From the multimedia campaign Impeachment: American Crime Story has unleashed, it could be assumed that the protagonist of FX’s anthology docudrama is Monica Lewinsky. Beanie Feldstein, playing the world’s most famous intern, is on the poster wearing Lewinksy’s infamous beret, and graced the cover of The Hollywood Reporter with the real Lewinsky. The first trailer ends with an ominous shot of Feldstein-as-Lewinsky and Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) in the Oval Office.
If you take another look at the trailer, though, there is a voice that predominates, and it belongs to Linda Tripp, played by Sarah Paulson. It’s a clue that this re-examination of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may have a very different main character than initially believed. And though this might change as the season unfolds, the first episode of Impeachment gives Tripp the role that eluded her during her professional career—that of a star.
The season premiere, “Exiles,” mostly functions to set up the many disparate threads that will culminate in impeachment. As such, it can be a lot to keep up with and might require a few quick trips to Wikipedia to fill in the gaps. It highlights four different moments: Lewinsky being ambushed by FBI agents at a mall in January 1998, Tripp’s demotion from White House staff member to Pentagon clog in 1993, Paula Jones’ decision to accuse Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in 1994, and Lewinsky and Tripp’s burgeoning friendship in 1996.
If your head is spinning already, it’s understandable. After all the ink spilled over the years about the sexual aspect of it all, it’s easy to forget that the scandal didn’t start with a stained blue dress. It was meant to be a detail in another controversy: the Whitewater affair.
Tripp is so over the Clintons by the time we see her working as a secretary in the office of White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum (Kevin Pollak). She never liked them to begin with. Coming off as the resident Karen-from-Accounting meme, she is annoying to her fellow colleagues and oblivious to their disdain. She has an outsized sense of self-importance, constantly mentioning how she will be summoned to testify at this and that thing. She waxes poetic about the Bushes, admiring their sense of protocol. She scoffs at the pizza party on casual Fridays, finds it insulting that Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco) uses the communal bathroom, and namedrops any Republican she can think of. She’s competent but inept at social cues—a mortal sin in any political job, even if that job entails bringing a hamburger to your boss.
The only person who seems to appreciate her is Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. When he dies by suicide, it has the unintended consequence of putting Tripp’s job at risk. Convinced that she will be a key figure in the Whitewater investigation, she constantly eavesdrops on Nussbaum’s conversations and takes a meeting with scheming literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (a glorious Margo Martindale). She first pitches a book about Foster, but Goldberg brushes it away, noting no one cares about a sad story. She needs something big.
The urgency to secure her position in the White House intensifies when Nussbaum announces that a new Counsel, Lloyd Cutler, is taking his place. Tripp convinces professionally frustrated but well-connected aide Kathleen Willey to set up a meeting with the two of them and Cutler. The plan is to convince him to hire them both. Despite having been previously groped by the president, Willey agrees. Such is her desperation to be something more than the socialite wife volunteer.
The meeting is a disaster for Tripp, who spends her time complaining about her former Dem bosses while singing the praises of the Republicans. When she receives notice that she’s being transferred to the Pentagon—with a raise and promotion to match—the only one surprised is Tripp. “I’m being exiled to Siberia!” she yells in her best “speak-to-your-manager” tone at the human resource manager, who notes that no one wants her in the White House. She becomes even more incensed when she discovers that Willey was offered a job as a secretary, accusing her of only getting the position because of Clinton’s sexual interest in her. Willey responds with a sentence meant to destroy Tripp’s own sense of self: “The President has no idea who you are.”
As writing instructors will tell you anywhere, a character’s wants and motivations are crucial to the development of plot. In this take, Tripp is looking for petty revenge against her friend— “I thought we were women supporting each other” she tells Willey. Furthermore, she’s looking for real vengeance against a workplace that cares so little about her, there’s almost no need to make her disappear. To many, she doesn’t even exist.
The question of course is how? Part of that is answered by Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), with her big hair and Arkansas accent bordering on mockery, and Steve (Taran Killam), her man-child of a husband. A mention of her supposed encounter with Clinton in a magazine has Steve worried about his non-existent acting career, because Jones’ traumatizing experience is clearly all about him. Her decision to pursue legal action with a small-town lawyer is framed as a way to calm down Steve. All she wants is an apology and a role for Steve in Designing Women. What she gets instead is a spot on the 1994 CPAC lineup, where reporters play Twenty Questions and a ghoul by the name of Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) sees an opportunity.
Soon Paula is whisked away to a meeting in the law offices of Cammarata and Davis, drawing the president’s private parts and praying to the church of Delta Burke that she gets what she wants. Instead, she is pushed by Steve and the lawyers to file a suit, with no time to spare, because statute of limitations waits for no woman. And the rest is history!
Except, not yet. Tripp is still a non-entity by the time she meets her new, young co-worker in 1996. She must be someone’s “pet rock,” Tripp muses during the lunch break where she and Lewinsky bond. Lewinsky denies this. She too is in exile. She is also lonely. The man she’s involved with in unavailable. Tripp then plays her own version of Twenty Questions, but she doesn’t need answers to know it must be someone important. She calls Goldberg with the news. She wanted big? She’s going to get it.
- Extremely brief explanation of what the hell the Whitewater controversy was: the Clintons made a bad investment on some land with a guy named James McDougal. McDougal late went on to defraud a firm and a savings and loan association. Allegations were brought that the Clintons were somehow involved.
- We will not be trafficking in Vincent Foster conspiracy theories, mmmmkay? Not in this house.
- For anyone nostalgic about old tech, this episode is a delight. Beepers, pay phones, slow-churning computers, printers the size of a small house—a nice walk down electronic memory lane.
- Talking about old timey memorabilia, the sartorial choices are a treat. It’s hard to remember truly how uninspired DC fashion was before Michelle Obama dared to grace us with her presence, but costumes here take the dowdiness a step further. Despite it being the ’90s, Tripp dresses like a woman stuck in time by opting for bottleneck glasses and the boxiest of shoulder pads. Jones is also portrayed as being incapable of letting go of the 80s heydays, as if her Little Rock ways were impervious to Californias’ influence.
- I promise we will talk about the prosthetics in future recaps. Oh my God, the prosthetics. That prosthetics budget needs its own independent counsel.