“My life is over,” Monica Lewinsky declares in a Ritz Carlton hotel room full of FBI agents. She has just been betrayed by her work wife Linda Tripp. The thought of her father finding out about her affair mortifies her. Kenneth Starr altar boy Mike Emmik (played by the not-problematic Hanks son, Colin Hanks) has just told her she is facing 28 years in prison unless she cooperates.
Emmik gives her a pat response. “Not at all,” he says, promising her they’ll get through it together. As long as she does what she’s asked to do.
This is, of course, bullshit and one of the many instances in the episode where Lewinsky—despite her youth and her addict-like response to Bill Clinton—is keenly aware of what is about to unfold. We are witnessing a death of sorts. When she emerges from this 12-hour interrogation limbo, she will be thrust into hell. That promise of a second chance in New York, gone. As for redemption, it will take her another lifetime to get even a little taste of it.
Impeachment: American Crime Story has been leading up to this moment. We are back where the season began, with the FBI sting operation at the Pentagon City Mall. Though we spend the first minutes in Tripp’s footsteps, the rest of the hour is focused almost completely on Monica being interrogated. It is a tense, claustrophobic episode, where every return to that dreadful hotel room raises the stakes. It is also the best one of the season, in large part thanks to Beanie Feldstein’s excellent performance. She carries the weight of it in stride, showcasing the entire range of Lewinsky’s emotions during that awful day. Get me a gif of her yelling, “LINDA, WHAT DID YOU DO?”, stat!
Another reason this episode works so well is because it probes deeper into the topic of power dynamics. Monica’s actions are basically a case study of the tools women have developed to counteract their lack of agency.
Obviously, most individuals confronting a government agency are vulnerable, regardless of gender. But in a time and place where so many positions of power were created and then populated by men, the dysfunctional elements of gender dynamics come into play. To drive the point home, we get shot after shot of a woman opening a door to a pack of suited men. They circle them in hotel rooms, they crowd hallways, they prowl after them. It is almost impossible to escape them.
Emmik might be considered the “good cop” in the ordeal, but he resorts to threats, gaslighting, lies of omission, and the condescending “appeal to reason” as if Lewinsky’s crying was an unmerited hysterical response. When Jackie Bennet is called in to help persuade Lewinsky to spill, it’s like calling in a bulldozer to wreck a doll house. He yells, insults, intimidates, and throws around the weight of his supposed power to a terrified 24-year-old.
Not to mention that they might be after Bill Clinton, but it is Lewinsky who is accused of a long list of potential crimes: perjury, obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury, witness tampering, and conspiracy. But Starr’s altar boys and the FBI agents also have one major weakness: a time crunch. They need Lewinsky’s information before Clinton’s testimony the following day.
First unknowingly and then more consciously, Lewinsky chips away at their plan by stalling. The ways she wastes their time is, in part, by leaning into her status as a woman. She repeatedly asks to go to the bathroom, one of the few spaces where she is granted privacy. When they manipulate away her requests to talk to her lawyer, she changes gears and demands the presence of her mom, refusing to cooperate until she arrives. She feigns innocence when asking Emmik why she can’t call her lawyer, which promptly flusters him into admitting that of course she can. And she is a good girl. She comes back to that hotel room every single time. Like she was asked.
Complaints about the room temperature grants her a stroll through the mall, where she can finally steal herself away from the agents to reach her mother by payphone. The mall, this feminized space in the cultural imagination, emerges as Lewinsky’s best shot at freedom. Compare that to a hotel room full of men, which might not evoke luxury as much as a nightmare for far too many women.
It’s a kind of street smarts that feels inherited and usually is. It’s no surprise then that when Marcia Lewinsky arrives (Mira Sorvino, an actor who knows too well about the dangers of powerful men), she turns on the “may I speak to the manager?” soft power afforded to white, wealthy women. She is both conciliatory but firm, promising cooperation if they get the FBI’s promise of immunity in writing.
In other words, she wants receipts. ’Cause she knows in a case of he said, she said, there is no way “she said” will stand. This is not something Emmick or Jackie have the authority to do. Bluff, called.
Despite their ability to delay, delay, delay, it is important to note that what eventually releases Lewinsky from their grip is, welp, another man yelling. When her father’s lawyer finally contacts the hotel room, he hurls every curse under the sun at Emmick before telling Lewinsky that she is free to go. They can’t arrest her.
Lewinsky and her mom gather their things and head for the door. Monica, however, doesn’t forget her manners. She thanks Emmick and the rest of the agents for everything they’ve done. Because that is what well-behaved women are taught to do, as both a sign of deference and a mechanism for survival.
- Part of this episode also played like a fictionalized version of Intervention, where Monica is the addict, Clinton is the drug, and Marcia is the concerned parent reminding them of their self-destructive behavior. The final scene where Marcia opens the bathroom door to make sure Monica isn’t harming herself is based on Lewinsky’s own account about that time.
- Tripp does appear in several scenes, including one where she tries to justify her actions by mentioning that Reagan never got a blow job in the office. Maybe not, but he sure did manage to screw generations of Americans! All jokes aside, what is most memorable is how anti-climactic this feels for Tripp. She goes largely ignored by the feds after her bit part in the sting operation is done and is dismissed with barely any recognition.
- The fact that Tripp insists she treats Monica with the concern of a mother is rich considering how much her own home is in disarray. Her relationship with her daughter throughout the series is strained.
- Oooh, Cobie Smulders as Ann Coulter is back! I have thoroughly enjoyed her pursed lips, chewing-inside-of-her-cheeks, peroxide-blonde-fumed take on Coulter. My one quibble is that she is incapable of truly embodying her because we can still see traces of a soul behind those eyes.
- Operation Prom Night will never beat the wit of Operation Varsity Blues because, though clever, it’s kind of slimy! It does reveal though how much the FBI underestimated Lewinsky’s own determination. She never caved.
- There was a whole telepathic conversation between the Crate & Barrel sales associate and Lewinsky.