Is it just me or is the third outing of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story a little light on crime?
Impeachment follows the twisty tale of an unsexy sex scandal that threatened to bring down the most powerful man in the Free World but actually boosted his approval ratings. Somehow the retelling is even less dramatic than the premise, with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky barely featured in the series premiere. But it’s not just that the crimes at the heart of the previous installments of ACS were more crime-y; they were more resonant. The People v. O.J. Simpson was about race and celebrity and criminal justice in America; The Assassination of Gianni Versace was a look at ’90s homophobia. The first installment of Impeachment, which tracks a mid-career secretary from the day her boss dies to the day she meets Monica, is so far a searing exposé on what can happen to democracy when a miserable person grows meddlesome.
We open on a gray January 1998 morning as Monica (Beanie Feldstein, who disappears skillfully behind the White House staffer’s signature Birkin bangs) moves gloomily among her things, which are exclusively Clinton memorabilia: a stuffed version of Bill’s real dog, Buddy; the newspaper she saved from the day he won his second term; a copy of Leaves of Grass that we know he gave her. Monica’s moving next week — maybe these are the last vestiges of her D.C. chapter, the ones she can hardly bear to pack away. Or perhaps they’re what she is discarding, talismans of the guy she never should have been involved with in the first place.
But before we can ponder, the show rolls into a springy sequence with huge “dust him off” energy. Monica gets Starbucks. Ace of Base plays as she hits step class. “THIS MUST BE THE ’90s!” screams every single directorial choice. Monica answers a page from Linda Tripp (beepers!), who asks to have lunch at the Pentagon City food court (the mall!), where Monica buys a magazine (Jane!) while being trailed by G-men. In a hotel suite, a suit with an earpiece tells Tom Hanks’s good son — Colin as Ken Starr pit bull Mike Emmick — that “the subject” has arrived. As Linda (Sarah Paulson) approaches Monica, a menacing aerial shot captures the crisscrossing shadows cast by a glass cupola. It’s the show’s third visual register in as many minutes.
An hour ago, Monica was about to break ground on a new life in New York City; now she’s starring in a political thriller flanked by FBI agents. She is escorted into a shopping-mall Ritz-Carlton, a Ritz that shares a street address with a Cinnabon. It’s so demeaning. Was there no suite available at the Hay-Adams? This is the kind of show that tempts one to Google, so I can confirm that, according to Monica’s grand-jury testimony, Linda’s betrayal did in fact transpire at a Ritz-Carlton with an adjacent food court. It’s also true that Monica demanded Linda be present for her questioning; what’s omitted is how many times the panicked 24-year-old pleaded to call her mom.
And then, as too often happens these days, we leave the nail-biting forward action for a 45-minute “in the beginning” section that starts five years earlier and from which the emotional center of this opening sequence is absent. In 1993, Linda makes herself a breakfast shake (SlimFast!) and heads to the West Wing, where she works for White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum (Kevin Pollak). She corrects an underling for bringing a packet of paper bound with a paper clip when the boss prefers staples, presumably because Linda is fastidious but also a real pill. In the restroom, she runs into Hillary (Edie Falco), who offends Linda for the same reason HRC offends a lot of people: having the nerve to leave the East Wing.
That said, they’re in the middle of a rare good day at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. RBG was just confirmed to the Court, but deputy WH counsel Vince Foster is too worried about Whitewater to celebrate. He’s poring over a critical WSJ op-ed instead. To brighten his afternoon, Linda adds a pack of Presidential M&M’s to his lunch tray after grabbing a few for herself (we get it, Ryan: Linda’s overweight). “You’re a kind person,” Vince tells Linda, which is not true to the best of our knowledge. They have a protracted and profoundly awkward interaction about the M&M’s. He leaves some leftovers scattered on the tray for her. The M&M’s she got him are now hers again. The dialogue here can best be described as Twin Peaks–y. Vince tells Linda he’ll be back, but instead the 48-year-old drives to a Virginia park and fatally shoots himself, a tragedy that would birth a few conspiracy theories, including that the Clintons had him killed. Is the show implying that Bill Clinton’s impeachment can be traced back, domino by domino, to the fact that a WH secretary blamed the First Couple for her nice boss’s death? When Linda gets to work the next day, Vince’s office is already being cleared of boxes labeled “Whitewater,” and man, is she suspicious.
