[This story contains spoilers from episode four of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.]
Andrew Cunanan began his killing spree in early 1997, when he murdered his friends David Madson and Jeffrey Trail. The two men take center stage in the fourth and fifth episodes of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which detail Trail and Madson’s slayings, deaths that happened months before Cunanan gunned down fashion designer Gianni Versace on the front steps of his Miami mansion.
Screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, who penned every episode of the FX anthology’s second season, said he structured the season to juxtapose the similarities and differences between Cunanan (Darren Criss) and Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and how both men dealt with societal homophobia in extremely different ways. One thrived as a fashion designer, the other turned into a con artist/serial killer.
“If you look at the crimes themselves, they express various facets of homophobia. They’re very different,” Smith told The Hollywood Reporter. “You have the murder of Jeff, which is clearly about someone who should have had this brilliant military career. He was the perfect soldier, utterly dedicated, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was just such a travesty. You have people who went to give their lives for their country and to say to them, ‘We don’t want your life.’ Or, ‘Your life is meaningless to us.’ It seems to me irrational and cruel, and it destroys people. [Next week’s DADT episode] is about how he was killed in a way before he was killed. In this sense that the real killer of Jeff was that policy.”
He continued, “And then you have a very different facet of homophobia with the second victim, David. You had this brilliant young man caught up in a murder, and so ashamed of who he is that he just can’t say to Andrew, ‘I need to go to the police now.’ Why doesn’t he break from that guy much sooner? It’s because he just knows, ‘If I go to the police, they won’t believe me.’ That’s heartbreaking.”
Cody Fern, who plays Madson, said his character struggled with an internalized shame that prevented him from standing his ground against Cunanan.
“David is dealing with the shame of what he’s been carrying around, having hidden, and ultimately feeling like maybe he’s complicit in Jeff’s death,” Fern told THR. “Is that something to do with that thing that’s inside of him that society finds ugly, particularly at that time?”
In the DADT episode, Trail’s backstory is told through the lens of his military service, and juxtaposed with Versace’s public coming out. Finn Wittrock, who plays the Navy veteran, said the fact that his character was a dedicated soldier trying to serve his country makes his story even more heartbreaking.
“He was a young man trying to make some kind of change, but he also just wanted to do his best,” said the actor. “He really believed in being in the service. He believed in being in the Navy, and he actually believed that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was hurting America.”
The way Trail is portrayed on the series is absolutely true, according to Vulgar Favors author Maureen Orth, who wrote the book on which Smith based his ACS season. The reason Trail left the Navy in real life, however, is different than what the series purports.
“He was a really straight arrow, great guy, and he came from a lovely family, and that’s all very, very true — his background and how much he loved the military,” she said. “But by the time he left the Navy, I think he was done with it.”
Although Orth said Cunanan thought Madson was the love of his life, Madson didn’t reciprocate those feelings. And both Madson and Trail were worried about Cunanan’s behavior before their deaths.
“Both Jeff and David began feeling very uneasy, and Andrew was spiraling down into drugs and S&M pornography,” said Orth. “People didn’t want to be around him, and they were rejecting him. And after he had lavished so much material things on both of them and they never said no, for the most part, he felt very used, I guess.”
Trail was the first person Cunanan killed, and Wittrock told THR he thinks it was a turning point for him.
“I think in some sad way, he was sort of the beginning of the end. I think Andrew had a bit of a fascination with him that wasn’t quite reciprocated from Jeff’s point of view,” said the actor. “This is, of course, me speculating on his character, but then it begins the downward spiral of his psychosis and his mania.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.