The arc of a TV show isn’t always a perfect fit for real-life events. In that regard, “Stand by Your Man” can be frustrating. The president finally tells the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky to his wife and the nation, effectively undoing his machinations in the previous episode and not for any compelling reason, like personal growth. Bill’s simply run out of road. His scattershot scheming can make for scattershot TV. Luckily, there’s the inimitable Edie Falco to ground us.
For the first seven episodes of Impeachment, Falco has lurked in a role so small I was genuinely puzzled why they bothered to cast such a powerhouse. This week, it makes sense. Hillary takes off her Bill-size blinders and confronts the brutally unfair situation in which she finds herself: The public face of her husband’s lies. When she finally lets rip, it’s clear why the role needs Falco. “You are chaos. You are mayhem,” she screams as she pegs him with a bouquet of fresh flowers. “You lit our life on fire,” she adds tearily. How do you play an outrageously angry and resentful woman who already knows that she won’t leave? That she can’t? Falco injects pathos into a decision popularly regarded as calculating.
When the episode begins, though, it’s 1992, and the president isn’t yet president. Rather than re-create the press conference Gennifer Flowers gave to promote Star’s coverage of her affair with Bill, Impeachment just runs the tape. Bill’s team asks Hillary, still in the throes of her hatband phase, to come to New Hampshire for damage control. Right out of the gate, she suggests calling her Little Rock PI for some dirt to dump on Gen, which is, let’s face it, a very Clinton-esque thing to suggest. Instead, they settle on 60 Minutes and a black-ribbon headband to offset her emerald-green blazer. If Hillary can stomach Bill’s philandering, the thinking goes, voters will too. His advisers are right, but the very footage that saves Bill’s campaign creates America’s unshakable impression that Hillary is “abrasive” and “unfeeling.” Even in 2016, the heartland’s Tammy Wynette fans were among the constituencies she couldn’t win.
Alas, we mustn’t dwell. Somewhere in the year of our Lord 1998, Monica gets an anonymous phone call warning her that Hillary is planning to give her the Gennifer Flowers special, which is to say, destroy her reputation by planting the details of her shady past in national news outlets. Seeing as Andy, the first married man Monica slept with, has already appeared on CNN, the only reasonable response is “Yeah, duh.” It’s the eve of Marcia Lewinsky’s grand-jury testimony, but Monica, still without an immunity deal, is banished to her father’s Mission Revival mansion in California. It’s as far as she can get from the scandal that bears her name without looking like a fugitive.
Meanwhile, HRC, now with a chic bob, is doing the morning shows, attesting to her husband’s fidelity and attempting to redirect public attention toward Ken Starr’s desperate, sprawling $30 million effort to charge Bill with a crime, any federal crime at all. Impeachment deftly casts the Today show appearance, in which Hillary first invokes the language of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as an echo of the 60 Minutes interview. Hillary is further burdened with a reputation for being defensive and misleading, but Bill profits just from the fact the words “vast right-wing conspiracy” are out there in circulation. At least he has the manners to say thank you.
Four months go by, but nothing much changes. Ken and his team don’t have conclusive evidence of Bill’s perjury, and they can’t get it without Monica’s testimony. They can’t get Monica’s testimony because they can’t offer her immunity, and they can’t offer her immunity because Ken doesn’t like her pugnacious lawyer Bill Ginsburg. So Ken hauls Monica in for a handwriting sample. It’s a facile attempt to scare her into cooperating, and, well, it works. Monica’s dad sidelines Bill, replaces him with men Ken Starr doesn’t find morally offensive, and a deal is struck. Monica gives Ken’s team everything, even the “Gap dress, size 12, dark blue,” as Mike Emmick somehow straight-facedly logs it.
