Why Ryan Murphy and Monica Lewinskys Impeachment Collaboration Feels So Limited

Spoiler alert: This column contains light spoilers about the Nov. 2 episode titled “The Grand Jury.”

On the penultimate episode of “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) closes her testimony before the grand jury in the Clinton perjury case by tearfully declaring “I hate Linda Tripp.” The jury, which had begun its service in an adversarial position and asked Lewinsky some tough questions, has fallen for her: “I know, that’s right,” declares an unseen juror. “Forget her!” What sounds like a second voice says, “What goes around comes around.”

The “American Crime Story” franchise hasn’t been shy about a certain narrative gaudiness in the past. But this strikes the viewer as, finally, too much. That Lewinsky actually said this is a matter of historical record. Whether or not they really did, the jurors rooting for her represents one more instance of the show throwing its narrative power behind one character. A show that has, in the past, had a roving curiosity seems now tightly focused on a single perspective. Which means that in “Impeachment,” we’re only getting part of the story.

This season, produced by the real-life Lewinsky and slated to wrap up on FX Nov. 9, has been intended as a corrective to 1990s views of culpability in the Bill Clinton impeachment saga. “American Crime Story” producer Ryan Murphy has said he told Lewinsky that “Nobody should tell your story but you”; the show that has resulted from her partnership is her story by her, for better and worse. Like the installments of this franchise about the O.J. Simpson trial and about the killing of Gianni Versace, this “American Crime Story” took a bit of semi-recent history and sought to convert it into drama. But while the Simpson case provided endless refractions through the lenses of race, gender, and celebrity, and while the Versace story put forward often-uncomfortable provocations about gay life, this season has demanded plaudits for telling a version of the Clinton story that’s actually become conventional wisdom.

As played by Feldstein, Lewinsky is a victim first of Clinton’s predations and then of a rapacious, careless investigation willing to chew her up to end the Clinton presidency. She’s a victim of Tripp, too, and Sarah Paulson’s performance of the former friend who recorded Lewinsky’s phone conversations is shredding and merciless. Like its protagonist, this show hates Linda Tripp, or at least thinks that her decisions can be explained or put into context by depicting her as unsightly and interpersonally loathsome. Paulson’s labors in the makeup chair seem less like an attempt to capture a photorealistic Tripp than to conjure up a monster for Lewinsky to face down. When the show glances at the idea that Tripp is harmed by media depictions of her, it’s hard to know how seriously to take it: Tripp is dead now, and is still being mocked for her appearance. It’s just that now it comes as prestige entertainment.

Feldstein, meanwhile, plays Lewinsky as perpetually confused by others’ willingness to lie and dissemble: The character ends up where she did by dint of being too trusting — of Clinton, of Tripp, of the process. This is a take on the character more specific than Paulson’s Tripp, but it forecloses other narrative possibilities: Anyone who’s seen an interview with the real Lewinsky, in the 1990s or the 2020s, can see that she’s possessed of a sparking, witty ultra-charisma that doesn’t go with the story “Impeachment” is telling. In history, the “American Crime Story” franchise embraced complication, as with Paulson’s messily, painfully human Marcia Clark, reclaiming the prosecutor from ignominy and public shaming.

It could be said that “Impeachment” is working to do a similar thing for Lewinsky. But though it’s a bigger megaphone, it’s reproducing a message that’s already been widely heard: Nothing about the first nine episodes of “Impeachment” has meaningfully contradicted the story Lewinsky has been telling in public since a 2014 Vanity Fair piece and 2015 TED talk broke her silence. As the writer R.E. Hawley recently pointed out in an essay on Gawker, it has become increasingly easy for pieces of media to present themselves as telling the counterintuitive truth when, in fact, they’re saying exactly what their audience already believes. “Impeachment” embraces this tendency with gusto, framing a popular message as revisionist.

For all this, it’s impossible to deny that Lewinsky’s rescuing her own reputation after it was tarnished by a relationship in which she was the far less powerful partner was an admirable feat. And her telling her story coincided with — and likely helped to push along — a culture-wide reevaluation of sex, harassment, and assault. “Impeachment,” then, frustrates most of all in its treatment of these issues. Annaleigh Ashford’s Paula Jones is a diffident presence in the story, one that the series seems to feel obliged to address but uncertain how. (Often, especially early on, Jones, with her thick accent and uncertainty in the public eye, seems to be played for uncomfortable laughs.) Hillary Clinton, as played by Edie Falco, seems similarly rote: How would the First Lady have reacted to her husband’s infidelity? A lot like Carmela Soprano in “Whitecaps,” it seems.

The show’s imaginative palette is generously applied to Lewinsky, and the series allows for shading and nuance of her experience that it rarely grants anyone else. This works especially well when she is baroquely suffering. For instance, the episode depicting her imprisonment by the FBI after having been seized at the Pentagon City mall is wrenching, painful to watch, and well-acted along specific lines. Feldstein lends a sense that Lewinsky is, despite it all, hopeful, and that she has a fundamental open-hearted interest in her fellow man that leads to strange and fragile connections with her handlers.

But consider what other angles on the story are left hanging. The show’s perspective on Tripp seems so fixed that it’s perhaps futile to bother wondering what might have been had the writers been really curious about what besides rage made her flip. Moving on, then, one wonders about the person who’s actually being tried for the crime on this “Crime Story.” On the show’s margins, Clive Owen is quietly delivering the best performance on “Impeachment,” simmering with rage that his rectitude would ever be questioned and alienated from the things he’s done, said, and felt. He believes himself innocent, even as some part of him knows this cannot be. In a performance granted only a nibble of screen time (and buried beneath unfortunate prosthetics), Owen conjures something that feels genuinely new: A map of the gnarled, self-justifying internal logic of a man who uses women.

This is a performance that might, in another context, have lent painful and wrenching complexity to “Impeachment,” and have raised real and difficult questions: How should society, now, deal with a former President who seems constitutionally incapable of admitting he was wrong? What does it mean for us all that he was let off the hook, and that for many years his defenders went so vociferously after Lewinsky? To pursue these lines of thought is uncomfortable, in the way the first two seasons of “Crime Story” were. And they land on a specific unresolved area — the gray areas of consent and power in relationships — that art in every medium has struggled to get right. There’s a clarifying effect in stepping back from this and towards the concrete ways Lewinsky was made to suffer, which means that “Impeachment” is, in the main, watchable, sympathetic, and safe. The grand jury had it right in moving on from the tough questions; it really is just easier to root Monica on.

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