There’s a surrealness to “House By The Lake” that manages to heighten the creepiness—and trust me, this episode is plenty creepy. From the bizarre opening advertisement for Minneapolis to that strange dream sequence toward the end, “House By The Lake” plays around with reality, all while remaining completely unsettling as we watch the cruel control Andrew has over the people in his life.
In “House By The Lake,” we see how the series is a character study that examines Andrew—without providing easy answers—and how it does so without erasing or justifying the horrible things Cunanan did. It takes place a week before Lee Miglin’s murder and introduces us to Andrew’s first two victims: Jeff Trail and David Madson. Andrew and David had once been in a relationship—some reports said that Andrew frequently claimed David was the love of his life—though they were broken up at the time of his murder. Post-Minneapolis ad, the episode is immediately tense and awkward: It begins the day after Andrew proposed to David and was turned down. When David, who goes downstairs to let Jeff in, explains this, he recounts that Andrew “said I was the man of his dreams, his last chance at happiness.” (It’s easy to think back to Andrew telling Ronnie that the “love of his life” died, though under different circumstances.)
Jeff’s murder is quick and brutal: Andrew slams the door shut the moment Jeff walks in and begins bludgeoning him with a hammer—27 hits. By the end, there’s blood on the floor, walls, all over Andrew, and even some on David who can’t do anything but stare, horrified. The dog barks the whole time. What’s arguably more chilling (and “chilling” is indeed the word of the episode) is Andrew’s calmness afterward, seamlessly switching from murdering to mothering. “Arm’s up,” he instructs David, the way you do with a child, taking off David’s shirt and putting him into the shower to clean off the blood. Even this feels surreal.
What resonates the most in this episode is watching Andrew post-murder—by all accounts, the first time he’s killed someone—with his stoic actions and conversations. When David understandable asks if Andrew is going to kill him, too, Andrew seems surprised with the question, as if it’s something totally absurd to ask a man you just witnessed murder another man. He dismisses the murder with “I lost control.” Andrew also tests his manipulation skills, attempting to guilt David out of calling the cops (and with a healthy dose of passive-aggression thrown in the mix too). “What will happen to you?” he asks with faux-concern. “I’ll tell them you had nothing to do with it, but what are they going to believe?” After all, Andrew explains, it is David’s apartment, and it was David who let him up. When that doesn’t work, Andrew calmly pulls out a gun but the threat is only visual, not verbalized, and Andrew doesn’t let up his original argument. “I can’t allow you to go to jail. I can’t allow this to destroy your life.”
Later, Andrew switches up the argument for not going to the cops: “They hate us, David. They’ve always hated us. You’re a fag.” I went into Assassination with the assumption that it was going to be a stealth examination on homophobia and gay culture in the ‘90s, similar to how The People vs O.J. Simpson was successfully built around race. The further we go (back) in this story, it’s slowly starting to appear that that’s the case. Even when in imminent danger—forced on the run with a gun-wielding murderer—David’s concerns are about how he was outed, even about his activities (Andrew left BDSM toys and magazines on the bed) and worries about everything the police will uncover about him. Will his parents still be able to live in the same town? Will people still frequent his dad’s shop? Throughout, we get glimpses of David’s internal struggle about coming out: the dreams he has about his father, explicitly wondering aloud “Was I afraid of the disgrace? The shame of it all?” (echoing Andrew’s future murder of Lee Miglin, asking if he’s more afraid of death of disgrace), and then that devastating bait-and-switch in the titular house by the lake where David finds a calm acceptance for only a false moment.
The episode also goes back to the flawed police investigation, which was a trend no matter what city the murder was in. When the building manager lets two detectives into David’s apartment, they do a quick run through of the crime scene where a body is wrapped up in a couch and pushed aside. Immediately, they assume it’s David’s body because it’s his apartment, his wallet on the counter, and his coworker who first sounded the alarm because he hadn’t been at work. Because of the scene on the bed, the police too-quickly chalk it up as some gay hookup gone wrong (“They do what they do, this extreme stuff, David ends up in the rug” Detective Tichtich says). And when they learn about dark-haired Andrew staying with David, Tichtich finally realizes that it isn’t blonde-haired David in the rug so now they assume that it was David who killed Andrew. This mix-up, compounded with the fact that the police then leave the crime scene to instead wait for a warrant, and that they don’t properly ID the body until it’s in the morgue, is so frustrating to watch. (And, if I remember correctly from Orth’s book, it was days before any of this got sorted out.)
But back to Andrew and David, where everything still feels unreal and terrifying: David with his hands out of the window to feel the air; Andrew singing along to “Pump Up The Jam” as if it’s nothing more than a carefree road trip with a friend, or a lover. He even says “I’m so glad you decided to come with me” as if David ever had a choice in the trip or his ultimate fate. Maybe David does, just a bit, because after he smashes a bathroom window to escape, he aborts his plans and returns to Andrew. Or maybe David just knows that he can’t escape—that Andrew would’ve somehow found him—or maybe he just isn’t sure if he wants to return and face everything. (Though he does try again later, but, well.)
“House By The Lake” is bookended by murders—Jeff during the cold open and David during the last few minutes—but we only see Andrew break down once, curiously while watching an acoustic cover of The Cars’ “Drive” (“You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong / Who’s gonna drive you home, tonight?”), before reaching out to grip David’s hands. But Andrew does “lose control” again after an argument in the car, pulling over to point a gun at the man he supposedly loves. Andrew shoots him once in the back, as he’s running, and the second point-blank through the eye. He cuddles with David’s body, as if trying to recreate a past moment the two shared, before walking away and heading to Chicago, where Lee Miglin lives.
- Darren Criss has been getting immense praise for his portrayal this season and this episode really showcases his talent, putting in a performance that is truly haunting from his even speech to his lingering stares.
- At least a TV series finally resisted the urge to kill a dog! (Though we still got a dead animal which is probably my least favorite trend in media right now.)
- The backwards formula is finally working for me now that it’s less convoluted and because we’re learning more about the victims (and it’s interesting to see the beginning pieces, such as Andrew’s references to visiting Lee Miglin). David’s flashbacks were a highlight, and hopefully next week we’ll learn more about who Jeff Trail was.
- So, the Versace family sure has disappeared, huh?