I’ll just say it: This was my least favorite episode of the series so far. First of all, it looks so cheap. Versace’s Milan office looks like it was hastily assembled from a bunch of plywood and a rough coat of paint by four guys named Ted who do all the sets for regional productions of Brigadoon. And the dress that Donatella wears to the Vogue anniversary party? The original dress was dainty, chic, and had just a touch of the S&M about it. The one in “Ascent” looks like it was made out of a bunch of clearance belts that someone in the wardrobe department scooped up at Marshalls. This is probably because Gianni later throws a fit and chops it to bits, but also because the production couldn’t get access to the Versace archives. Still, everything that isn’t shot on location looks straight out of a Lifetime movie.
The real reason why this episode is boring is due to the show’s structure of telling the story backward. Initially, this was a very interesting and original way for the series to play out, but now we’re so deep into it that we’ve intuited everything that we didn’t already know. We already knew that Andrew met David for one great night in San Francisco, took him to his suite at the Mandarin Oriental, and fell in love with him. Does it matter that he met him by calling him over at a fancy restaurant because he thought David was lonely? Not really. Do we need to see them getting busy in the shower? No, but I’m never going to tell attractive people to have less sex and be less naked on my television screen.
We also already knew that Andrew was working in a pharmacy in San Diego and that his mother was crazy and needy. Did we need to know that his mother thought she was going to travel around the world with him as he “assisted Signore Versace?” No. Did we need to know that he insisted she buy Häagen-Dazs and when she bought the cheap generic ice cream that comes in a tub so big that it has its own handle, he threw it on the ground in a fit of pique? Not really, even though it sure is fun to watch.
We also already knew that he stalked his sugar daddy Norman and convinced him to build a life for them both in San Diego. Do we need to know that it was at the La Jolla playhouse? Not really. Do we need to know that he was first with Norman’s friend Lincoln Aston, who was murdered by a piece of trade that he picked up at a local bar for hustlers? Actually, yeah, we do need to know that.
The few bright spots in the episode are the surprising details that we didn’t know at all. Lincoln being beaten to death by someone who had a case of “gay panic” actually happened (here’s a great article about it), but whether or not Andrew witnessed the crime and didn’t report it is up to interpretation. It certainly helps Andrew get what he wants, and it happened through violence and deceit, which seems to be Andrew’s M.O. But while Andrew and Norman say that they can get murdered and people get away with it, Lincoln’s killer went to prison for 15 years, so that seems a little blown out of proportion.
Lincoln’s murder and that conversation do set the tone for the gay community that Andrew was living in at the time. With the rise of AIDS and homophobia at its height, he was living in a time where fear and violence seeped into everything about the gay community, sometimes when they least expect it, like when Lincoln brought that man home. No wonder it managed to warp Andrew into thinking that was the only way he could get ahead. It was almost as if he was taking revenge for the way straight people were treating gay people, except his crimes were against those wouldn’t (or couldn’t) love him the way he wanted.
Another surprising and humiliating moment is when Andrew goes to the escort agency and the madam tells him that she can’t sell an Asian with a bad attitude, “even if he does have a big dick.” We already knew Andrew worked as an escort, but this scene reveals how hard it was for him to be seen as worthy, even as a sex worker. It also shows how he learned to manufacture his own identity and where those details came from — saying he was Portuguese rather than Filipino, for example.
The one bonus of the scene between Andrew and David at the hotel is that David tells Andrew the story of his friend Leah: She was always getting picked on, so David promised to build her a house that they could live in together. Andrew then takes that same story, embellishes and exaggerates the details, and uses it to sell Norman on a move from Phoenix to San Diego. It is a nice glimpse into how Andrew is always connecting the dots, grabbing the things that make him feel emotion and adjusting them to manipulate other people.
But even that’s something we’ve seen plenty of times on this show. As the story starts to come close to its end — or in this case, the beginning — it’s reaching a sort of anticlimax.
So, yeah, I found this chapter of the Versace story dreadfully boring and a total rehash. It also lacked the glamour and opulence of the first episode, when we got to see Gianni lolling around his villa in all of those very expensive fabrics. A lot of people have called for more Versace in this show that bears his name, but cutting their story out of this already bloated episode might have been what it needed to move along more briskly.
It’s just so much of the same. We already knew that Donatella was always going to be in charge of the business after Gianni was gone. We learn that the plans were put in motion before his assassination, but still, the plan was the plan. Maybe some of Dontella’s anger and resentment for her brother and his partner comes from thinking that she’d be in charge. She had that yanked away from her, only to have it return in such a tragic and unexpected way.
The one good thing about knowing the ending before the beginning is that it offers instances of dramatic irony. For instance, the only good part of Gianni and Donatella’s story line is learning that, at one point, Diego actually stood up for Gianni’s sister. Sure, she would eventually come to despise him (and lock him out of the company), but initially he was her champion.
The ultimate instance of dramatic irony, however, comes at the end. Andrew is furnishing Norman’s house and says to him, like the old Carnival Cruise commercial, “If they could see me now.” Norman asks who “they” are. “Everybody,” Andrew says, thinking that he finally played being rich and sophisticated long enough that he achieved it. He actually faked it until he made it. But he’s staring off of the balcony not into a bright future, but a sad fall into drug addiction, obsession, and death.