Just in time for Mercury retrograde, Impeachment: American Crime Story gives us a whole episode about the perils of miscommunication. The episode is cheekily titled “The Telephone Hour,” in reference to the Bye Bye Birdie musical number about small town gossip run amok.
But what happens in this episode is much darker than high schoolers shrieking about getting pinned. It examines the gaps between what we want to hear and what is actually said. It points to the vocalized intentions of people and those that dare not speak. More importantly, it shines a light on how our own amorphous use of language can obscure the unsettling and downright dangerous experiences.
If you are the kind of person who can watch people talk for hours, then this episode is a treat. Nothing much else happens. People talk. Usually on the phone. Lewinsky calling Trip. Tripp calling Goldberg. Lewinsky calling Currie. Currie calling Clinton. Clinton calling Lewinsky. Every ring of a landline or a click of a tape recorder is like a new thread in a particularly poisonous spider web, with Lewinsky trapped dead set in the middle.
All this talking doesn’t feel cumbersome. Au contraire, it is riveting and mildly nauseating because every character is being deceitful in some way. Lewinsky cannot stop herself from continuing to pursue a job in the White House, asserting that she just really loves that department. (Though we all know her unrequited love for Clinton is her fuel.)
Tripp decides to resume talks with literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, under the guise that she needs to spill everything she knows in order to protect Lewinsky. (Though we all know she is banking on this book being her hero moment.) Goldberg, the Svengali of right-wingers with a hunger for fame, convinces Tripp that she wants justice too. (Though we all know it’s that six-figure deal she’s after.)
Getting this book proposal into shape is what drives most of Tripp’s choices, making this a rare instance in which the publishing world is actually interesting. After Lewinsky sees the Newsweek article, she confronts Tripp about her participation in it. After a few back-and-forths in which Tripp warns Monica that she is being pushed out from the White House the same way she was, Monica evokes what is starting to be an incantation of sorts in this show: “No one wanted you [in the White House].”
I know to say something is “triggering” has basically lost all meaning, but in Impeachment these words are triggering to Tripp in the most straightforward of ways. Whenever they are uttered, the audience knows that she is about to pull some bullshit in response to them, and she does. She calls Goldberg to strike a deal and tries to impress her with her detailed Excel spreadsheets of tawdry presidential behavior.
This is not enough for the big leagues, though, and Goldberg will accept nothing less than hardcore evidence. This is when Tripp’s habit of taping calls begins, and we get hit with more scenes of Monica spiraling and Tripp defining her traitorous actions as concern.
The rest of the episode could have easily continued the tabloid-ish genre we saw at the start of the season, but halfway through it offers a more complicated layer. When Goldberg and Tripp meet with Isikoff to share the tapes, Isikoff engages in a debate with Tripp over the definition of sexual harassment. The reporter has been constantly used as a stand-in for old-school methods and sentiments, and in this case, he is no different. His definition hinges on the presence of a quid pro quo.
Tripp, in this instance, can be seen as having a more modern understanding by pointing out the imbalance of power between the president and an intern, and Monica’s transfer to the Pentagon. For Isikoff, this isn’t enough. As he points out, Monica still has a job. There’s been no money exchanged. There also haven’t been any attempts by Clinton to get her a better job to keep her quiet.
This scene is illuminating because it points to a question that has been lurking since the premiere: What is the crime at the center of Impeachment?
By the real Monica Lewinsky’s account, she willingly had the affair with Bill Clinton. If we take Isikoff’s definition, which may very well have been the legal one back in the day (if you’re a lawyer, hit me up!), then it doesn’t legally constitute sexual harassment either. Is it the attempted cover-up? The secret tapes? Lying under oath? The way “Arkansas” is consistently thrown under the bus?
The episode brings up other situations that leaves us with a not-so-fresh-feeling even though legal codes or society may turn a blind eye to them. When Clinton chastises Lewinsky for yelling at Currie over the phone, he tells her he thought she was a good girl. Lewinsky tells him to fuck off because she has been good—but their definition of what that means isn’t defined by any fair assessment. It’s defined by who has more power, and that is Clinton.
In an even more heartbreaking scene, we confront the concept of consent—or lack thereof—as Lewinsky tells Tripp about her high school relationship with a school staff member (definitely criminally bad). She then doubles down and reveals “maybe” losing her virginity to a camp counselor at 14—the “maybe” hiding what appears to be sexual assault though Lewinsky doesn’t name it in such a way. It’s understandable why she is hesitant to do so. All these contested words intersect in the persona of Monica Lewinsky, who has rarely felt empowered to define what any of these concepts are for herself.
The very idea of what constitutes virginity is under dispute, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Patriarchal concept, heteronormative, given unnecessary importance, yadda yadda yadda. But what all these contested words do in this episode is intersect in the persona of Monica Lewinsky, who has rarely felt empowered to define what any of these concepts are for herself.
Regardless of criminal definitions, we know that Lewinsky has been, is, and will be wronged. And as she shows that blue dress to Tripp, we understand the persistent shadow it will soon cast over her whole existence. As Clinton said, “life is long” and a 24-year-old intern is about to bear the full weight of it.
- We get it, we get it! That A badge Monica wears all the time is like the White House version of a scarlet letter.
- Early in the episode, Tripp receives a list on her cubicle with names of people associated with the Clintons who died under suspicious circumstances. Then just as quickly it was dropped. Did I miss something? Will it show up again in later episodes? It was just odd to plant that there and have no mention of it later.
- Lewinsky’s comment about Clinton giving her the ugliest presents is once again evidence that he truly is the essence of your terrible boyfriends in your 20s.