The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story: “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Season 2 Episode 5 Review

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Still falling back in time, The Assassination of Gianni Versace keeps a firm focus on putting a microscope on various queer lives, with the aptly titled “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” putting the spotlight on Andrew Cunanan’s first victim, Jeff Trail. Introduced last week just before his murder, it’s not surprising that this episode dives into his life in the military just as the eponymous policy was making headlines and stirring controversy.

And “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is at its best when it’s showing Jeff’s trials as a closeted gay man in the navy in 1995. But it also jumps back to 1997 too often to fill us in on details that were practically all implied or outright stated in “House by the Lake.” The most justifiable connection here is that the ’95 scenes show us how Jeff met Andrew at a gay bar outside his military base while the ’97 scenes show how that friendship, which Andrew’s deluded mind took to be more, deteriorates even before Jeff’s murder.

What works better, however, as less of a direct connection and more as a enlightening parallel is how Gianni Versace came out in an interview with a magazine while Jeff, approached by CBS for a story on the subject, talks about his troubles as a gay man in the military with a shadow over his face to mask his identity to the public. Jeff and Versace are shown to be doing something very similar around roughly the same time, with the parallels between their respective emotional turmoil obvious. But the juxtaposition of Versace’s coming out in celebrity culture, still considered a shock back then, to Jeff’s forced stop halfway off the plank makes for a thoughtful, if obvious, meditation on what it meant to come out in the mid ’90s from two circles that couldn’t be more opposite. On one hand, it’s unifying. On the other, it exposes the unfair advantages and disadvantages of different corners of our culture.

The rest of Jeff’s story in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is only mostly effective thanks to a heavy handed script that’s just trying a little too hard to ring some emotion out of his difficult experience within the military. The navy was/is undoubtedly a tough place to be gay (not speaking from personal experience, but I know enough people family or otherwise in various branches of the military who spew some seriously homophobic shit), but Jeff’s struggle, while sympathetic, is never really rousing. Finn Wittrock also isn’t as strong of a performer as the other major guest stars that have populated the last couple episodes, but then he’s also forced to play exclusively against two-dimensional military cliches.

That shortcoming paired with the script’s need to fill in the nitty gritty details of the moments just before Jeff’s murder make “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” one of the weaker episodes of the season. It’s not bad by any means, but the last two entries gave us an idea of what level this American Crime Story can operate on. It just wasn’t in the cards this week. And so the season trips on its uphill climb and falls back a bit. There’s no reason it can’t climb back up quicker than before, but the show has also found itself out of Andrew’s victims to do a deep dive on. But what’s next for the uneven yet innovative season remains a mystery worth tuning in for. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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