We know it’s August now because Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have bombed America’s East African embassies, killing 12 U.S. citizens, and Bill is weighing a military response. This means he really does have more pressing things to think about when he agrees to testify before the grand jury (to avoid being subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, naturally). When the DNA on Monica’s dress matches the sample taken from Bill, the independent counsel’s office feels emboldened to go full Brett Kavanaugh, which herein means “to ask incredibly sexually explicit questions in the hopes of embarrassing the most powerful man on earth.” Meanwhile, Bill’s cooking up his own slippery perjury defense. Yes, in the real world, he had sexual relations with Monica, but according to the particular definition of sexual relations offered by Paula Jones’s lawyers, he absolutely did not have sexual relations with Monica. He dispatches David Kendall to warn Hillary that his new defense requires him to admit he had an affair even though he’s asked her to go on TV and say otherwise. Bill Clinton, ladies and gentlemen.
To her credit, Hillary remains steadfast in her trust in Bill. “He tells me everything,” she says to David, meaning that he tells her even the bad stuff, the stuff husbands don’t ordinarily tell wives. She might not be his only sexual partner, but they are partners. “That’s how we survive.”
It takes Bill a whole day to tell her that she’s wrong. When he does, Hillary’s as upset by the secrets as the infidelity. You can literally watch her cycle through the levels of betrayal, her mind skipping through the consequences of what Bill’s done. There are his lies, yes, and the lies she was asked to tell unwittingly. We already know that Edie Falco can play a woman scorned, but it’s so good to be reminded.
Jackie Bennett is raring to question Bill, but before he can start, Bill asks to read a statement he thinks will save everybody time. I thought this seemed reasonable, but the lawyer who was sitting next to me as I watched immediately exclaimed, “I can’t believe they’re letting him read a statement!” Ten points for Bill, I guess, who says he won’t address the details of their assignations, and zero points for Ken Starr’s team of horndogs. Bill runs out the four-hour testimony clock with long-winded answers designed to probe the limits of the English language when it comes to describing what happens in the bedroom. The trickier reckoning is the one he’s about to have with the American people via national address. He needs to find the right words to confess his affair with Monica before Ken Starr makes it known. Hillary, quite rightly, refuses to help him.
Afterward, the Clintons head to Martha’s Vineyard to escape the circus, but, of course, the circus follows. They’re its ringleaders. Hillary suffers through a torturous dinner with Vernon Jordan and his wife, presumably just so she can land the insult “I honor my commitments” when Bill offers to cancel. Bill, for his part, seems as upset about Hillary’s silent treatment as the fact Dennis Kucinich won’t take his calls. “They’re mad at you for lying,” Vernon explains, completely unhelpfully. It goes without saying that the meal is awkward as hell, with Bill inadvertently calling his wife un-fun and repeating that hoary punch line about how if Hillary had married a gas station attendant, that guy would be president. If you can imagine, Hillary is not immediately overcome with forgiveness. At least the pours of red wine look generous.
When they finally get back home, it’s time for the blowout that the entire episode has been building toward. Over at the Jordans, she admired a new painting of a smallish ship nearly keeling in a blustery sea. I wonder what part of the painting she identified with then. She’s the ship at the mercy of someone else’s tide, but in your own life, shouldn’t you get to be the storm? Hillary calls Bill on his bullshit about Monica’s obsessiveness; she suggests that, at 52 years old, he stop blaming his moral weakness on the fact his grandmother used to be mean to him. HELL YES. “We were a team,” Hillary pleads. He was always the weather, but she wasn’t the ship. She was something bigger, a force that could “control” him. Bill begs her not to leave him, but, of course, she’s going to stay. His career is her career; his world is her world. There’s nowhere else for her to go. Bill leaves, and Hillary stays on the island, looking out at the sea. For her, though, there is no safe shore. She knows she’s the boat. She was always the stupid boat.
Yes, They Really Did That
• Tammy Wynette really did want an apology from Hillary for denigrating her hit “Stand by Your Man” during her 60 Minutes. “I would like you to appear with me on any forum,” Wynette demanded. “I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.”
• Brett Kavanaugh really did advocate going ham on Bill Clinton. One question that he proposed in a memo since released by the National Archives: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?”
• Bill Clinton really did call into question the meaning of the word “is” during his grand-jury testimony. I mean, you couldn’t make that up.
More From This Series
- The Limits of the Women’s Redemption Plot
- Fact-checking Impeachment’s Final Act
- Impeachment: American Crime Story Season-Finale Recap: Monica’s Story