Warning: This recap of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story contains spoilers.
The arc of time always endorses progress, but it’s amazing how long it can take to get from “no way” to “no duh.” Obviously, in 2018 we agree that women should be allowed to vote and people of color should have access to drinking fountains etc., but those basic things took decades of horrible, hateful ‘debate’ until they were suddenly accepted as common wisdom. Gay people can now serve openly in the military thanks to a ‘radical’ policy change by President Obama and it already feels like such a no-brainer that people don’t even really debate it anymore. Yet that policy change followed a hundred years of institutionalized homophobia, unreported assaults, murders, and dishonorable discharges. This week’s episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace whisked us back to those dark times and as difficult as it was to watch, it felt valuable and necessary to truly appreciate how much better things are now. Let’s talk about it!
We began with Donatella Versace completely queening out.
Gianni had just informed her that he was intending to ‘come out’ in the press, and rather than applaud him for his bravery, Donatella was VERY concerned about the company’s bottom line. In her opinion, the rock stars and literal royalty they’d been dressing would not want to be associated with a gay designer. That is obviously an insane line of reasoning today — A gay person? In fashion?? — but in her mind it made sense. Fortunately, Gianni was still feeling grateful to be alive after nearly succumbing to AIDS-related symptoms and in his mind coming out would be a celebration of life. It would also, it appeared, trigger a certain psychopath’s obsessions with him.
That same Advocate article in which Versace came out as a homosexual had been hastily taped up in the back of Andrew Cunanan’s closet. And considering his apartment was empty save for trash bags and tattered underwear, the presence of these magazine pages made clear that Versace was still on his radar in a big way.
Also, he was deeply in debt and he’d taken to shooting up heroin between his toes, both of which were bad signs. Andrew Cunanan’s journey had definitely taken a detour through some dark woods.
We then met up with Jeff Trail (an incredible Finn Wittrock) working at some kind of compressed gas factory. During a testy lunch conversation with a coworker, we gathered that his post-military career had been less-than-prestigious compared to his Annapolis peers and he honestly didn’t want to talk about it, thank you.
After conning his credit card company into allowing him one last purchase (a flight to Minneapolis!), Cunanan arrived attempting to resume his BFF-status with Jeff Trail and David Madson. But it became immediately clear neither of them wanted to see him. In Jeff’s case, it was because apparently Cunanan had sent a postcard to Jeff’s dad ostensibly OUTING HIM. (A true gay psycho power play if there ever was one.) And David was just straight up tired of getting proposed to by someone who made his stomach turn.
You know? Like, thank you for the $10,000 Rolex you clearly stole from a trick, but I’d rather not enter into a joint tax status with you.
Even though Jeff couldn’t even stand to look at Cunanan, he agreed to let him crash at his place. But he had no intention of actually being there, as he then couch surfed at this pregnant sister’s house. She was about to give birth any minute, and he was excited to become a proud gay uncle. There was not yet an Instagram back then, but just imagine all the gay uncle photos he’d post around the holidays! Things were looking bright.
It was pretty awkward when David took Andrew out that night, and Andrew couldn’t stop bragging to David’s co-workers that they were engaged. David had made the mistake of replying to his constant proposals with “TBD” but Andrew took that as a yes. Anyway, it was so stressful to me. But I DID enjoy this lady absolutely wailing on a clarinet. Go girl!
Back at Jeff’s place, Andrew was the world’s worst houseguest and immediately began going through all of Jeff’s stuff. He found the gun, obviously, but he also found David’s old Navy uniform along with a VHS tape of the CBS special he’d appeared in (anonymously) talking about being gay in the military. And even though to us it was a brave document of being a closeted soldier in a time when that could get you killed, Andrew seemed resentful and hateful toward Jeff, pointing a gun at the TV instead. Truly twisted.
We then flashed back to Jeff’s time in the Navy, specifically the series of incidents in which another gay naval officer was routinely assaulted by his comrades and only Jeff stepped in to stop it. Jeff was doing the right thing in helping his peer, but this immediately painted a target on his back for being another potential gay. And things got worse when gay soldiers began to name names in order to avoid dishonorable discharge. Or, in certain cases, named tattoos.
Oh god. Jeff cut off his tattoo with a box cutter. That alone should tell you how intense this was getting.
Around this time the Navy decided to kinda-sorta address homosexuality in the military by distributing comic books that dramatized “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At the time I think people thought this policy would protect the inner lives of gay servicemen, but in retrospect, we know that it led to more discharges and persecution than ever before.
So, yeah. Things were pretty bleak. (Spoiler: Jeff did not end up hanging himself in this scene.)
Ironically, one of the saving graces in Jeff’s turmoil came when he encountered a bright and personable guy at a local gay bar. The thing with sociopaths is sometimes they use their gift/curse for the betterment of others, and in this case, Andrew Cunanan was just the fun-night-out that Jeff needed to feel like himself. And over the course of several hangs, we got the sense that Jeff was ready to embrace his sexuality and even go so far as to appear in a television interview that could potentially get him kicked out of the military. In other words, he was ready for the runway.
Loved this visual reference to Get Out. I love that from now on, anytime someone eats Froot Loops while sitting cross-legged will be forever marked as a psycho. And yeah, when Jeff arrived back at his now-messy apartment to find Andrew doing this, guess what he said? “Get out!” Even though all those years ago Andrew had been a friendly face at a gay bar, he was now overstaying his welcome in Jeff’s life. And unfortunately for Jeff, he was too honest about this fact.
Because as we learned last week, after Andrew lured Jeff to David’s loft with the promise of returning his handgun (Jeff, c’mon. Did you really think Andrew had placed the gun in his duffel “accidentally”?) he suddenly found himself on the business end of a hammer. Really terrible.
And the tragic button was that while Jeff’s mangled corpse was lying wrapped in a rug, his sister went into labor and gave birth. Damn.
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was another wonderful exploration of the life and trials of one of Cunanan’s victims, and it was especially elegantly told. Tying together Versace’s coming-out interview with Jeff Trail’s staying-in interview was the perfect way to describe the exact nature of being closeted in 1997. If even wealthy, super successful artists struggled to make that leap, how on earth could an everyman in the military do it? It was an untenable situation, and like many other elements of gay life in the ’90s, it contributed to the environment that pushed Andrew Cunanan to commit the crimes he did. There’s still a long way to go before homosexuality is a non-issue with some people, but this episode was a lovely and painful reminder that things really have gotten better. Hopefully, we can keep that going.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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