Photograph courtesy of FX.

Versace’s Killer Was a Male Inversion of the Femme Fatale

Episode four ensures we’ll never forget Andrew Cunanan’s first time—killing.

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Feb 13 2018, 3:48pm

Photograph courtesy of FX.

Warning: spoilers ahead. Read our recap of episode three.

Apparently not having overwhelmed myself enough already with the ugliness of Andrew Cunanan’s cross-country killing spree, this week I started reading Three Month Fever, Gary Indiana’s book about the case. “[A] synthesis between ‘the classic serial’ and ‘the classic spree’ killer,” writes Indiana in its preface, “Cunanan seemed less a threat to the general public than to familiar narrative genres and their claims to classicism.”

American Crime Story does not share the same disdain for a conventional crime narrative, nor for a classic serial killer trope. It does disdain conventional chronology, which helps explain why this week’s episode is dedicated to the Minneapolis-set murder that begat—or at the very least began—the spate of killings, even though it is the series’ fourth. Cunanan’s first victim was Jeff Trail, whose great misfortune stemmed from having slept with Cunanan’s intended long-term partner, and his sometime lover, David Madson. Madson, a young up-and-coming architect, bore witness to the crime, which happened in his gorgeous home: the episode begins with Andrew having lured Jeff to the front door. There are lingering, worrying shots of Madson’s photogenic dog.

Andrew Cunanan, a homme fatale, is both scorned and resentful of the straight world’s status quo.

The blows begin to rain the moment Jeff steps in. Ensuring we will never forget Cunanan’s first time, the sound design conspires to make us feel we’ve seen all twenty-seven hammer strikes. Blood Pollocks up the wall. It pools around the body like a wet, red joke: so bright and so extravagant in volume that it looks like Pop art, or a cartoon. Cunanan describes the killing as a loss of control, which would feel far truer if he did not say this in a voice so even-tempered and considered that nobody ever sounded more assured. If David calls the cops, he says, they will suspect him, too. The dog howls bloody murder. David ends up on the run with Andrew, looking even more like a conspirator than if he’d stayed.

A seducer, then a killer, Cunanan exists as a kind of male inversion of the hot-but-crazy femme fatale, whose unnerving affect tends to be mistaken for erotic freakiness instead of—well, just freakiness. Often, femme fatales are furious because they want to game the heterosexual system, which casts men as the deciders and the femmes, who ought to be obliging rather than fatale, as something men decide on. Sometimes, they are women scorned. Andrew Cunanan, a homme fatale, is both scorned and resentful of the straight world’s status quo. “They hate us, David,” he explains, fanning out gay porn as manufactured evidence. “They've always hated us. You're a fag!”

“He has this feline intuition,” David says at one point said to Jeff, an observation notable for the fact that almost no one likens men to cats. Cunanan, aloof and neat and perfectly methodic, is a cat. (With this in mind, I had expected him to kill the dog. Thank God: he does not kill the dog.)

Jeff, meanwhile, is a cute, blonde, jockish boy with close-cropped hair and an appealing but unmemorable face, which means he's nearly interchangeable with David. (Nothing stranger than white racists who insist that other races look homogenous, when most attractive Chrises and hot Laurens look—to me, at least—like variations on one milquetoast factory model.) Loving one’s own doppelganger might be the textbook definition of a narcissist, at least the way Narcissus happened to embody the idea; a sociopath like Cunanan might, under different circumstances, understand the impulse.

As it happens, Jeff and David’s interchangeability succeeds in throwing the police. They call the murder, first and with an air of casual disgust, “a gay thing.” They assume that David is the dead man, and a hookup’s gone far south. They’re half-right, in the sense that David Madson is a dead man walking from the minute he steps out with Andrew Cunanan—that while the latter sees their going on the lam as a lovers’ road trip, an excuse to sing along to Technotronic on the radio and fantasie about how Mexico will look at sunset, Madson sees a monster. One day later, Cunanan has killed him, too: strike one, and then strike two, of five eventual strikes.