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American Crime Story wants to know what makes a person into a killer

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan.
Photo: Ray Mickshaw (FX)
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After the inertness of last week’s mostly-meandering “Ascent,” this week’s “Creator/Destroyer” is comparatively more interesting and has a clearer focus. And though Assassination is still into shoehorning in parallels between various characters, it works better here (and confined to the cold open) than it did with Donatella. A young Versace, in 1957 Italy, shows an interest in fashion design but is deemed a “pervert” by a teacher and a “pansy” by a classmate. At home, however, he finds encouragement from his mother to pursue his dreams which eventually led to, as we know, him becoming a success. A young Andrew, in 1980 California, is given special treatment (and a master bedroom!) by his father, and he’s explicitly told to always remember he is special because “when you feel special, success will follow.”


These similarities between younger Andrew and Versace—knowing they stand out, having interests that are outside the norm of “typical” boyhoods (and being made fun of for it), the parental emphasis on encouragement and success, etc.—are displayed so we can take note of how the two diverged into entirely different paths (and ask why; Assassination has a lot to say about parents!): of how one became a murderer and the other his unfortunate victim. So, yes, some of this is certainly retreading well-worn territory (the season’s biggest problem) but it generally works this time, as “Creator/Destroyer” almost functions as a origin story, pulling us into the depths of Andrew’s adolescence. It’s the episode that paints the most sympathetic portrait of Andrew, but the reverse timeline engineering of the series has—fortunately—ensured that we can’t commit to the sympathy.

What’s also pretty compelling about “Creator/Destroyer” is its depiction of an immigrant’s story—parts of which may feel a little familiar to other children of immigrants, as it did to me—through Andrew’s father, Modesto “Pete” Cunanan. Modesto has that specific patriotism of someone who was born elsewhere (Philippines) and came to the United States with the explicit purpose to make money, make a better life, support his family without stress, and provide his children (or, really, just Andrew) with the sort of life he never had for himself growing up. He served in the Navy, dealing with paltry paychecks just so he could be in the U.S. He’s obsessed with success and with looking the part—an obsession that that is partly born from needing to assimilate with the privileged white men he’s surrounded by. There’s a neat juxtaposition of him and Andrew, first side-by-side putting on their suits in a giant mirror and then interviewing: Modesto for a fancy job at Merrill Lynch, Andrew for a spot at the prestigious Bishop School. Both are men who are aiming for much higher than what they have, and both are men who are willing to take the easier, cheating route to get there—which is why it’s no surprise when we learn that Modesto is wanted for embezzlement.


The Assassination Of Gianni Versace hasn’t been shy about its assertion that Andrew wasn’t simply born a murderer—he wasn’t some childhood animal killer who just snapped one day, which is the narrative that is often told around serial/spree killers (though a few experts have said he likely suffered from an antisocial personality disorder)—but that he was sort of created, molded, and shaped into one due to a combination of his upbringing, his family, homophobia (both internalized and otherwise), class, lack of opportunities, desperation, and so on. “Creator/Destroyer” hones in on this view as it relates to his adolescence and family, largely through the lens of Modesto. Modesto pulls the old pretending-I-didn’t-get-the-job sitcom routine but becomes actually pissed off when his wife, Mary Anne, believes it—even basically threatening her with going back to the mental hospital.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Jon Jon Briones as Modesto Cunanan.
Photo: Ray Mickshaw (FX)

