If there’s one prominent problem with the majority of true crime narratives, it’s that they put the focus entirely on—or grossly glorify—the criminal rather than spending time with the victims. The approach makes sense because that’s often what people want: the gory details, insight into a murderer so we can try to put together the “why?” puzzle pieces. Interest in the victims is secondary and cursory: limited background details, just enough to let us know how we can possibly avoid that same fate. While The Assassination Of Gianni Versace certainly is heavy on Andrew Cunanan, an episode like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” proves why victims’ stories are important, too—and the result is this season’s best episode so far.
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” brings Versace back into the mix by juxtaposing him publicly coming out (in Advocate) with Jeff Trail’s struggles of being closeted in the Navy. It’s an interesting juxtaposition because the military and fashion worlds feel miles apart, and like polar opposites. The cold open, however, features Donatella worried—and perhaps a little angry—about Versace’s decision, concerned that being so public will affect sales, stock, and public perception. Not to mention, it appears Donatella and Antonio have always been at odds (we saw a bit of this in the pilot episode) so she thinks Versace is only coming out to appease Antonio (“You want to be famous,” she accuses him), who is frequently mistaken for an assistant instead of Versace’s partner. Versace’s mind won’t be changed; he had “a second chance” after he got sick but survived, and he wants to live openly. Jeff, too, wants to live openly but that’s impossible with his career in the Navy, and more so during the height of the Don’t Tell Don’t Ask days.
That policy, which wasn’t repealed until late 2011, is indeed the focal point of an episode that is both powerful and heartbreaking. After Andrew watches a video of Jeff’s appearance in a 48 Hours episode dedicated to DADT, the episode smartly puts the killer on the back burner for a while to instead jump back to 1995. The bulk of the hour is about a crucial period during Jeff’s time in the Navy, starting with him breaking up a fight between a straight officer upset that another officer “brushed up against me” and then, later, stopping gay bashing in his bunk. The targeted officer cries to Jeff that he needs to be reassigned; he knows that there’s a target on his back, and he knows that there won’t always be someone around to intervene. Another officer spots the two of them, and the intimate moment is cut short by the realization that Jeff just made himself a target, too. The scene is informed by the 48 Hours interview where Jeff tells the story of saving a sailor’s life. “If I hadn’t done it, if I hadn’t stopped them, no one would have suspected me.” And then the kicker: Jeff dreams of taking that moment back.
Since that moment, Jeff has lived with the knowledge that saving one person essentially derailed his own life. If he had ignored it, if he had let this man die, it’s highly possible that Jeff could have continued to serve without incident—but then he’d have to deal with knowing he turned a blind eye. There was no winning for him, so he chose the self-sacrificing route. This doesn’t just speak to his character as a fellow gay officer, but also to his base qualities as a caring human being, which makes everything even harder to watch because we know the outcome.
Through Jeff, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” shows the horrible implications and consequences of the titular policy. It forced members of the military to stay in the closet, to lie about their lives, to spend all their time in the service living in fear that they could be outed—or attacked just for being suspected of “homosexual activity”—and kicked out. It also allowed some officers to encourage others to out their colleagues and, in some instances, it forced gay military members to turn on others in order to save themselves. One officer, the episode shows, was cut a deal by the military police: If he outs the gay military officers he knows—through tattoos, because he doesn’t know their names—then he won’t get dishonorably discharged. Jeff keeps his cool during that conversation, but you can tell that he’s trying to quell his inner panic. (It also now makes more sense why last week’s episode lingered on Jeff’s tattoo in the morgue.) And sure enough, there’s an immensely upsetting scene where Jeff tries to carve off his tattoo.
Writer Tom Rob Smith accurately captures the weight DADT had as it loomed over the gay military community, resulting in an episode that just feels heavy, like there was an anvil on my chest crushing me more and more as the hour continued. There’s so much tension built in to small actions, such as Jeff’s captain wordlessly handing him the Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide On Homosexual Conduct Policy book or Jeff slipping on his pristine white shoes to match his dress whites. The former is jarring because you almost want to laugh at the cartoonish cover, but this only heightens how fucked up the policies are (and Jeff can recite the specific regulation from memory, another tell). The latter is more urgent, setting up Jeff’s aborted suicide by hanging. It’s a testament to how powerful and effective the storytelling is in this series: We know that’s not how Jeff dies, but I still held my breath. But in a way, some of Jeff did die while in the Navy.
Another impressive task the episode pulls off is having Jeff’s military experience seamlessly lead to depicting why he was originally so drawn to Andrew (a stark contrast to two years later in the airport). Andrew clocks Jeff as new to the gay bar scene, and he uses this to position himself as a charming, knowledgeable, comfortably out gay man, and one who is willing to welcome Jeff. What Jeff craves—what he doesn’t get from the military—is to be open about who he is and accepted for it. Andrew doesn’t just accept him but celebrates him, even paying for all of Jeff’s drinks that night. It’s easy to see the magnetism that drew Jeff to Andrew, the beginnings of their friendship before it went awry, and why Jeff now feels like he “owes” Andrew. (It’s also interesting to note how that mix of respect and envy Jeff felt toward Andrew for those early days is similar to how Andrew felt toward Versace.)
Toward the end, there’s something beautiful about seeing both Versace and Jeff able to talk about their sexuality—even if Jeff is doing it anonymously—in their respective interviews, despite them both knowing that it could affect their careers. Jeff says so explicitly (“By talking to you, it’s the end of my career but honestly maybe my career died a long time ago because they know”), and I’m sure Donatella’s concerns are in the back of Versace’s mind, too. It’s freeing, even if just for a moment, but, of course, it’s cut short by Andrew.
- So, uh, happy Valentine’s Day!
- Both Cody Fern and Finn Wittrock have been tremendous these last two weeks! ACS really kills it when it comes to casting, huh?
- Here’s a link to the Dignity & Respect manual if you want to flip through it—I couldn’t bring myself to really dive in because, as a queer military brat, this episode was especially rough to watch for me. (It also reminded me of the PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly army comics I used to read as a kid, despite never knowing what the hell they were talking about.)
- It was good to see Versace & co. back this episode! I’m glad the series included the Advocate interview, which I know was important to Ryan Murphy.