American Crime Story
My condolences to Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein, two capable actors who’ve been tasked with finding 900 ways to have the exact same conversation every episode. Impeachment, purportedly a series about a president’s impeachment, is also an elegy for landline culture. Monica and Linda call each other obsessively, back and forth, umpteen times a day. Even Linda’s teenage daughter — the singular ’90s creature for whom the board games Dream Phone, in which you talk on a hot-pink phone to figure out who likes you, and Girl Talk Date Line, in which you talk on a baby-pink phone to figure out who likes you, were created — thinks it’s a little much. Linda and Monica talked on the phone so much this episode that I developed a phantom ear burn, like the one I’d get as a 16-year-old, cordless pressed between my face and my pillow, as I argued with my high-school boyfriend about who would hang up first.
It’s August 1997 now, a year since Monica was sent to DoD purgatory and over three since Paula Jones filed her lawsuit. Bill’s aide and longtime friend Marsha Scott is trying to break the bad news that by this point should be more than evident: There’s no room for Monica at the White House. There will never be room for Monica at the White House. Where Monica is concerned, the White House may as well be Mars, but more airless and hostile to life.
But Monica is delusional. Having just read Linda’s Newsweek account of the Kathleen tryst, she begs Linda to apologize, so the Big Creep doesn’t vengefully box her out of the White House (which has already happened). Linda matches her delusions, of course. She worried there’s a target on her back because she used to bring Vince Foster his lunch tray. (To be fair, someone did anonymously leave a Clinton hit list on her desk.) Still, Linda’s right about one thing: No one at the White House is looking out for either of them.
Suddenly panicked that her Newsweek splash has made her vulnerable, Linda calls Lucianne (again) and tells her (again) that she’s ready to write a tell-all about the White House and the Pentagon, not limited to but including the fact that the president has maintained a two-year relationship with the most persistent 20-something in America. The sneaky witch reveals she’s been taking notes on everything Monica tells her, but Lucianne says she needs cold, hard proof. She encourages Linda to start taping their calls, but Linda hesitates (again).
Soon, though, Linda convinces herself she’s doing her girl a favor by blowing up her spot. Monica visits the White House (again) without an appointment (again), but Bill’s watching G.I. Jane with Chelsea (decent movie choice). We’ve seen this scene before in previous episodes, but what struck me this time around is how chummy Betty is with Monica, how cheerily complicit she is in her boss’s adultery. Monica calls Linda sobbing and suicidal from a nearby pay phone, and Linda calls Lucianne to say she’s ready to take down the leader of the free world. For some expository reason that the show does nothing to foreshadow or explain, Lucianne grows tender. She warns Linda that the Clintons don’t fuck around when it comes to their enemies; Monica will be smeared.
Linda goes to RadioShack and, like a gearhead stoked to unbox a new toy, rushes home, shoves a fresh tape in her recorder, and starts reinterrogating Monica about the dates and details of all her executive rendezvous. After a few weeks, Linda and Lucianne try to play the convos for Isikoff, but he doesn’t think it’s newsworthy that the president hates it when his girlfriend orgasms. That isn’t an abuse of power — just a bad relationship.
So Linda goes fishing for something more conventionally conspiratorial. In a phone call we don’t see (praise be!), a WH friend tells Linda that Monica’s name has a black mark next to it. She relays the devastating but obvious news to Monica in a phone call we do see. Linda’s even the one to suggest that Bill owes Monica a job, perhaps outside D.C. She mentions that Vernon Jordan, Bill’s friend and aide, could probably get her a gig in New York. It would be a thoughtful suggestion if it weren’t also entrapment.
Monica calls Betty to yell at her about the White House’s duplicity, and Betty calls Bill to tell him how mean Monica was, and Bill calls Monica to admonish her to be a “good girl.” CALLS, CALLS, CALLS. Monica informs Bill she’s moving to New York, which he thinks is a great idea. She asks for Vernon’s help, and Bill says he’ll CALL him and, just like that, Linda has accomplished inception. Monica laments that she won’t see Bill in New York, and he tells her he’ll be there as soon as he’s done being president. “Life is long,” he says, condescendingly, because men are assholes.
For such a young person, Monica is spookily good with older men. She knows the right ways to stroke Vernon’s ego and how much to laugh at his nothing conversation. She has a convincing story about why she wants out of politics, and he proposes a job at Revlon. “It’s so nice to meet someone genuine in this town,” Monica tells him cannily. He gives her ass a little tap on the way out because he can guess all about his friend Bill’s girl Friday.
Stunningly for an episode that’s transpired almost entirely in phone calls, it still dips into a big Linda/Monica phone-call montage. Bill needs to follow up with Vernon, says Linda. It’s banana-and-milk-only day, says Monica. No, it’s beets-only day. No, fuck beets; Linda is done with beets. The tapes are accumulating. The tapes live in a basket on the coffee table. Monica slanders Babs. Linda and Monica fall asleep on the phone, not unlike me and my high-school boyfriend. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. offers Monica a job, but she would rather hawk makeup. Bill is going to call Vernon, says Monica. Maybe it’s time to apologize to Betty, says Monica. Maybe Monica should go to the West Wing Christmas party. TAPES, TAPES, TAPES.
Eventually, Linda loses it and hangs up, and I can’t blame her. Monica’s emotions are giving me whiplash, too. She hates the president; she loves the president. She needs to get out of D.C.; she can’t bear to put an Acela track between her and the love of her young life. Linda eventually calls her back, guilty. “I have something to confess,” she starts. “I lost three pounds.” Monica generously invites her over to grab pieces from her fat closet, which I guess is Linda’s skinny closet.
The women are perusing Monica’s messy wardrobe when Linda unearths THE DRESS, curled up in a ball on the floor, maybe awaiting dry cleaning or maybe kept as a freaky memento: the president’s semen preserved on a cotton-blend blue dress from the Gap. It’s a revelation you couldn’t get away with in fiction; it’s too implausible to be anything other than 100 percent true.
But as the women trade war stories, it emerges that Monica’s relationship with Bill is the most satisfying one she’s ever had. As a teen, she had an affair with a guy on her high school’s drama staff. When she went away to college in Portland, he followed, and the relationship resumed. Before that, when she was 14, a camp counselor tried to have sex with her. And since then, there’s really only been Bill, who bought her a hairpin and got her a job at Revlon that starts in the new year. It’s nothing remotely like love, and yet it’s the closest she’s come. Linda watches her young friend sleep, her face a picture of maternal concern. Then she promptly tells Lucianne about the sullied dress.
Linda doesn’t have time to write a book; she needs to free Monica, who’s spent the last decade in thrall to older men, right now. It’ll hurt Lucianne’s bottom line, but I guess her hatred for the Clintons matters to her more. She tells a lawyer who works with George Conway about Monica and the dress, and George tells the Jones team, and before long, Monica and Linda’s names appear on a list of potential witnesses. Linda even smiles as she gets served.
Bill doesn’t blink when he learns Monica’s being roped into the Paula Jones suit. Monica is a good girl, and she’ll say what needs to be said. He can’t know that the problem is already bigger than a lovestruck intern’s loose lips. On his way to the residence, he walks down a hall of presidential portraits and throws a glance at JFK, America’s second-most famously philandering leader. He stares across the bedroom at his sleeping wife and … what? We don’t know Bill well enough at this point to imagine what he’s thinking. But we can guess.