Modesto sets up the family as adversaries: Modesto and Andrew vs. Mary Anne (and Andrew’s siblings, who rarely appear); the soon-to-be-successful dreamers vs. the stale realists; the “special” Cunanans vs. the ordinary ones. (And, as we’ve learned through Andrew, there’s not much worse than being ordinary.) Modesto not only uses Mary Anne’s mental illness (depression, and maybe specifically postpartum after Andrew was born) against her by bringing it up as a means to shut her up or scare her into complying, but he also uses it as a way to bring Andrew closer to his side, effectively widening the gap between Andrew and his mother. After Modesto buys a car for Andrew (before he can even drive, and ignoring his older siblings), he basically warns Andrew about his own mother, saying she has “weak mind,” and that Modesto is tasked with making sure Andrew doesn’t end up the same way. He speaks about Mary Anne’s time in the hospital as a time when Modesto was both Andrew’s mother and father, as if wanting to make sure Andrew knows which one to take sides with. Modesto is also, unsurprisingly, abusive to his wife on more than one occasion, and in front of Andrew, which puts Andrew’s later sudden abuse to his mother in a different context: It’s what he saw growing up.

Turns out, Modesto does desperately need someone on his side because it isn’t long after the FBI show up on his front door, forcing Modesto to flee all the way back to the Philippines, leaving his family with nothing—no money, no security, not even the house. “Don’t believe a word they say,” he tells Andrew who takes it to heart enough to also leave the country and track him down. The scene in Manila is the most tense as the two essentially confront each other. It turns out the two were stuck in a cycle that Andrew didn’t know about: Modesto lied and cheated to get money for the family, Andrew bragged about Modesto’s success and needed the money to keep up appearances, Modesto fulfilled Andrew’s demand for money and appearances by lying and cheating, and Andrew would brag and, well, you get it. Andrew’s concerns seem to mostly be about how he’s going to keep on being Andrew—“If you’re a lie, then I’m a lie, and I can’t be a lie. I can’t”—which Modesto quickly seizes, retorting “You’re not upset that I stole. You’re upset because I stopped.”


The conversation quickly grows more contentious, with Modesto calling Andrew a “sissy kid with a sissy mind,” literally spitting on him, and smacking his son. It’s this violence—and Modesto explicitly saying “I’m ashamed of you”—that seems to flick a switch in Andrew, who grabs a knife (almost instinctively) but ends up only cutting into his own palm. It’s interesting to note the difference in how Andrew deals with these insults throughout the episode, depending on where they’re coming from: When a classmate calls him a “fag,” Andrew runs with it (“If being a fag means being different, then sign me up!”) and turns it into an opportunity to demand attention; when his father calls him a “sissy,” Andrew turns cold, quiet, and eyes violence.

The end of “Creator/Destroyer,” which is tasked with setting us up for the final episode, finds Andrew with his tail between his legs and applying for a job at the pharmacy. When he’s asked about his father by a fellow Filipino, Andrew lies to make Modesto seem better than he is—and we know that he hasn’t stopped lying since—which is a little neat. But “Creator/Destroyer” also leaves us in a weird spot: Where does the show go for the season finale? I’m assuming/hoping it’ll jump forward again, bringing us to Andrew’s end, but it seems like one hell of a leap.


Stray observations

  • Hey, it’s Magic Mike’s Matt Bomer’s directorial debut! Pretty solid job, if nothing too special, but he’ll likely expand his on-screen relationship with Ryan Murphy’s shows to behind-the-scenes as well.
  • Variety has an interview with Bomer about the experience that’s a neat read. I didn’t check it out until way after I finished writing this but this point has stuck with me since: “I wanted that to give you the sense that if Andrew could’ve just killed his dad, he wouldn’t have killed anybody else. That was a big part of the dynamic I was trying to create in the story.”
  • Also in this episode: Andrew meeting Lizzie for the first time, learning the name DiSilvia (which he’ll later adopt for his own), and that admittedly-fantastic red jumpsuit.
  • That was a pretty drastic jump from Edouard Holdener as young Andrew to Darren Criss as young Andrew, though Holdener certainly did a good job.
  • Some key songs: “Hazy Shade Of Winter” by The Bangles, “Touch Me (I Want Your Body” by Samantha Fox, and, of course, “Whip It” by Devo.

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About the author

Pilot Viruet

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Watcher, Degrassi.