If you believe people can be monsters, devoid of the tiniest drop of humanity, then surely you would place Andrew Cunanan in that category. I’m not certain I agree; it’s too easy to dismiss everyone who commits a beastly crime as evil, delusional, or a sociopath. Cunanan may well have been all three of those things, but he was also a person with dreams and desires whose life went disastrously awry. And The Assassination of Gianni Versace would be empty crime porn if it didn’t try to understand why he ended up at Versace’s villa with a gun in his hand.
Now that the show’s reverse-chronological timeline has gotten past Cunanan’s five murders, writer Tom Rob Smith faces the difficult task of discerning his motives—a particular challenge because he didn’t live long enough to be interrogated or interviewed about his killing spree. This week’s episode opens a year before Andrew broke bad and follows him until that final flight to Minneapolis. Its title, “Descent,” pretty much captures his trajectory during that year.
Andrew is loving life at the beginning of the hour, swimming naked at a mountaintop mansion with an ocean view, in La Jolla. The home, we learn, belongs to his sugar daddy, Norman Blachford (Michael Nouri). Meanwhile, Andrew is trying to impress a long-distance boyfriend, his future victim David Madson. “Who are you trying to be?” his old friend Lizzie asks at his birthday party. “Someone he can love,” Andrew replies. (Is it fair to say he loved Madson? I’m not sure love was part of his emotional repertoire—what’s more important is that he wanted Madson more than anything else in the world.) But by the end of the episode, Andrew is broke, has lost both men, and is crying his mother’s tub as she bathes him. This is what hitting rock bottom looks like.
At this point, the show’s timeline gets a bit confusing. The previous episode alternated between scenes set in 1997, just before Andrew killed Jeff Trail, and flashbacks to 1995, when Smith has them meeting for the first time (even though they actually met years earlier). “Descent” begins at the midpoint between those two moments, the top of a long slide into desperation. So it’s worth taking a second to break down who the new characters are and what roles they played in Cunanan’s life before we get into Smith’s interpretation of his motives.
Before he was a murderer, Cunanan was a kept boy. His intelligence, social connections, and knowledge of the arts made him a sort of courtesan to the older, wealthier gays in San Diego (Vulgar Favors author Maureen Orth compares him to a geisha). At the time, Cunanan was calling himself Andrew DeSilva and had adopted a cover story designed to win the sympathies of these men: Before coming out and being disowned by his rich parents, he’d been married with a daughter.
Cunanan had certainly courted other men from this circle by the time he met 58-year-old Norman Blachford in 1994. Blachford had made his fortune selling sound insulation. He’d just lost his partner of a quarter-century to AIDS and was cautious about letting a new lover into his life. Cunanan persisted. In July 1995, he moved into Blachford’s home. (You can read more on that period here.) As part of their arrangement, Blachford bought Cunanan an Infiniti, made his credit card payments, and gave him $2,500 to spend each month. It’s unclear how often they slept together; Cunanan claimed their relationship was platonic, and the bedroom they shared really did contain twin beds, but acquaintances told Orth that was impossible.
The dual birthday parties in “Descent”—a snoozefest for Blachford's friends and a blowout for Cunanan's—actually took place in August 1995. That insane scene where Cunanan orders Trail to wear a pair of Ferragamos, give Cunanan another pair as a present, and lie about his occupation, though? Cunanan didn’t meet Madson until a few months after that party. Otherwise, the incident reportedly happened more or less as written.
Cunanan's arrangement with Blachford started to dissolve the next summer, ostensibly over the Mercedes SL 600 (a $125,000 car) we see him demand in the episode. Smith sticks close to the facts here, too: When he walked out, Cunanan expected Blachford to come crawling back to him, but was instead forced to find a cheap apartment of his own.
