The trick with this season of American Crime Story is that we know the who, and the how, and the when, but we will never be able to do anything but speculate on the why. Cunanan left very few breadcrumbs. So the show turned to Maureen Orth’s book on the subject, which she by all accounts reported as well and throughly as anyone could, to fill in some of the empty spaces on the canvas. That meant making some leaps, which in the premiere led to the scene in which Versace and Cunanan chill in a club and at the opera in San Francisco, which never felt real even as we watched, in a funky way where you almost questioned whether it was a dream sequence. (Orth believes they had met at least once before, but — and this is partly because Cunanan was a skilled pathological liar — it’s impossible to know if it happened, much less if the version he did tell friends is true, or the one the show imagines of him pushing his way in with a cool falsehood about Italy, etc.) And here, it’s the HIV subplot.
The Versace family has always denied that Gianni Versace had HIV; to this day, per Vanity Fair, Donatella says he had ear cancer that forced him out of the public eye, only to have it declared cured six months before his death. That same story lays out that he became ill in 1994 and ceded some control of the company to Donatella, then rebounded and reclaimed his position six months before he died. That gels with the timeline of HIV/AIDS patients beginning to see results from a new drug cocktail. Both the producers and Orth had various sources off-the-record saying he had HIV, and that it was the reason the family rushed to have him cremated, but the dots can’t really connect beyond that.
Ergo, the show goes all-in on it, but the quotes about why in the VF article are much more impactful-sounding than the way it actually plays out in the episode. I thought the show seemed very disconnected from the idea the writers discuss about how Versace was a creator of life and of art, who’d confronted his mortality and then thought he’d risen again. To me, the sense of his sickness and health were very passively presented, and mostly just provided building blocks for tension between Donatella and Versace’s lover Antonio. The more poignant scene came from the parallel tale of Max Greenfield’s Ronnie, a wan junkie who meets Andrew Cunanan and he details the weird loneliness of being an unexpected survivor of the drug cocktail — and of believing you were going to die, then finding out you have a second chance and having nothing to use it for — while Cunanan alters his backstory once again to try and paint himself into that picture.
Darren Criss makes a good Cunanan, slipping coolly from one lie to the next, at times not wholly believable but in ways that suggest that’s deliberate (as he did, in fact, not entirely get away with it). In defending his admiration of Versace to Ronnie, he says, “When they told him what he wanted wasn’t possible, he just made it himself…. The great creator. The man I could’ve been.” By the end, he’s stalking Versace to a club, then repelling a man’s advances with a gaggle of intentionally obvious fake backstories that includes one truth (“I’m a serial killer”) before announcing, “I’m the one least likely to be forgotten,” and then, as we cut to black, whispering, “I’m ANDREW CUNANAN.” Given that there was an FBI manhunt going on for him already by this time, it seems silly at first that they’d write him so cavalierly trumpeting his real name, but it drives home Cunanan’s total insanity — both the sense that he might’ve believed himself bulletproof, and that maybe didn’t want to be, hungry as he was for a notoriety that he felt the world denied him any other way.
Oh, and also, this show LOVES close calls. There’s one with the dude Cunanan robs who balks at calling the cops, one at a sub shop where an employee recognizes him from a poster, and kind of one with the cop played by Dascha Polanco. The FBI, already searching for Cunanan for his other crimes (which I didn’t even know!), wants to focus on Fort Lauderdale and its supposedly wealthier group of marks; she eye-rolls that and then runs off a bunch of WANTED flyers on the sly because she thinks he’ll be in Miami Beach. I have no idea, obviously, how much ANY of that is accurate, but: Score one for the lady, even if they didn’t get him in time.