American Crime Story
In the second episode of Impeachment, it’s November 1995, and the camera pans from Linda Tripp, worst friend in American history, to Monica Lewinsky, worst intern. I couldn’t tell you where the series premiere ended, nor does it matter. The installments are held together thematically, if not always chronologically; this is not a show about what happened when but about why it happened (a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” perhaps?) and what it felt like to those involved (shitty). Following some budget brinkmanship, the federal government is shut down, and Monica is retasked to the West Wing to help. Just like that, a factious age of political gridlock and a problematic romance are born.
Improbably for an intern and the leader of the Free World, they end up alone together on her first day. Bill Clinton bloviates to the smitten young thing about what a stud he is for standing up to Newt Gingrinch, and Monica doesn’t cringe because she’s already got a big ol’ crush on him. He tells her she lights up a room, which I wish was literally true because I’m finding this show rather dusky. When she gets home to the chichi Watergate condo she shares with her mother, Marcia, Monica confesses that the president kissed her. Naturally, her mom assumes she’s kidding. Light Googling failed to confirm the authenticity of this exchange, but even still, I wonder how this night haunts Marcia now. Could she have prevented Monica’s painful next chapter if she had recognized her daughter’s moony eyes and chapped lips?
Fast-forward one year to the timeline we’re used to, which is actually the flashback timeline from the season premiere. The closest Monica gets to her man in the runup to the election is a daily fax of his schedule. It’s apparent from the cubicle chitchat she makes with Linda that she has divulged all but her lover’s name; Monica’s college chum knows about the affair with Bill, plus she told a friend from her intern class. Monica’s not a model of discretion, no, but considering that she’s an unconfident pipsqueak who’s consistently taking down the commander-in-chief, I think she’s admirably low-key.
Still, she stays in at night so she doesn’t miss his calls, and she skips meals so she’ll be thinner when he brings her back to the White House. Knowing that she’s 15 months from her boyfriend calling her “that woman” and the decades of blacklisting that will follow makes it agonizing to watch her fret. This was the good part of all this? This panicked, neurotic, forgotten season was what she would end up losing so much to protect?
When Monica’s not sleeping by the phone, she’s mostly hanging out with Linda, antiquing for Bavarian Christmas trinkets. It’s worth asking what they have in common besides diet culture and civil service. At 47 years old and seven years’ divorced, Linda feels like another bad match. She’s got a teenage daughter closer to Monica’s age, which is perhaps part of the appeal on her side: They have complementary needs. Linda lets Monica talk endlessly, which is what an obsessive wants, and the listening makes Linda feel essential. Her eagerness about Monica’s love life is voyeuristic but genuine. For example, we never see her write down what Monica says in a notebook for some future tell-all.
The days fall quickly off the calendar, and even though it has been a month since she last heard from Bill, Monica treats herself to an Election Day makeover. Hair done, nails done, everything did. She puts on the most famous beret worn since Faye Dunaway played Bonnie to Warren Beatty’s Clyde and elbows her way to the front of the White House rope line. Here, the casting of Beanie Feldstein and Clive Owen crackles for me. We have all seen the footage of Bill hugging Monica after the election, and the re-creation on Impeachment is faithful but revealing. After watching Owen’s gaze meet Feldstein’s, I was tactless enough to watch the original. This time, I could see the smoldering, real or imagined.
But a brush at the rope line is all it is. Bill doesn’t phone. Monica, dejected and fragile, can’t be bothered talking to Linda, either. When the friends finally run into each other in the office canteen, Monica is too sad to eat, and Linda musters the self-restraint not to mention that heartbreak really is the best crash diet. At long last, Monica confides the identity of her top-secret boyfriend, and Linda says the most annoying thing Linda could: “I knew it.”
Monica needs almost no prodding to tell Linda the rest. At least on her side, the relationship started as a “wordless flirtation” at POTUS’s public events. When the shutdown threw them into the same office, she flashed him her thong — a scene that producer Monica Lewinsky insisted on including. The building anticipation was “fucking hot,” which, fine, okay. One night, she brought Bill a pizza, and he took her to see his presidential mini-fridge glistening with Diet Cokes. They made out. They kept meeting for five months until one of Bill’s chaperones shipped her to the Pentagon. But the stretches between their trysts have been growing longer. Now, Monica’s sure it’s over.
