Critic's Notebook: 'People v. O.J. Simpson' Finale Captures the Hollowness of Victory

Verdict aside, the "trial of the century" had no winners as 'American Crime Story' wraps its excellent first season.
Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for the finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.]

Like many a writer, I'm not especially gifted at math. On Oct. 3, 1995, I was in my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, sitting in a core-requirement-fulfilling class with the ignominiously reductive name "Ideas in Mathematics." Those "ideas" included probability, number theory and, for no reason in particular, coding in BASIC, which was already a virtually useless skill (at least for a future TV critic) in 1995. I don't remember any of what I learned in that class and I particularly don't remember whatever we were being lectured about on that day. All I remember is the classmate who sat through most of the hour unabashedly wearing headphones and paying no attention. At a certain point, he suddenly bolted up in his seat and started waving his arm so frantically that the professor had no choice but to pause a droning presentation and acknowledge the student's contortions. 

"NOT GUILTY!" yelled the kid whose name I probably never knew and certainly don't know today.  

The professor paused, took in the deafening rhubarb of confusion, and surrendered the class 15 minutes early. 

Or at least that's how I remember the day of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

On Tuesday night's season finale of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and director Ryan Murphy finally hit the long-awaited verdict in The Miniseries of the Spring's depiction of The Trial of the Century and, not to let my former college chum spoil the surprise for you, but …

NOT GUILTY!

The People v. O.J. Simpson has cemented its place as the year's buzziest TV event on the virtue of spectacular performances and grounded-yet-sensationalistic depictions of an event that a hefty portion of FX's target demographic doesn't even remember having witnessed in the first person. Tuesday's finale certainly maintained the performances, but dramatically, it was exactly the relative anticlimax the story probably required.

Recent episodes have expertly captured the adrenaline spikes of the trial. The spectacular "Conspiracy Theories" climaxed in the defense goading Christopher Darden into getting the Juice to try on a glove that, as you may have heard, didn't fit. "A Jury in Jail," maybe my favorite episode of the series, looked at the mania that results from extended sequestration and also included the disastrous unspooling of the prosecution's DNA evidence. "Manna From Heaven" had the nadir of the Mark Fuhrman tapes, a moment of such ugliness it generates cringing. 

But Tuesday's finale, "The Verdict," placed its title event in the middle of the episode, rather than at the end, as a culmination. As we saw in "A Jury in Jail," the men and women entrusted with determining O.J. Simpson's fate had had enough. Months of trial led to four hours of deliberation and the choice of guilt or innocence ultimately became more of a surrender. They didn't want to be there anymore, beyond accepting one last free lunch. They'd made up their minds for reasons either based on the evidence presented or based on their own sense of right and wrong or based on a desire to go home. The FX finale included only a few minutes in the jury room, but that was proportionally representative. The trial was a loaded firearm, but the verdict was a gag pistol with an unfurled flag sending O.J. home — even if most of America was in no way convinced of his innocence. 

Injustice can often be climactic, but in this case, it was a conflicted type of injustice, which explains why The People v. O.J. Simpson hits its more traditionally "fun" beats in the first half of the episode, including Johnnie Cochran workshopping his closing with the temporary mantra, "If the glove's too small, easy call," but closed with a challenge to audience reactions. 

Most of the heart of the episode stuck very closely to the reality of the closing arguments themselves. Murphy, who has done some of his best directing on this series, expertly built the prosecution's case as Marcia Clark and Darden presented it, alternating between traditional televisual compositions and more cinematic low-angle shots to show both what audiences were getting at home, but also the passionate heroism of these heroes who we know are doomed the second Cochran bursts to his feet with the declaration "At the outset!" Clark and Darden are steady and in-the-right, but Cochran is alive and theatrical. The prosecution requests that the eyes of the jury and the camera-eye stay with them, but Cochran demands that the jury and camera follow him. It helps that we know where the story is going, but even if we didn't, the contrast between the steak of the prosecution and the sizzle of the defense is made clear.

