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Friday
Feb092018

ACS: ...Gianni Versace: "A House by the Lake"

by Jorge Molina

The greatest strength of the second season of American Crime Story has become the amount of care, attention, and empathy devoted to Andrew Cunanan’s other victims. For the second week in a row, the show steps away from the titular Versace case to tell a self-contained story about the humanity of one of them. This week we focus on David Madson, a boy that Andrew was infatuated with...

Episode 4: “A House by the Lake”
This week’s episode takes place one week before the last one, before Andrew headed to Chicago to meet (and eventually also murder) Lee Miglin. We see that he has been staying with his friend David in an apartment that not coincidentally resembles a concrete prison. 

David is an up-and-coming architect (Andrew’s victims being builders and creators is a theme the show is clearly exploring), who was charmed by Andrew at first. He's started to see his rough edges and wants out. Their friend Jeffrey Trail (played by pretty boy and Ryan Murphy regular Finn Wittrock) shows up one night after being called upon by Andrew. “You can talk about me while you bring him up,” he says to David threateningly but, also, almost as a plea. 

And David and Jeff indeed talk about him; about how they are both sorry for and fed up with Andrew. They were both romantically involved with him at one point, but now are in love with each other. However, before this love triangle can reach any conclusion, they step into the apartment, and Andrew murders Jeffrey in one of the most chilling sequences that have ever played inside the Ryan Murphy-verse (and that includes 'verse includes someone bathing in their mother's blood.)

What follows for the rest of the episode is a contained psychological thriller; a small horror movie in which Andrew holds David hostage. First physically inside the solid rooms of his apartment, and then emotionally as they make their escape.

If last week’s episode explored the emotional burdens of being inside the closet, this episode is about feeling trapped outside of it. From the very start, Andrew dissuades David from calling the police or his father, because they will be biased against them. He instead convinces them that running away together will be not only the most convenient option for them, but almost a dream-like destiny.

It is never explicitly stated if, as they were both travel cross-country having left everything (including a murdered lover) behind, David ever really had any real hopes of escaping and making it out alive, or if he resigned himself from the moment Andrew was beating Jeffrey with a hammer in front of him, knowing he would eventually have a similar fate.

David goes through an emotional examination of his life, his decisions, and the roads that brought him and Andrew together. It is filled with melancholy, regret, and resignation courtesy of Cody Fern’s outstanding breakout performance. He makes David a paralyzed creature whose survival instincts are postponing an inevitable end. His eyes fill with quiet desperation as his hopes gradually flame out. Watch out for this guy; he’s going to be big. 

Up until this episode, Darren Criss has managed to effectively balance the psychotic and charming sides of Cunanan. In this episode he falters a bit. There are points within "A House by the Lake" where his take on this serial killer verges on the parodic. It’s confusing, too, since this episode takes place before the rest of what we’ve seen on the show, but Cunanan seems to be emotionally ahead of it in his choices. 

“A House by the Lake”, like last week’s episode, doesn’t touch on the titular narrative, other than revealing again why the manhunt for Cunanan eventually took so long. 

If the backward format of the show continues, we could go back further in time to explore Cunanan’s background before the murder spree, but it's more likely we return to the Versaces. Nevertheless, I hope the thematic explorations and nuances that the show has delivered for the last two weeks can be carried on into the more famous story. They’ve been insightful hours of television.

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Reader Comments (9)

David Madson a "boy"? He was 33 when he was murdered, and Cody Fern is about 30.

February 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s

Jorge, I'm enjoying your write-ups, thank you!!! I've also been enjoying the show, but I felt this episode was kind of terrible. There seemed to be no psychological credibility for David Madson to follow along with Cunanan that long. No matter who you are, once someone MURDERS SOMEONE WITH A HAMMER IN FRONT OF YOU, your flight instinct kicks in at some point? It just stretched beyond credulity to have him participate in so many scenes that felt there just for dramatic playout. And that dialogue was groan-inducing...that poor actor at one point actually had to say "or was i afraid of the disgrace? the shame of it all? is that what i'm running from?" the show is better than that. look forward to your future coverage (and having the show get back to penelope and ramirez!).

February 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

I am with EricB. Like, I am done with this show.

February 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'm gonna play the devil's advocate, but David's reaction is actually real and credible considering: a. Even if loved, he was still suffering for gay shaming, in part for his religious background and b. The homophobic scenario by the 90s. Believed or not, the 90s wasn't exactly a clear case of homosexuality after the AIDS paranoia and the return of religious bigotry. Living in my environement and work, I met cases like this one. Even when the survival element is there, people often commits actions contrary of that instinct. I had cases for mothers who suffered violence and watched how their couples damaged (Or in worst cases) killed their children and they were accused for not "being enough mothers" to protect them. The human nature is more complex and David's reactions, even illogical from a third Point of view, can actually happen.

February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLeon

Cal & EricB: Didn't this actually happen? I know some artistic license was surely used, but I was under the impression that the whole scenario is based on reality. Saying it isn't credible seems like a particularly odd critique. David Madson was a real person who truly didn't try to escape. Real people don't always react the way you think they will to traumatic events. I thought this was another well acted and disturbing entry to a season that has exceeded my moderate expectations. Wishing we could spend more time with Edgar and Penelope though.

February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDrewB

Leon and Drew B, thanks for the dialogue. I love a devil's advocate. I've done a bit of research on this: nobody has any real evidence of what happened between the two murders, and the script is completely imagined. I of course understand and agree that people are capable of actions contrary to instinct, and in fact, that would have been a compelling hour of television. but in my opinion, the artistic team of the show did not do a good job convincing me of the credulity of Madson's actions. i was Madson's age in the 90s and also gay, and while yes there was all the bigotry, it was never anything compared to staying with someone who murders with a claw hammer. and the way they scripted Madson's family, it was clear that although the parents were uncomfortable, they loved him and there was a feeling they were good people who were coming around. if they wanted us to understand Madson's contrary decisions, the artistic team could have kept the cameras on Madson when he decides not to escape from the bathroom...rather than cutting to Criss so we can get the "surprise" when Madson returns. that's the crucial scene in understanding Madson's decision to stay: why don't we see it? they lost me there, and again...with the terribly clumsy and overexplicit dialogue.

February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

I enjoyed this episode, even if I had a similar hang-up in suspending my disbelief that your first, last, and immediate reaction to a friend being killed with a hammer would be to run no matter what. I kept saying to myself that there was no way that this was how it really happened.

But the show kept putting more chips in on absurdity, to the point where I could embrace it, and see this episode as a "Mulholland Drive"-style nightmare rift on our need for delusion over what's obviously happening -- down to the "Club Silencio" scene with Aimee Mann playing "Drive" by the Cars. Since all the players are dead and we'll never know what really happened, I'm okay with this worst case scenario they played onscreen.

February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I enjoy very much this episode, although I’m with EricB in two of the things he pointed out. That awful monologue in the car and the bathroom scene and why he didn’t scape then. Aside from that I found the hour fascinating, mainly because it’s us unlike any other show on television right now. And on top of that, the actor playing David has been a pleasant discovery.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

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July 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnton

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