Desperate to help her lovelorn friend, or determined to be a part of an ongoing juicy secret, Linda persuades Monica to cancel a trip out of town to sit by the phone some more. It’s a bizarre moment. She’s kind to Monica but not good to Monica. Shouldn’t she want it to end between her young friend and her married boss? Is this really all in service of a book? As Linda drifts from the center of the show, her motives grow fuzzy. Coincidentally, Bill calls Monica that weekend, and Monica tells Linda, and finally one of the series’s time recursions catches up with itself. Linda is now getting real-time goss, though, of course, in flashback.
By the time Paula Jones shows up in the second half of the episode, I had all but forgotten that we’re on a Paula-dependent timeline. It was her allegations that eventually led to the Supreme Court decision that led to the lawsuit that led to the depositions that led to the perjury that led to the fact that Monica Lewinsky is a famous name. And yet I find myself caring very little about what happens to Paula, who, so far, isn’t really a character but an accent, driving the forward action of Impeachment with all the purpose of a pinball.
Luckily, “conservative feminist” Susan Carpenter-McMillan (the delectable Judith Light), founder of the Women’s Coalition, whatever that is, anoints herself the country bumpkin’s fairy godmother and spokeswoman. “I’m here to protect Paula’s interests,” she tells Paula’s lawyers, who were presumably also hired to protect Paula’s interests. Susan hooks Paula up with a Nordstrom shopping spree and a straightening iron; she even throws in orthodontia. “This feels like dress-up,” Paula aptly points out. “It’s all dress-up,” Susan tells her cynically. She thinks Paula’s a good cause, sweet but dumb, and Paula blossoms under Susan’s tutelage. Against her lawyers’ advice, Paula delivers a flawless TV interview.
Of course, a makeover isn’t enough to make Paula central to her own case. Ann Coulter, toasting her most recent firing from MSNBC with Champagne, agrees to join one of the several teams of lawyers advising Paula’s lawyers behind the scenes. It’s early days, but the acid-tongued Ann has an impeccable vision. This isn’t about Paula or sexual harassment or even about containing Clinton’s liberal agenda; this is about a long, twisty road to impeachment.
Time moves briskly inside the Beltway. It’s January. Bill’s second swearing-in. Monica recently dropped off some gifts at the White House, but she still hasn’t seen the president in months. She tells this to Linda, who swings by to okay the red satin dress Monica is planning to wear to the Inaugural Ball if she even goes. Monica feels like a kid in these scenes, poring over every comment Bill has ever made and literally making an Excel spreadsheet with her bestie to look for patterns in her crush’s maddening behavior. It turns out Bill has a habit of calling Monica within two weeks of running into her somewhere. She should go to the ball not because she’ll have a good time but because she’ll set one in motion. Meanwhile, Linda watches Bill spin his wife around to “Unforgettable” from her La-Z-Boy.
Monica is soon invited to the White House for Bill’s weekly radio address. He publicly gives her his best “happy to be seeing you” eyes, and later, during a backroom assignation, he gives her a hat pin, which I’m not sure you can use with a beret, but it’s the thought that counts. He also gives her the special edition of Leaves of Grass we saw in episode one, treating us to the convoluted story of how he found it. He was on the campaign trail in Miami and needed to BLOW OFF STEAM because he’s so manly and competitive that he was FURIOUS about how handily he was beating Bob Dole. He was browsing a bookstore IN A COMPLETE RAMPAGE when he saw the book and thought of his dear, sweet Monica. He thinks about dear, sweet Monica a lot. If you squint real hard and try to forget that we know he gifted the same book to Hillary when they were young, it’s almost romantic. “We have to be really careful,” he says before tongue-kissing her in the most surveilled and scrutinized building in the world.
This week, we make the acquaintance of one new character of note: Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff (Danny A. Jacobs), who has been sussing out leads on Clinton’s affairs, hoping to break a story showing the president has abused his power — or, as his co-workers call it, working the “sex beat.” Mike approaches Linda to talk about her sworn enemy Kathleen Willey. He’s the first character to suggest how these various story lines might eventually crash together. “There’s a bigger story,” Linda tells him, blowing him off at the same time that she can’t resist piquing his interest. Her favorite thing to know is just a little bit more than the person she’s talking to. “You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Yes, They Really Did That
• Monica really did give Bill “30 or so” gifts that reflected his interests (and his interests really did include frogs). Among the tokens of affection he acquired were: six neckties, an antique paperweight, a cigar holder, sunglasses, a frog figurine, and a letter opener with a frog on it.
• Ann Coulter really did get fired from MSNBC after an ugly exchange with a Vietnam vet, but, for TV purposes, the timeline was moved up a few months.