For the past several weeks, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) has taken center stage on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. As the story increasingly became one about the ways in which internal and external homophobia affect and even ruin lives, it made sense for creator Ryan Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith to zero in on the spree killer and his many victims. Aside from an appearance in episode five, the Versaces themselves have been absent from the story bearing their name.
Wednesday’s installment of the FX miniseries, however, brought both Gianni (Edgar Ramirez) and especially Donatella (Penelope Cruz) back to the fore. Yes, there was plenty of Andrew, as we saw him attempting to make ends meet as an escort, flirting with rich older men at an opera, and even meeting and charming his eventual second victim, David Madsen (Cody Fern). But much of this episode is spent watching Gianni become increasingly stricken by illness, and seeing Donatella step up to take charge of the House of Versace.
The siblings start the episode with a fight, as Donatella presents an idea for a new dress to Gianni: fashion as weaponry. Gianni grows angry with her, because she used other people’s sketches for her ideas instead of sketching on her own. He’s angry with his illness and takes it out on her.
Soon enough, though, they come back together to design a winner: a black dress made partially of leather straps. It’s BDSM-inspired, just kinky enough to raise eyebrows but still appropriate for a function where, at Gianni’s behest, Donatella is the one to wear it. The dress draws gasps and excited headlines, not just for Gianni, but for his sister as well. It’s a display of strength from the sister of the House, a show that she is a formidable and powerful woman.
This episode is called “Ascent,” and while that certainly could be applied to the social-climbing Andrew, I think it’s far more relevant for Donatella. So far this series, she’s been a supporting character, a shadow who appears briefly in every other installment or so. When she does, no matter how iconic she looks, she always feels like part of someone else’s story. “Ascent” is her narrative, her coming out.
That show of strength comes at just the right time, however, as Gianni unfortunately grows even sicker. Suddenly, Donatella must take up the reins of the company, a responsibility that clearly terrifies her. She’s a star we know this because we know her contemporarily, but it’s also absurdly obvious as she shows off her and Gianni’s dress. But she doesn’t quite know it yet.
And so as she addresses the employees of the House of Versace at episode’s end, we see Donatella slowly becoming more comfortable with herself. She starts off hesitant: “So my brother is sick. You all know this. Gianni is suffering a rare form of ear cancer. He decided to go to Miami and rest. While he is recovering, I will be taking care of the day-to-day operations.”
She says the last part with a level of doubt in her ability to do so, much less that she’s actually going to do it. But then, when she shares her assurance that her brother will beat his illness, her own confidence grows. “My brother is stubborn; don’t forget that,” she says with a chuckle. “He’s stubborn about life. And he will beat this sickness. He loves every one of you. He loves his work. He loves this place. So I’ve no doubt my brother will be back. In the meantime, I am honored and humbled to take the reins of this company while he recovers.”
Donatella says those last lines through the start of her tears. Cruz’s performance is remarkable here, as she restrains the emotion and powers through it. There’s an old saying that watching someone on the verge of tears is always more powerful than watching them actually cry. Cruz proves why that’s so true by powering through them, then taking things back to business.
“Our last runway show was our most talked-about to date,” Donatella says, rallying not just the troops but herself. “We must be talked about, or we are nothing. And now that Gianni’s away, we have to be even more bold, not less. We have to show that we are strong, daring that we are relevant. And that this House will survive. No matter what, it will.”
It’s a hell of a scene, and encapsulates why Cruz’s performance is so damn indelible. We know what happens to Versace we know the House survives but if we were feeling any doubt, Donatella would assuage our fears. She’s a titan learning she’s a titan, with a phenomenal career ahead of her. In that final line, as she declares the House will live on, you can feel Donatella believe in her future, too.
The penultimate episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story will air Wednesday, March 14, at 10 p.m. on FX.