As played by Sarah Paulson in the new season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story, Linda Tripp is a mesmerizing figure. The third season of the franchise, subtitled Impeachment, is the Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton story, a tale so familiar now that it is essentially a modern American legend. Rather than come from solely Lewinsky’s perspective, though, or create some appeal to false objectivity by giving lots of time to every side of the story, Impeachment dwells on Tripp. It’s so easy to see her as a villain, the nightmarish witch of the impeachment story, hated by everyone on all sides. The series makes room for that reading, certainly — Impeachment’s Tripp is petty, vindictive, and selfish. She is foolish, too, or at least just smart enough to make some very foolish mistakes. She wants attention, and she can’t muster the self-awareness required to admit how much she wants it. Everything bad in her life was done to her. Everything good was the result of her own herculean unappreciated effort.
She is a tough sell as a central character, especially in a story with a young, sympathetic woman just begging to be the show’s primary point of view. But Impeachment, premiering on September 7 on FX, is a better-wrought story than many of Murphy’s most recent titles, and Tripp is a more complicated character than many of the roles Murphy has recently given to Paulson (in American Horror Story, in Ratched, in Feud: Bette and Joan). As portrayed in this series, she is a woman who simply does not fit in. Her longing to do so makes her loathsome, with the sweaty, overworked loudness of someone perpetually trying too hard. It makes her sad — so sad that it’s almost hard to watch as she snaps at a co-worker who puts a yogurt cup on Tripp’s side of the cubicle. But it also gives her a readier insight into all the ways the world is broken. Whatever else ACS’s Tripp might be, she is not wrong about that.
Impeachment is this in a nutshell: attentive to Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), gimlet-eyed at Clinton (an unaccountably effective Clive Owen), but fascinated by Tripp, this woman the show cannot bring itself to find sympathy for but whom it also refuses to fully indict. The series is rapt by her role in this famous presidential scandal, and though its depiction of her is flawed, sometimes deeply, its detailed obsession with Tripp is nevertheless so utterly caught up in her that the show manages to leap past all the reasons why it absolutely, unequivocally, should not work.
I mean should in a few ways here. Paulson should not have been cast as Tripp for any number of reasons, including the thoughtlessness of padding her out into something approximating Tripp’s towering, broad-shoulder body, especially when it is far too easy to see the show as mocking Tripp, turning her into a caricature. Paulson also should not have been cast as Tripp for the exact same reason she was cast as Tripp: She is the Murphy muse, the face that shows up across his work in all his thorniest roles, and that very familiarity makes it impossible to look at this Tripp and not see Paulson. There are moments when she almost disappears, when the complicated Tripp on the page shows through, full of righteousness and self-absorption and wounds. Too often, though, Paulson’s performance is uncannily like Tripp herself. It is trying so, so hard, in a way that makes you want to recoil. It would be a disaster, except this is also precisely what Impeachment is most interested in: the contempt we have for desperation and for people whose desperation is too painfully evident. So it should not work, except there’s also a resonant tension in there, a friction that reveals even more of the character.
For anyone who already knows this story well, through any of the mountain of books, articles, podcasts, and docuseries that have come out about Lewinsky and Paula Jones and the Clintons, Impeachment will not add anything new to the general outline. Clinton and Lewinsky had a relationship that bounced along for many months in the queasy territory where paternal interest becomes predatory sexual interest and where a young woman’s all-consuming, ill-advised crush stopped her from seeing the full breadth of the cataclysmic thing she was hurling herself into. This will not be a revelation, nor will the general sentiment that Lewinsky is the most wounded party here. Impeachment does not pull its punches where Lewinsky is concerned; Feldstein’s Lewinsky is, in her own way, just as desperate, just as hurt and as maddeningly blinkered as Tripp. Most of all, Feldstein’s performance underlines how young Lewinsky was. She is out of her depth in every scene. Tripp is sidelined from power because she is abrasive and refuses to soften herself to her surroundings (which makes her sometimes a figure of tragedy and sometimes a monster); Lewinsky is chewed up and spit out and then held up for unending public ridicule because she is naïve to the point of catastrophe. Clinton is charismatic and sly, full of hubristic confidence. Again, none of it is a surprise, but the execution is compelling, from the sickening slow roll of Clinton’s pursuit of Lewinsky to the eventual public frenzy over Clinton’s lies and Lewinsky’s stained blue dress.
There are attendant side characters, most of them ghoulish embodiments or “Hey, look at that guy!” nods of recognition. Billy Eichner is a highly mannered Matt Drudge; Cobie Smulders is a wry Ann Coulter, full of delighted, detached faux fury. There is a painstaking re-creation of some of the most well-covered events, particularly the night that Tripp betrays Lewinsky and the subsequent FBI sting operation. It’s a familiar story. At some point while watching the first seven episodes of Impeachment, though, I started to realize that when you tell a story often enough, it stops being an overfamiliar story and starts being a myth. Impeachment is imperfect, but its excavation of this era in American history is nonetheless transfixing, and it’s not least because there is now a mythic quality to the story it tells. It is the founding story of so much of what happens in the next three decades of American life and American politics: the Clinton dynasty, the Me Too movement, the transformation of the Republican Party into the party of conspiracy theories and digital gossip, and the crumbling of the image of the inhuman, untouchable, hagiographic American president.
At the center of it all, there’s Tripp, whose actions Impeachment depicts as monstrous, horrible, and also exactly what Tripp perceives them to be: a way to reveal corruption and to root out repeated predatory sexual misconduct. Everyone is hurt by her actions, most especially the person Tripp tells herself she is trying to save. It’s so tempting to see Tripp as the villain of this myth, the witch who preys on a young woman’s vitality in order to gain power for herself. Impeachment is not so sure it’s that simple, and it wants viewers to sit with that discomfort.