American Crime Story
I’m a sucker for a Christmas episode. I like the hazy glow of a well-lit tree on-camera. I like seeing what other people do on a morning when we’re mostly invisible to one another. (To this point, the Tripp family’s Christmas pajamas are magnificent). Characters, drunk on glögg and nostalgia, can’t quash their sentimentality, even tough characters like Linda. On the night of her annual Christmas party, she sits in a parked car in front of her immaculately bedecked home. “The closer you get,” she tells Monica, “the nearer you are to the end.” I almost cried for my own mortality.
It’s December 1997, a year into Bill Clinton’s second term and the night of Jake Tapper’s date with Monica Lewinsky, the one he would embarrassingly chronicle for D.C.’s alt-weekly. (“She was cute, if a little zaftig. And friendly. And nice.” Deeper in the story, he adds “chubby” to his litany of descriptors. Years later, Tapper would embarrassingly defend himself on Twitter: “Yeah i regret those two words but largely the piece stands up i think.”) Tapper is wearing the Knives Out sweater. They mostly talk about work, which is all anyone talks about in federal Washington, a city inside a city that is mostly populated by young people who would like to be president one day and older people who never became president. At least Tapper pays.
Between her subpoena and the 110-pound card-stock Christmas party invitations, Linda’s desk is covered in personal paperwork. She enlists Monica as head elf, tasked with delivering invites around the office, which is surprising because Linda is mostly a Scrooge who holds her colleagues in extreme contempt. Monica is planning a trip to NYC for her Revlon interview, which means she gave notice at the Pentagon before actually getting the job. I suppose it’s not that risky; a letter of rec from the commander-in-chief is likely to open doors. She tells Linda she’s planning to get the executive semen washed off her blue dress for the event.
Linda immediately calls Lucianne, who is her lit agent, her lawyer, and now, apparently, a qualified forensic consultant. At all costs, Linda must prevent Monica from laundering the dress, she says. One day they may need the DNA preserved on that dress to corroborate Linda’s account of their sexual relationship. Convinced by Lucianne, Linda commits what I believe to be among her most reprehensible violations of Monica’s trust: She says Monica looks heavy in the dress. Between them, there’s little worse in this world than looking heavy.
Over at the White House, it’s depo prep day. The president’s lawyers are playing Paula Jones’s team; Bill is playing Bill. It’s not going well. Bill can’t handle the indignity of the questions, the implication that he has had affairs with women who aren’t Hillary. He gives the “as a father of a daughter” defense a presidential upgrade, which goes something like, “If I was the kind of guy to sexually harass Paula Jones, then why do I have Janet Reno and Madeleine Albright in my Cabinet?” He calls Monz at 2:30 a.m. to let her know she has been added to the witness list. She lets him know she’ll deny everything, no sweat.
Monica is complaining about her predicament to Linda, who finally admits to having been subpoenaed as the two browse the Christmas serveware at Tysons I. Monica straight-up asks Linda to lie under oath, which strikes me as a Very Big Deal and also something that Washington’s savviest operators do all the time. For example, the president is days from lying under oath at this point in the timeline. Monica presses the matter again at Linda’s party, which is a smash. It’s more of a stand-and-chat than a Ron Bonjean holiday rager, but even her Pentagon boss, Ken Bacon, shows up to admire Linda’s miniature Bavarian village. Monica, though, can’t relax into the holiday spirit. The walls are closing in, and “Carol of the Bells” is the menacing soundtrack to her waking nightmare. Sitting in her car outside the party, she screams, but still Linda doesn’t promise to lie. Vernon Jordan helps Monica find a lawyer to write her a patchy affidavit while Linda dodges her obsessive calls.
December whips by in a blur of eggnog, and suddenly it’s Monica’s last day at work. Her move to New York, the one she was prepping for in the early moments of the premiere, is next week. Impeachment’s A-story is moments from colliding with Impeachment’s frame story, which isn’t as exciting as it should be. Monica goes to the White House to say good-bye to Bill, who gives her more dumb gifts, like a stuffed-animal Buddy from the gift shop. She doesn’t want to take them because Paula’s lawyers somehow knew about the hatpin he had given her before. Bill wishes her well, and she seems to understand that this is the last time they will ever be alone together. He kisses her on the forehead and tells her to “be good,” sounding more like Santa Claus than her ex.
This should be the end of the Bill Clinton chapter of Monica Lewinsky’s story. In all likelihood, it would have been, if not for Linda Tripp. Linda brings her recordings of Monica to her lawyer, who lets her know that Maryland, where she lives and chin-wags, is a two-party-consent state. The tapes are meager evidence of an affair but damning evidence that Linda committed a felony. He suggests telling Bob Bennett about the tapes to motivate the president to settle the Paula Jones suit. Without the suit, there’s no cause to depose Linda and no threat of exposing the existence of the tapes. It’s a pretty neat little strategy, if you ask me.
Except that other people, mostly crazy Lucianne, know about the tapes, and exposure isn’t a liability — it’s the end goal. The prosecution is only a problem for people who can’t get immunity. With Linda’s say-so, Lucianne calls George Conway, who back channels with someone on Ken Starr’s team, which had basically given up hope of ever catching Bill Clinton in an impeachable crime. Even a young Brett Kavanaugh thinks the Whitewater evidence is spurious. But like George Bailey at the end of the movie, Linda’s tapes give Ken a renewed reason to go on.
Did anyone else totally forget that Colin Hanks is in this show? Ken sends his guys to Linda’s house, and she tells them everything she knows in her signature unlikable way. She agrees to hand over the tapes and even offers to wear a wire to a lunch date with Monica. It takes approximately six seconds for Monica to re-confess every essential detail: the affair, the false affidavit, the president’s fixer getting her a job. It’s too late, of course, but Monica takes a final stab at securing Linda’s silence. If the roles were reversed, she would absolutely stay mum, she says, and I believe her. But Monica is too trusting and too eager to be liked. I wish there were fewer people in the world whom she’d be willing to take such risks for. Still, she seems to sniff at least a little dishonesty wafting off Linda. Monica rifles through her handbag when Linda leaves for the restroom.
Halfway through the season, Impeachment has saddled itself with an awkward structure. The series’s emotional energy lives with Monica, but the story can move only as quickly as the Arkansas State Court. Back in Little Rock, Paula is still palling around with Susie Carpenter-McMillan, though Mama Jones wishes her daughter would grab the cash and be done with it. Bob Bennett is vicious as he takes Paula’s deposition. He asks if she gave four men blowies at the same party in 1987. It’s ugly and exasperating, and Paula is rightfully distraught. She wants to know why Susie didn’t warn her, but why would she? It’s easier to lead a lamb to slaughter when it’s blindfolded.
“The closer you get, the nearer you are to the end”: Linda’s doleful words hang over the episode. The show is barreling toward a reckoning for Paula, Monica, and Linda, and for Bill, too. No one will survive intact. It’s not just a matter of days falling off the calendar; there are so many ways to move closer. Linda finds herself deep in a Washington world that had held her at arm’s length. But it’s more dangerous at the center of things. Once you’re at the center, there’s nowhere left to hide.
Yes, They Really Did That
• Bob Bennett really did find a guy called Dennis Kirkland who claimed he had sex with Paula Jones on the same night that she gave oral sex to his buddy. Clinton’s team even deposed him.
• Bill Clinton really did get semen on Monica’s dress, though Monica believed it might have been spinach dip. Lucianne, it turns out, was right on the science.