For those who could afford it, antiretroviral therapies had granted a reprieve from the death sentence that AIDS represented, but gay men were still routinely regarded with fear, if not contempt. Basic mainstream acceptance of their lives and relationships, much less legal recognition, was a ways off. A taint hung over discussions of gay sexuality, yet the yearning for companionship, love and joy had become far more open since the worst of the AIDS crisis a decade earlier.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the episode is when the local police are interviewing Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), Versace’s partner. His white tennis shirt and shorts encrusted with his lover’s blood, a forlorn and exhausted D’Amico is asked to explain why “dancers, models and escorts” have been in and out of the house.
“I was his partner, not his pimp,” D’Amico replies. He loved Versace. They were together for 15 years. The officer is mystified.
“The other men, did they consider themselves to be Versace’s partner too?” he asks.
Whether such a lack of understanding affected Cunanan’s evolution as a killer will presumably be a dominant theme for the rest of the season, which is loosely based on the journalist Maureen Orth’s “Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” The first suggestion that he might be lacking a moral compass comes in a flashback to 1990, when a fawning and flirtatious Cunanan approaches Versace and his entourage in a crowded nightclub in San Francisco, but later tells his friends that it was Versace who initiated the conversation.
It emerges that Cunanan — who graduated from an elite private high school in San Diego and, after dropping out of college, lived off a series of benefactors — tells so many lies that even he may have come to believe them. A Catholic and a former altar boy, he passes himself off as a Jew. Asked why he tells straight people that he’s straight, and gay people that he’s gay, he replies, “I tell people what they want to hear.”
Versace invites the young fabulist to a night at the opera: a production of Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio,” for which Versace designed the costumes. They exchange origin stories. Versace’s centers on his muse — his sister, Donatella — and love of family. Cunanan’s outlandish tale involves a wealthy father who owned a pineapple plantation in the Philippines, became a pilot for Imelda Marcos, and later ran off with a farmhand, who also served as the chauffeur of his Rolls-Royce. Got that?
If Versace is incredulous, he’s too polite to say so. He is downright avuncular as he tells Cunanan, “You’re handsome, you’re clever, I’m sure you’re going to be someone really special one day.”
That’s some understatement: Returning to 1997, we learn that Cunanan was wanted for four other murders before Versace’s. A botched nationwide manhunt, it seems, has failed to prevent a serial killer from striking again. The F.B.I. has joined the Miami Beach police as they home in on Cunanan.
Meanwhile, Donatella Versace (Penélope Cruz) flies in from Italy and asserts control over her slain brother’s business empire, which was headed for an initial public offering on the Milan and New York stock exchanges. She comes across as fiercely protective of her brother’s legacy, if a little sinister. “My brother is still alive as long as Versace is alive,” she declares, making clear that the brand has transcended the man. She later brushes aside a grieving D’Amico, telling him: “This is not a time for strangers. This is a time for family.”
The term “assassination” is, so far, an enigma. The hotels of South Beach, the nightclubs of San Francisco, the gay demimonde and the Italianate arias so lavishly depicted in this series seem fairly removed from the world of politics, particularly at a time when AIDS had begun to recede as a public health crisis and when legal recognition of same-sex relationships still seemed like a distant prospect. How will this show’s creators define politics — including the politics of the closet? What criteria will it use to deem Gianni Versace’s death an assassination? Or — as the bloodied turtle dove found next to his body suggests — was it more like a martyrdom?