To be frank, I have come to find him so charmless that I nearly cringe any time he appears onscreen. I do not care for his petty lies — the Walter Mitty world in which he is the scion of a pineapple magnate, the builder of sets for the movie “Titanic,” the owner of a fabulous condominium in San Francisco — and, what’s worse, I’m starting to lose interest in how he turned into a killer. It will be a real challenge for this series to create a back story that makes Cunanan’s crimes explicable.
Unlike Episodes 3 and 4, which were effectively character studies of two lives upended by Cunanan’s malevolence, Episode 5 doesn’t have a singular focus. It begins in Milan, where Gianni Versace announces to his sister, Donatella, and to his partner, Antonio D’Amico, that he plans to come out, through an interview in the gay magazine The Advocate. From there, it jumps to Minneapolis, where Jeff Trail, Cunanan’s first victim, works at a propane plant, having been forced out of the Navy for being gay. It then moves backward in time to San Diego, where Trail, in his first visit to a gay bar, meets Cunanan.
The episode’s narrative arc connects the coming out of two men — Versace and Trail — who, other than being gay and getting killed by Cunanan, seem to have little in common.
Versace is depicted as wanting to show gratitude for being alive despite having received a diagnosis of what we’re led to believe is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. (The Versace family has disputed the notion that Versace was HIV-positive, as hypothesized by the journalist Maureen Orth in her book “Vulgar Favors,” on which the series is based.)
Versace shares his plans with his sister, who is worried that Versace’s coming out as gay will hurt the fashion empire he has worked so hard to build. She worries that “the rock stars, the actors, the royalty whose endorsements we cherish — they might not want to be associated with us.”
“You live in isolation, surrounded by beauty and kindness,” she tells him. “You have forgotten how ugly the world can be.” Their exchange reminds us how recently spheres that now seem safely liberal — Hollywood and fashion — were still hostile to open gayness, an aversion that is far from vanished today.
We first meet Trail at the propane factory where he works. A co-worker, an ex-Marine, learns that Trail worked on an aircraft carrier that was decommissioned after the first Gulf War. Trail says he misses the military life, and regrets leaving. The Marine, who was enlisted, is startled to learn that Trail, a Naval Academy graduate with two siblings in the military, left a promising career as an officer. Trail flies into a rage, shouting, “It was my decision!”
Trail’s back story turns out to be more complicated.
In 1995, he broke up a homophobic attack on a gay sailor who would otherwise have been beaten to death. For his valor, he was quickly suspected of being gay himself, and subjected to increasing harassment. In one cringe-inducing scene, he tries to cut off a tattoo for fear that it could be used by military investigators to identify homosexuals who have had hookups aboard the aircraft carrier; in another scene, he puts on his dress whites and comes close to hanging himself.
It was the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Clinton-era policy in which gay and lesbian service members were ostensibly tolerated as long as they did not come forward. The compromise was an uneasy and often dishonest one, embodied by a scene in which Trail is given a comic-book-style “training guide on homosexual conduct and policy.” Its title, “Dignity and Respect,” seems like a cruel joke.
Trail leaves the military and decides to give an interview to CBS News — his face is obscured — in which he comes forward about the agony of being gay in the military. If he hadn’t stopped the gay-bashing attack, he says, “no one would have suspected me” and his life wouldn’t have been ruined. “I did a good thing, and I can’t tell you about how many times I’ve dreamed about taking that moment back and letting him die.”
That interview is juxtaposed with the far more positive disclosure in which Versace tells The Advocate about D’Amico. It is an affirming and empowering moment, one that demonstrates the obvious point that coming out, while never easy, is vastly easier for some than for others.
But what does it add up to? That Versace and Trail both made sacrifices to come out as gay men does nothing to elucidate for us why they were targeted by Cunanan, or whether anything other than cruel coincidence cut short their lives at his hands.
We see glimpses of Cunanan’s potential to be charming, when he helps to usher Trail into the gay world at a bar. (Trail’s first time, as he reveals.) We learn that the romance, if there was any, quickly wore thin. When the two reconnect in Minneapolis a few years later, Trail’s sympathy is nearly depleted: Cunanan sent his father a postcard outing him, but claims that it was an innocent mistake. Back at Madson’s apartment, Cunanan gives Madson an expensive watch and declares: “You are the man that I want to spend the rest of my life with. Will you marry me?” Madson looks horrified.
“We can’t get married,” he says. “We can’t. You understand? Even if we could, we can’t.”
Madson urges Cunanan to stop telling the crazy stories. But Cunanan can’t let go of his delusions. “I told you I’m going to start a new life in San Francisco, and I just need someone to share it with,” he says. He is at his most vulnerable, but instead of doing what a sane person would — seek out the solace of friends and family, and perhaps professional help — he can’t let go.
He hovers outside Madson’s apartment, watching in anger and envy as the architect brings another man home. Later, in Trail’s apartment, he rummages through the closet and takes out Trail’s dress uniform, enraging him. “I don’t know you,” Trail shouts. “I don’t know what you stand for. I don’t know who you are. You’re a liar. You have no honor.” Confronted by the truth, Cunanan tears into Trail, calling him “a washed-up queer” reduced to “bitching about how you could have been someone.”
He continues: “When I found you that night at the bar, I was there for you, I saved you.”
Trail replies: “You destroyed me. I wished I’d never walked into that bar. I wish I’d never met you.”
We have yet to learn how their relationship soured, or what made Cunanan turn from cruelty to bloodthirst. But at this point, his character is so deranged, vile and incorrigible that I’m not sure I care to know.