CUT TO: Los Angeles in 1994. New mom Paula Jones tells someone on the phone (cordless!) that her husband, Steve, has yet to read the magazine story in which her hotel rendezvous with then-Governor Clinton is outlined. When Steve does read it, he’s incensed. They call up lawyer Danny Traylor to help clear Paula’s good name, which does not actually appear in the magazine. Paula wants the president to apologize for exposing himself and requesting oral sex, and she’ll take the apology in the form of a Designing Women walk-on role for her aspiring-actor husband. To get the ball rolling, Danny calls a press conference at CPAC, which was apparently the same sleazy hatefest in 1994 as it more famously became throughout the Trump years. For viewers of a certain age, part of Impeachment’s interest lies in being reminded of events like this that you only half remember. Paula is painfully shy and refuses to divulge the details of Clinton’s “unwanted sexual advances.” The press is as hostile as they were in real life. “Is it something that could have been performed without your taking your clothes off?” is a line ripped from the actual horror show.
From this point forward, the premiere of Impeachment is 50 percent Paula Jones getting manipulated by men with ulterior motives and 50 percent Linda Tripp making a total dick of herself. She’s humble-bragging, I think, when she tells White House volunteer aide Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser) that she’s going to be subpoenaed in the Whitewater investigation. She’s toying with writing a White House tell-all despite not having much to tell or, it turns out, the stomach to tell it. Even if she hates its current occupants and their pizza parties, Linda likes feeling important, and her White House posting undergirds her delusions of grandeur. Kathleen can barely stand her, though she still confides in Linda when Bill kisses her in the Oval. She’s just always around.
It’s not until Bernie resigns that Linda learns exactly how unpopular she is. She’s so awful in her meeting with the incoming WH counsel that he gives her job to Kathleen instead. Eventually, she’s promoted up and out of the West Wing to an unglamorous Pentagon post. If Linda was upset about what happened with Vince, now she’s enraged. “I will get you for this,” Linda spits at Kathleen.
As Linda is exiled, Paula attracts powerful admirers. Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) thinks the frizzy-haired girl from Arkansas is the right avatar for her Clinton takedown. “Let’s get her some real lawyers,” one of Coulter’s goons says, an echo of Jeffrey Toobin’s thesis in A Vast Conspiracy, the book that steers the series. Bill Clinton was guilty, yes, but by the mid-’90s, both Democrats and Republicans exploited the courts to settle political disputes. Paula is going to have to sue. “This will be tried in the courtroom and not in the media,” her new Beltway lawyer concludes at the press conference he calls on the courthouse steps.
Time shifts fast on Impeachment. It’s suddenly 1996, and Clinton is running for reelection and Linda has been at the Pentagon for almost two years. It really does suck. Instead of a semi-private carpeted office with fabric lampshades and hygge in the style of Laura Ashley, Linda’s got a desk in a cavernous tiled room that’s bigger than the White House canteen. She and her cubicle-mate are enemies. She finally snags a temporary office through sustained and vociferous complaining. Linda is nothing if not relentless. In fact, she’s still not over her West Wing ouster. After stewing in purgatory, she’s finally ready to write that tell-all. If only she had some hot goss.
As if on cue, in walks Monica, a White House intern turned staffer, now banished to the Pentagon — at least for “a few months.” She and Linda bond over being lightly bullied in school and feeling marooned at DoD. Linda can smell a secret; Monica’s judgment is terrible. The fast friends with a 20-year age gap agree to grab a happy-hour drink next week before going home to their respective low-fat frozen dinners. For Linda, an evening alone means calling lit agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) and telling her to save some room on the roster for an ex-WH busybody who knows an intern barred from the West Wing until after the election. For Monica, it’s a call from her maybe kinda boyfriend, POTUS.
Bill’s non-presence looms over the premiere, but when he finally shows up, it’s anticlimactic. Did the hero just arrive or the big baddie? The decision to Tarantino the Impeachment timeline purchases intrigue on the cheap, but somewhere in that choice lies the admission that Linda Tripp’s conniving isn’t the real narrative engine. She’s a disgruntled ex-employee with a vindictive streak longer than the Starr report; Paula is dim to the point of childish; Monica is allowed the backbone to call out her frenemy’s treachery, but she’s still powerless. Impeachment has been touted as putting women at its center, and I’m excited to see how that plays out across the series. But in episode one, at least, they’re no more fully rendered than they were on the periphery.
Yes, They Really Did That
• At one point, we randomly overhear Linda confirming Bernie’s dinner reservation with Roseanne actress Estelle Parsons. The Nussbaums really did have dinner the night Foster died, according to an interview Nussbaum gave for Clinton’s library.
• Paula Jones really did sketch Bill’s penis, though according to Toobin, that happened at Bill’s lawyers’ request during a deposition: “Could you sort of just show me what you mean on that piece of paper? Draw the penis for me. Show me what you mean by the shaft was bent or crooked.” Toobin, who coincidentally has had some recent trouble with exposure, named an entire chapter of his book after the incident.