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“The Verdict” arrives, and American Crime Story can’t change the past

Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance
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Here’s the thing: We all already knew how American Crime Story was going to end. We knew this from the opening shots of the pilot episode ad from before the series even premiered. That’s the inherent challenge built in to the true crime genre: How do you build suspense, increase tension, and create a powerful, gripping narrative if we already know the outcome? The answer, at least for American Crime Story, was to focus on the characters rather than the crime. And what’s more, to focus on the attorneys, the jurors, the judge, the speculating media, the friends and acquaintances and family of the deceased — focus on just about everyone except the alleged murderer standing trial. The trial of the century was the People v. O.J. Simpson but in American Crime Story, we witnessed everyone else take the stand.

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To downplay Simpson’s role isn’t entirely fair. Cuba Gooding Jr. was certainly game for the task and the scenes in which the focus narrowed in on Simpson — primarily through his uncomfortable-to-watch excitement in visitation when a testimony went his way or through reaction shots (sometimes unintentionally funny) in the court — were memorable. Cuba Gooding Jr. captured Simpson’s desire to speak up, to object to what he deemed slanderous, to urgently whisper to his counsel — even when he knew that he shouldn’t. But Simpson wasn’t the star of American Crime Story, just a background player, which is what made the season finale even more devastating as he celebrated his acquittal and maintained his innocence, as most everyone else around him sank into defeat.

“The Verdict” begins with Simpson getting dressed up for his final day in court. He waives his right to testify but Judge Ito allows Simpson to make a statement about that waiver in which Simpson says, clearly and succinctly, “I did not, and could not, and would not commit this crime.” Each side provides their opening statements: Cochran repeats his famed, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” mantra (the series provides a scene of Cochran slowly coming up with that rhyme and it’s so Ryan Murphy-dramatic that I love it) that’s permeated pop culture while Clark focuses on the evidence against Simpson. She mentions the fibers, the hair, the shoe size, the blood, the Bronco, the gloves. She brings up his domestic abuse history. Darden provides a poetic, graphic statement rehashing Simpson’s rage and the stabbing. “I’m not afraid to point to him and say he did it,” Darden says. The jury goes to deliberate and are back in four hours.

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And, well, we all know what verdict was announced.

What’s more important is the reaction to the verdict — the sobs from Ron Goldman’s mother, the relieved but haunting smile on Simpson’s face, the little hug from Cochran as he grips his client and pushes his head into Simpson’s shoulder. I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole of Simpson-related videos last week, from the above video of the verdict to multiple reaction videos of crowds hearing the verdict (in bars, Times Square, airports), which were in the episode as well. Perhaps nowhere is the racial divide of this case more visible, more tangible, than in a large crowd’s reaction. The black community, hands often clutched together in prayer, jumped up in celebration, yelled in glory and triumph, finally feeling like we had gotten a “win.” The white community, in contrast, were shocked and in disbelief, stunned into silence, shaking their heads and swearing. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, and yet.

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Of all the various reactions, including Darden and Clark’s, perhaps the most devastating is, surprisingly, Robert Kardashian’s. Despite my jokes about David Schwimmer essentially playing Ross Kardashian for a number of episodes, he ended up pulling some of the hardest work in American Crime Story. Throughout the series, we see him go from diehard believer that his friend — Uncle Juice! — was innocent to witnessing that belief start to slowly waver with every bit of evidence presented. You can see the wheels turning in Kardashian’s head with every odd comment that Simpson makes, every impossible number that the prosecution details, and every person’s failure to come up with someone else, anyone else, who could potentially be the murderer. The seeds of doubt were placed in Kardashian’s head and they were becoming far too numerous to deny. The verdict made Kardashian sick — literally — as he rushes to the bathroom to vomit in the sink. What should’ve made him feel relieved — his best friend is deemed innocent! — made his stomach turn — the court let a murderer go free! Kardashian never has to explicitly announce that he believes Simpson killed Nicole and Ron. He just has to exchange glances with Clark, and we all can see inside his head.

The verdict comes early in the season finale, allowing the rest of the episode to follow the aftermath. If there’s been a trend of the most memorable scenes involving a face-off between Darden and Cochran, then “The Verdict” keeps that up. Cochran tells Darden that he respects him, that he wants to help welcome Darden back into the community — an insult disguise as niceness. “This isn’t some Civil Rights milestone,” Darden says. “Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here. Unless, of course, you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.” During the trial, Simpson’s victory was seen as a victory for African-Americans. The system actually worked for him, instead of against him. It proved that maybe not everything was automatically broken just because of the color of your skin. The case further exposed what we already knew about racism in the LAPD and police brutality. But in retrospect, what did it solve? Not much of anything. The black person who most benefitted from it was a person who had run from his community, flaunted his wealth among white golf players and the very police officers who were attacking his black brothers and sisters, and who basically just lucked out. Everyone else? Still a little fucked.

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“The Verdict” beautifully shows that contrast between the winners and the losers. Cochran goes on to a party, where he’s celebrated with a plainly decorated cake while watching himself be praised on television show after television show. Darden and Clark, meanwhile, have a conversation in which he admits that he’s ready to resign and she reveals some details about her rape at age 17 and “this thing in me that wants vengeance for victims.” It makes a heartbreaking character even more heartbreaking, but there’s so much about American Crime Story that deserves to be praised because of its sympathetic, earnest, and balanced portrayal of Marcia Clark. She is someone who didn’t deserve all she was dealt that during case, but who did deserve a careful reexamination — and that’s what American Crime Story did.

That leaves us with O.J. Simpson. Finally back in his house, Simpson takes a shower before allowing himself to finally break down. What he’s crying about is unknown — is he relieved? Feeling guilty? Overwhelmed? All of the above? — but he cleans himself up and decides to celebrate. From there, we get glimpses of how different Simpson’s life is going to be from now on: Kardashian doesn’t stick around, he’s losing some of friends, the applause when he announces that his goal is to “find the killer or killers” is awkward and scattered, and he’s realizing how much he’s lost. The final shot hammers it all home, as Simpson wanders outside alone with a champagne glass and finds himself staring up at the same statue the cops stared up at in the pilot. It’s an eerie bookend, as unsettling and haunting as the entire series.

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Stray observations

  • So, uh, anyone think O.J. Simpson is innocent? Besides Martin Sheen, of course.
  • At least Simpson got a puppy out of the whole deal!
  • For real, though, I’m still in awe of this entire series and how it shattered all of my preconceived notions of Ryan Murphy (granted, he had far less to do here than any of his other projects) and became such a gripping, intense, beautiful rumination on race, the legal system, and the people involved who we so rarely heard about. Shoutout to everyone who read these reviews and kept it fairly civil in the comments! Hope I get to see y’all again when the series takes on Hurricane Katrina.
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