By then, his relationship with Madson had also deteriorated. He made a last-ditch effort to win Madson back, in April 1997, during an expensive weekend trip to Los Angeles—where, fun fact, a friend of Madson’s introduced them to her pal Lisa Kudrow. As we see in the episode, despite Cunanan’s extravagance, the gesture failed. (When Madson says to Cunanan, “I get the feeling that you don’t have many great nights with people,” it’s the show’s most honest moment to date.) Madson insisted to Cunanan that he only wanted to be friends. In “Descent,” he ruins his final chance with Madson by feeding him a new, unbelievable life story—and it’s pathetic. The truth is, by then, they’d already broken up, and Madson was dating other people.
The scene where a desperate Cunanan pounds on Blachford's door at night is fiction. But Cunanan did place one last call to Blachford, the day he killed Jeff Trail, acknowledging that they were through and to announcing an upcoming move to San Francisco. “Blachford was somewhat puzzled by the call,” Orth writes. “He already knew that Andrew was leaving.”
This week’s American Horror Story moment came courtesy of “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Sinner” actress Joanna Adler, who plays Cunanan's mother in high Grand-Guignol style. That scene where he’s curled up in the tub and she’s promising him “I’m gonna make you smell like you again” is as fantastical as it looks. The last thing Cunanan is known to have done in San Diego was throw himself a farewell dinner party. But that’s not to say that the real MaryAnn Cunanan was so different from the bizarre character we meet in “Descent.”
As you may have suspected, MaryAnn was never the sophisticated publisher Andrew talks up to Madson. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she was born in Ohio and moved to California at 19. She soon married Pete Cunanan, the father of Andrew and her three other children (all of whom we’ll likely learn more about later). Awed by his precociousness, the couple were as indulgent of young Andrew as we’ve seen his character suggest throughout the show. MaryAnn remained loyal to him even after his death, insisting that he wasn’t capable of killing five people.
Orth describes MaryAnn as “very fragile, by turns garrulous and stupefied, teetering on the brink of total emotional meltdown. Mainly, she seems to be all sweetness and light, but her mood can swing at any time.” She’d been seeing a psychiatrist for years before her son's murder spree and subsisted on disability payments; you can see the exterior of her humble National City, CA home in this article. A devout Catholic, she’d give away what little money she had—although, when Andrew was little, she spent wildly and used sex to wheedle big purchases out of Pete.
Does the terrible year that plays out in “Descent,” plus everything we’ve seen in previous episodes, add up to a believable motive for Andrew? Well, it’s clear he’s got very little left to live for by the time he flies to Minneapolis—no Madson, no Blachford, no Trail, no money, no success. If you’re already abusing drugs and have always lacked a moral compass, that loneliness and desperation might well be enough to turn your thoughts toward violent crime.
Then there’s his belief, one that’s pretty rich for a kept boy, that everyone uses him. In a strange, red-lit vision of an encounter with Gianni Versace, Andrew announces, “I happen to believe that I’m the most generous person that ever lived,” before demanding, “What could be more generous than spending everything on other people and being left with nothing? What could be more generous than finding soulmates for other people and ending up alone?” Cunanan really did feel this way. Orth reports that he dropped a ton of money on his friends, that he often set them up on dates, and that he assumed people only spent time with him for those reasons.
Shakier is this idea that Cunanan killed Versace because he was obsessed with the designer and his achievements. That’s the argument underlying Cunanan's dream, in which he attributes Versace’s success to luck and seems to get off on the powerful man taking his measurements. The designer may have been on Cunanan’s mind as a target; a friend who drove him to the airport told Orth that he’d gone on about his hatred for Versace, a man who he said “came from nothing” and made his reputation through “hard work.”
Cunanan’s supposed resentment toward high achievers is Orth’s fixation. While it makes sense that Smith would pick up on this argument, the extent to which he uses it to keep Versace in the story is a bit much. Did Cunanan make Versace collages and tell his mom that he traveled the world with the designer, making opera costumes? Probably not. I get that Smith is painting Versace as the light to Andrew’s darkness. But the approach flattens out both characters—and Cunanan’s story is absorbing enough to make the embellishment feel kind of unnecessary.
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