OK: For anyone wondering if this show is going to become less heartbreaking over time? It’s looking like no.
Last week’s emotional heavyweight “House by the Lake” focused on the psychological torture and eventual murder of architect David Madson (Cody Fern). But the hint is that Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) got to Madson via Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), the man he bludgeons with a hammer in the first minutes of the episode, so we’ve been primed to expect this episode take us back to how Trail got wrapped up in this horrible spiderweb. The fifth episode of this series is the first not to have an actual murder in it, but trust me, it’s not going to make anything less painful.
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is a layered meditation on uniforms and conformity, masks and unmaskings. It moves back and forth in time in a way that’s easy to track but a little hard to describe; there’s a logic to this episode that poets will recognize. It turns on symbol and metaphor at least as much as plot, and it has a lot of layers of commentary on. . .well, on the nature of identity when you get down to brass tacks.
Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) arranges an interview in which he intends to come out publically. Donatella (Penelope Cruz) is annoyed (when is she not?) because she thinks her brother’s coming out might have a negative impact on sales. “Well,” her brother quips, annoyed, “we’ll still have Elton, no?” She blames Antonio (Ricky Martin). She tells Gianni it’s not only his decision; the company has to be taken into account. She reminds him (thanks, Sis) of how people stopped buying Perry Ellis’s clothes after he appeared on the runway so ravaged by AIDS his models had to help keep him on his feet. “Probably his most important show,” Versace remarks. He calmly makes it clear to Donatella that he’s done hiding, that after his own brush with mortality he intends to spend the rest of his life being who he is. Nothing in the closet here (except a lot of very loud print fabrics).
Meanwhile, Jeff Trail is working a manual labor job and loses it when a fellow vet asks why a career-track Annapolis graduate left the Navy. He has this friend-friend-plus?—an architect named David. They both get the news that Andrew’s coming into town. It’s not good news; they both have a past with him. Jeff takes evasive maneuvers, bunking with his pregnant sister, who urges him to come out to their parents. David’s left to deal with Andrew, who gives him a gold watch, proposes marriage, says he’s “a whole new person.” (He’s emphatically not a whole new person: Same sociopath, different day.) After David turns down his marriage proposal, he lets himself into Jeff’s apartment, rummages through his clothes, finds Jeff’s dress whites meticulously folded in a box along with his gun and a VCR tape. Wearing Jeff’s dress hat, Andrew watches the video, which contains interview footage that, as Jeff notes on camera, will probably end his career. The interview is about being gay in the military in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. “They know,” he says. “I saved a sailor’s life once, they were beating him to death because he was gay. I did a good thing, the bravest thing I’ve ever done. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed about taking that moment back, and letting him die, so they wouldn’t know about me.”
We flash back two years, to the incident described in the interview. Trail’s an officer with a good record and a bright future-until essentially outs himself by comforting the badly hurt and completely terrified victim of the beating in view of another officer. In the soul-searching that follows, Trail receives veiled and not-so-veiled threats, attempts an at-home tattoo removal, is given a truly freaky-looking “don’t ask don’t tell” primer presented in the form of a comic book, and attempts to hang himself but can’t go through with it. Eventually Trail goes into a gay bar. A young man in glasses notices him. “First time?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“There were clues,” Andrew Cunanan replies, and, in one of the show’s many brilliant moments of hideous inevitability, starts ordering rounds, being charming, and insinuating himself into Trail’s world. Jeff Trail is sincere and kind and bright and gorgeous and he has no idea he has just signed his own death certificate by letting one guy in one bar buy him a drink. But we do.
The two spend time together; for a while, Jeff feels that Andrew has helped him come to terms with his sexuality in certain ways. Andrew tries to undermine Jeff’s decision to go through with the interview (“So humiliating! Your face shadowed, your voice altered-like a criminal!”) but, like the wealthy couture designer in Miami to whom he will never know he is permanently connected, Jeff’s done wearing a mask. Done with being threatened, called “faggot,” and passed over for promotions. We see him drive to a motel for the interview, cutting the scene with Gianni and Antonio also walking down a (much more posh) hotel hallway to meet a journalist too. It’s a striking moment of contrasts and parallels. Two men, one famous, one a near-faceless piece of military machinery. One in sunlight, one in the shadows. One with a partner by his side, one alone. One a fashion designer, one a sailor. One is asked if he’s comfortable being “on the record” (yes) and the other asks for reassurance that the interviewer cannot be forced by military police to reveal his identity. They could hardly be more different. Yet the process—he reclamation of identity, the act of self-acceptance and helping to destigmatize something that shouldn’t be controversial but is, often violently so—is eerily identical.
Of course they do have one other thing in common, something neither of them will have time to realize: they will both be murdered by Andrew Cunanan.
We re-enter Minneapolis on the day of Jeff’s murder. He comes into his apartment, finds his dress uniform in a wrinkled mass on the bed and Andrew in his room. In the conflict that ensues Andrew’s still trying to tell Jeff the military doesn’t care about him, doesn’t want him but Andrew does. “You’re a liar,” Jeff says. “You have no honor.” Andrew keeps trying to manipulate and bait Jeff, but when Andrew tells Jeff how much he loves him, he gets an explosive “No one wants your love!” that we know before Jeff does has pretty much sealed his doom. Andrew zips his bag, and we get a glimpse of the gun Jeff doesn’t yet know he has stolen. He goes to David’s, interrupting a date. The other man leaves. David agrees to a talk.
Jeff meticulously presses and puts away his uniform. Then he gets a call from Andrew, with probably the only words that could possibly get his attention: “I have your gun.”
Jeff Trail’s sister delivers a baby girl. His answering machine slowly fills up with messages from his family, urging him to come and meet his niece.