray Mickshaw (FX)

As The Assassination Of Gianni Versace winds down toward the end of its season, there is a lesser sense of urgency present throughout. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was the clear highlight of season two and these last two episodes—ugh, titled “Descent” and “Ascent”—haven’t quite succeeded in keeping up the momentum. Neither are bad episodes but both feel somewhat meandering and a little confused about what the ultimate thesis is (and especially so in comparison to the first half of this season, which was always interesting).

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Last week’s “Descent” saw Andrew rapidly spiraling out of control leading up to his murder spree and this week’s “Ascent” goes just a bit further back to show us his home life, and to sprinkle in some more background information. Simultaneously, “Ascent” also showcases Donatella (and some of Gianni) as she tries to figure out where she fits in within Versace™, which has become more pressing now that her brother is having health problems. While it’s nice to see Donatella (Penelope Cruz forever!), the episode doesn’t work as well as it could.

Donatella is a fascinating person, though perhaps more in real life than in Assassination (which is to be expected in a show trying to tackle this much in just nine episodes) which is the main frustration with some of these scenes. She remains in the background, as an afterthought. In “Ascent,” the cold open revolves around Versace pushing her to be more of a designer and less of an assistant. “You have the opportunity to be great and you choose to assist,” he tells her, though I wonder how much of that truly is her choice and how much of it is her falling into that role because the company and family dynamic demanded it. He wants them to design a dress together, reminding her that he’s sick and that she’s tasked with taking over the company when he dies. It’s a cold open layered with what they don’t know: that his death will be sooner and more sudden.

Later, we see the dress the two designed together (a dress I have seen a ripped-off version of many times during my Hot Topic years) as Donatella steps out into the spotlight of countless flashbulbs. Versace steps aside. But it’s not as successful as it seems at first; an employee later informs the Versace siblings that customers are “turning away from grandeur and showmanship” and instead looking toward “simplicity and practicality,” prompting a disagreement between Donatella and Versace. The argument is cut short when Versace suddenly loses his hearing and, later, we’re told he’s suffering from ear cancer. He’s going to take care of himself in Miami while Donatella deals with the day-to-day operations of the company.

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Michael Nouri as Norman Blachford, Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

When it comes to Andrew, there are two standout scenes in “Ascent,” albeit with different results. First, there is David and Andrew in the hotel together after they’ve had sex and are now sitting on the floor in comfortable robes, opening up to each other (or at least David’s opening up to Andrew). David tells the story of coming out to his childhood friend—a girl who confused his earlier actions with something more romantic—and how she felt betrayed and never spoke to him again. It’s a vulnerable moment for David, and for the whole show, and it speaks to recurring themes: how so many of Andrew’s victims were men full of trauma, loneliness, and isolation—all related to their sexuality. They weren’t able to live openly and, for some, when they finally began to explore a more accessible world, their lives were cut short. Assassination is best in these small moments of examining the trauma and weight of being closeted, or the climate of homophobia.

The second scene occurs after Lincoln brings home a self-proclaimed straight man from the gay bar. It’s already a tense mood as the man takes a step back when Lincoln takes a step forward. But when Lincoln decides to call him a cab and reaches out to take the drink back, their fingers touch for a brief second and everything shifts to something more sinister. “Ascent” goes into horror movie mode, complete with a sound cue, as the man beats Lincoln to death in a pretty gruesome scene reminiscent of Andrew bludgeoning Jeff Trail. As it turns out, Andrew is also in the house; the man tries to justify his actions (“He tried to kiss me,” which is certainly not true) and Andrew tells him to run.

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It’s a rough scene to watch but it’s also one that feels false and forced the more I sit with it. What exactly are we supposed to take from it? That Andrew is copying what he saw? That being closeted and/or internalized homophobia is dangerous? That police don’t give a shit about marginalized people (the later conversation with Norman—”You can kill us and get away with it” also feels too neat)? Because the other episodes have already made all of this pretty clear! And it’s true that Lincoln was murdered in real life (a drifter confessed to the police, though you’d never guess that from clickbait headlines implicating Andrew) but was this a necessary inclusion? It left me with a similar feeling to the scene in “Manhunt” when the businessman hangs up on 911, but it mostly left me wondering if the show just doesn’t have enough left in it.

See, much of “Ascent” is rehashing what we already know. We see Andrew cruise Norman, and then detour to Lincoln only to end up back with Norman. We see him repurpose David’s story for his own in order to win over Norman. We see him clash with his mentally ill mother while trying to leave. We see his charisma, yes, and we also see his selfishness and his violent streak. We see him lie and manipulate, over and over, but what sets any of this apart from the last few episodes? When Andrew meets David, it’s to show why David was drawn to him—but we basically already saw why during Andrew and Jeff’s first meeting. When Andrew smashes store-brand ice cream to the floor and exclaims “I want the best,” there’s nothing new about that note; it’s just hitting the same beat.

It’s strange that “Ascent,” which depicts everything from a fucked-up mother/son relationship to a brutal murder, feels like a filler episode but it does. Maybe it just feels that way because Assassination was so top heavy and this is a change of pace. Maybe the show is just simply running out of steam toward the end. But hopefully it was just a bump in the road, and it’ll regain its footing for the final two hours.

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Stray observations

  • If we’re being completely honest, the more I sat with last week’s “Descent,” the less I liked it! I don’t think either of these are bad episodes of television but just lacking in comparison to the first five. Or maybe all this murder and homophobia is making your reviewer just a lil cynical!
  • I would like to see more of the dynamic between Andrew and his mother (and his father, too, if they go back that far) because she’s such a strangely compelling person in Orth’s book, and I’ve mostly liked what I’ve seen of her so far.
  • Another good scene: Andrew at the escort interview, desperately trying to sell himself (he’s “clever,” “really fun to be around,” “well-endowed”) and basically getting inspected like he’s a pup at a dog show. She even checks his teeth! I do wish Assassination would touch upon the race factor a bit more—he’s denied because clients “rarely ask for Asians”—because being a white-passing Filipino who constantly lies about his background is a pretty interesting character trait to explore!
  • It’s a testament to Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez that I never outwardly groan at some of the cheesier lines (“This dress is not my legacy. You are”).

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