“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” – a brochure for a 1968 exhibition of artist and noted Halston associate Andy Warhol.
Success is a cruel mistress. Once you have it, you must fight even harder to keep it, because everyone clamoring to get it has a target on your back. This is particularly hard to do when you’re a control-freak designer who spends his nights at Studio 54 and his days (well, afternoons) in his workroom snorting a never-ending line of cocaine.
By this point in the series, the Halston the public knows is in full display. He’s the diva taking pictures with Studio 54’s Steve Rubell (played here by Jarrod Spector) as the unwashed masses push against the velvet ropes vying for a glimpse of him, screaming that they’re wearing his designs in the hopes that he’ll be the benevolent king who will knight them for one night at court.
The episode offers snippets of all the A-list revelry that was photographed, and not photographed, inside the exclusive space. Drugs and dancing and disco are everywhere. There’s a recreation of the infamous night when Bianca Jagger jumped on a horse on the nightclub floor (while, of course, wearing a Halston design). A woman tries to sneak in through an air vent and suffocates. No one hears her screams, in part because Liza Minnelli has just passed out on the dance floor. (Joe, in complete seriousness, says the worst news about this is that the stuck woman was wearing Calvin Klein.)
Off-camera, things are not as shiny. Halston’s drug habit continues to toxify his relationships and his designs. He seems to have lost some mojo with his dresses. He sends his long-suffering assistant, Sassy (Molly Jobe), out for increasingly more cocaine as his temper and paranoia increase. He’s convinced his telephone is bugged after he places a late-night, and highly inebriated, call to Liza. It turns out the receiver is just full of all the cocaine that slipped off while he was snorting the drug while taking calls. Although he buys a house in Montauk to unwind on weekends, there’s no time off from this kind of lifestyle.
And he becomes increasingly convinced that everyone is going to leave him. Liza begs him to go to rehab with her and he refuses out of fear. There’s a party to celebrate Studio 54 after it closes, and Steve lets Calvin Klein (portrayed here by Barry Anderson) handle it while assuming someone else will tell Halston he won’t be in charge. Joe says he’s designing the costumes for a disco musical called Got Tu Go Disco and Halston mocks him. Elsa boasts about the success she’s having at Tiffany, and he screams that she owes everything to him, eventually culminating in a larger fight toward the end of the episode where she calls him the F-word.
Victor has been diagnosed with HIV. There isn’t a scene where he tells this to Halston, but that is presumably why they have quit being intimate and why he now picks up men for his partner to sleep with — seemingly validating his accusation that Halston only saw him as a “rent boy.”
And then there’s the biggest loss of all: Halston’s mother dies. No one speaks to him at the funeral and he cries over her coffin. Back in New York, he mourns alone in his house as Calvin Klein’s Brooke Shields jeans commercial comes on the TV.
David Mahoney at Norton Simon had been begging Halston to get into the designer-jeans market, and he had balked at such a gauche idea (he calls them “dungarees”). Now, the hot new designer on the scene and his hot new muse are getting tons of airplay, and David says the market’s too saturated for Halston to get in the game.
But David does have another idea: Halston could become the exclusive, in-house designer for JCPenney. He promises to be there with him to hold his hand the entire way. Except he doesn’t get that chance. David had been trying to take Norton Simon private and was outbid by one dollar at the last minute. As Halston accosts David at his home, saying that he broke their agreement that David would never leave him, he also realizes that the JC Penney venture was a set-up and the brand may have been cut even if David had succeeded.
Now David’s out of a job and Halston’s alone and answering to a new company, Esmark Inc. — and a new boss, Carl Epstein (portrayed by Jason Kravits). With Halston now beholden to a number-cruncher who doesn’t care for elaborate orchid displays and declarations that food shipped from the Olympic Tower office to Montauk counts as a business expense, this relationship will not go as breezily as the one with David.
The episode ends with an homage to the scenes after Halston’s Bergdorf bomb and Versailles spectacle. He stares out the windows of his Olympic Tower palace and realizes that the fear he’s been avoiding — that all of his fame and success may be taken away — might have caught up to him.
• According to former Studio 54 owner Mark Fleischman, a person did die in the air vent trying to sneak into the club. But it was a young man in black tie.
• Halston was right about Got Tu Go Disco. It closed after five nights.
• This is the episode that may cause the most anger among members of the LGBTQ+ community and others who believe that only queer performers should play queer parts. Star Ewan McGregor identifies as straight, and Halston, at least as an adult, did not hide his sexuality. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter to promote the show, McGregor says he understands both sides of the issue but “if it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that gay actors should play that role. But in this case — and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it’s something I did think a lot about — I suppose ultimately I felt like it was just one part of who he was.” This episode not only discusses Halston’s relationship with Victor Hugo, but also shows them hiring photographers to capture their sex parties at his townhouse and his dalliances at Studio 54.
• Red is taking over the screen of Halston, and not just in his wardrobe or in the Olympic Tower workspace (which really was red and lined with mirrors). Elsa’s wardrobe increasingly includes a red dress or scarf, and Sassy’s giant drug-mule purse is red patent leather. Elsa is growing more powerful, and so is Halston’s drug habit.