In presenting the verdict itself, Murphy opted to be uncharacteristically restrained. As with the closing statements, it's a presentation of contrasts, often delivered in stylish split screens. Clark holds back her disbelief, sharing the frame as Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers a solid replication of Simpson's emotion-spanning elation. The Goldman family's horror is paired with the Simpson family's relief. Darden and Robert Sharpiro are mirrors of inscrutable reserve. Real news footage goes back and forth between predominantly African-American audiences in jubilation and white audiences in confusion. But things one might expect Murphy to hammer home are, instead, subtle. Juror Lionel Cryer's black power salute and Cochran's seemingly endless half-hug during which he whispered imploringly in Simpson's ear are featured, but without the swelling music or aggressive push-ins that are seen elsewhere in the episode. It's not muted. Nobody will ever accuse Ryan Murphy of being muted. But by not forcing your emotions in one direction or the other, it leaves you unsure what to do next.

The finale isn't interested in the reactions of the LAPD officials who either directly blundered this case or blundered through decades of systematic corruption and abuse setting the foundation for this verdict as payback. We don't care what Mark Fuhrman thought as he heard the verdict. Our sympathy is with the prosecution, but the episode finds Marcia Clark no longer sure what justice even means. The official statements to the press in the verdict's aftermath featured Sarah Paulson perfectly shell-shocked as Clark and Sterling K. Brown at his absolute best as Darden, breaking down and hugging the Goldmans mid-speech. You can watch the press conference on YouTube. Murphy changed almost nothing, and Paulson and Brown, as they did all season, don't mimic so much as embody. It's a gutting defeat. 

But it's the hollow victory that may leave some viewers tepid on the finale. Structurally, the episode could have ended with the press conference or with the Goldmans wailing in outrage in a parked car. Instead, it ends with the victors and not with a celebratory Johnnie Cochran in his office watching TV coverage and looking for validation that his win was truly a win for civil rights and not just one wealthy defendant. It also doesn't end with Robert Shapiro's soulless purge to Barbara Walters, as he distanced himself from the playing of the race card. Shapiro had been squeezed out of the picture on trial strategy and was squeezed out of the picture on the trial's results. John Travolta, he of the polarizing performance I never grew to appreciate, is the biggest star in this series, but the camera and story don't follow him home after the verdict and don't follow him into the interview with Walters. We just see the interview on TV.

We close with Simpson and a party at his house that exists only so that Star magazine can have the exclusive photo rights. Yes, he can take a shower in privacy and sit and cry in his comfortable bathrobe, but Simpson's young kids are still with their late mother's family, he can't tell his friends from the waiters, and the man who believed in him when nobody else did, David Schwimmer's Robert Kardashian, can no longer find pleasure in being part of the circus around Uncle Juice. We leave O.J. Simpson in his backyard staring at a statue of himself having an auditory hallucination of crowd noise. He feels no true happiness. In exoneration, we feel no happiness for him, but we also feel no schadenfreude at his emptiness and sadness, because there's no justice in anything that occurred. There's no justice in the photo card saying the Goldmans won a civil judgment against Simpson and there's no justice in Simpson doing time for a bumbling Las Vegas memorabilia heist. There are only the victims.

It's a strange and off-putting feeling to end a series on, especially a series as resolutely crowd-pleasing as The People v. O.J. Simpson, but I understand why this was where Alexander and Karazewski and also Murphy wanted to leave it. This series was all entertainment and showmanship, but what it resulted in was a triumph for ... nobody in particular. You shouldn't feel elation at the end of this story. 

Frankly, while it's the correct on-paper ending, it suffers a little bit because Gooding Jr. was not the strongest part of the cast. He can give us Simpson's ambivalence in this moment, but only on a surface level — a surface level that looks and sounds very little like O.J. Simpson. Once the story had to end with the winners, rather than with a moral compass like Darden, Schwimmer's Kardashian sets the tone, and it's one of weary disillusionment.

That's not a feeling that drives enthusiastic tweets, but it's where we needed to land, where we needed to end this satisfying 10-episode journey.

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