The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story Recap: Season 2, Episode 8, “Creator/Destroyer”
What makes the assassination of Gianni Versace a distinctly American story? That’s been the question at the heart of this season’s deep dive into not just the designer’s death at the steps of his South Beach home, but at the life of his killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). Moving ever backwards in time to fill up his entire biography, this week’s episode gives us an origin story of sorts for who Cunanan is and how his ideas about desire, power, and the American Dream were shaped by the man who raised him. Moreover, by beginning this episode with brief moments of Gianni’s own childhood in Italy, where he first learned his trade at his mother’s hands, the show yet again stresses what Cunanan claims to believe: that there’s little difference between he and Versace. But where the Italian designer’s empire is truly an example of the American Dream, with his humble origins eventually leading him to become a world-renowned designer with an ostentatious estate in Miami, the young Filipino-American’s life reflects instead the underbelly of such American ideals.
“Ask yourself,” Modesto Cunanan, Andrew’s father, tells those interviewing him at Merrill-Lynch, “How many of those Ivy League guys lining up to work here started from nothing?” His pitch to his would-be employers is focused on his own vision of what the United States had offered him. “My life is a tale told in dollars” that brought him from a small home in the Philippines to a suburban house here in America, “the greatest country in the world!” An ambitious man who values those dollars and wants his youngest son (though curiously, not his other children) to have the best of the best, Modesto turns out to be more of a Wolf of Wall Street-type guy – it seems Andrew’s penchant for lying and for valuing status (if not hard work) very much runs in the family.
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Complicating all this is the picture-perfect immigrant tale that Modesto always boasted about and which Andrew (as he does towards the end of the episode) weaponizes to his advantage whenever needed. To come into this country as a foreigner often requires the need to overemphasize one’s own Americanness. For Modesto, that didn’t just mean buying a big house and a great car but changing his name (he went by “Pete”) in order to take the focus away from what made him different in the eyes of those who had power, those who had money, those who had privilege. Having moved in to their new house, for example, he goes ahead and plants an American flag in their front yard.
That such thirst for fitting in and making a fortune would also be laced with a dose of toxic masculinity (“You were always weak,” he tells Andrew, outright calling him a sissy boy) as well as perverted sexual proclivities (it’s clear why Modesto gives Andrew the master bedroom and enjoys reading him bedtime stories there) just shows how much went into shaping this shape-shifting serial killer.
“I stole so I could be a father, so I could be an American,” he tells his son in an intense conversation late in the episode when all his lies have been found out and the Cunanans have been left with nothing. “You can’t go to America and start with nothing; that’s the lie. So I stole.” What’s more tragic, both for Andrew and for those who would become his later victims, is that despite raging that he wants to be nothing like his father, that he can’t stand to live in a world of lies, the once disaffected young man makes his way in the world precisely by craving that which his father always told him was rightfully his and trying to achieve it with the very kind of lies that had turned the older Cunanan into a fraud. It’s the kind of tale that, as Ryan Murphy’s title suggests, could only happen in America.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays on FX.