Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is most famous for the scene in which Robert De Niro’s rapidly disintegrating title character, Travis Bickle, looks at his reflection in the mirror and asks “Are you talkin’ to me?”, but this isn’t the only pane of glass into which Bickle gazes. During his disintegration, he also watches television. He stares at the tube, gun in hand, as. He slowly tips the TV set over with his foot while watching another young couple address their star-crossed affair , until the TV falls and explodes. He knows he has reacted inappropriately to these displays of romance, but he’s powerless to stop the poisonous feelings they engender in his mind.
“Damn,” he whispers to himself as he cradles his head in his hands, one of them still clutching a gun. “God damn.”
I thought about these scenes a lot during this episode of(“The President Kissed Me”), because of a similarly staged scene involving its central character, Linda Tripp. (More on her centrality later.) On Inauguration Day, 1997, she’s at home, while her young friend Monica Lewinsky is dressed to the nines in a stunning red gown, attending the Inaugural Ball. Her teenage daughter gives her shit and mocks her job. Her dinner is some joyless diet concoction, nuked in the microwave. And there on the television are two people she casually loathes, Bill and Hillary Clinton, celebrating their second historic victory. As they dance to Nat “King” Cole’s posthumous duet with his daughter Natalie, the 1990s remix of “Unforgettable,” they beam lovingly into each other’s eyes.
Linda knows this is a sham, knows Bill is having an affair, knows that he habitually can’t keep his hands or other parts to himself. She knows things that can bring the whole Clintonian edifice down. Yet there she is, alone, eating a TV dinner, dodging the insults of her own children, while the world moves on without her. Director Michael Uppendahl, working from a script by showrunner Sarah Burgess, cuts from closeups on Linda to closeups on Bill on the screen, arranging them so it almost looks as if Clinton is staring right into her eyes, teasing her, taunting her. In this moment, you can feel the years of roiling resentment that have built up inside Linda threaten to burst free, as we know they will eventually do, destroying the life of her friend and nearly destroying a president. But for now, like Bickle, all she can do is sit and stare at a world that holds better things than what she’s been given by it.
Damn, you can all but hear her think. God damn.
The second episode of ACS Impeachment makes the first feel like so much throat-clearing. In this outing, we learn how the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton came to be. We’re afforded glimpses of the psychosexual hangups that drive them—for Monica, a habitual attraction to unavailable men; for Clinton, a need to prove that he’s not “soft” to such men as George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and (now here’s an interesting juxtaposition) “my stepdaddy.” We see Monica slowly but surely begin to leak the news of her affair, to her mother (who thinks she’s joking), to her friends (who don’t, having seen her patterns before), to Linda (who takes it all in through a series of rapt, alternating closeups on the two women’s faces), to the larger world of Washington D.C. (through which Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, played by Danny A. Jacobs, is working doggedly to unearth actual verifiable proof of Clinton’s harassment and philandering). We see the famous hug Clinton and Lewinsky shared on camera the day after his second victory.
We also watch Paula Jones become subsumed by the wider right-wing infrastructure dedicated to bringing the Clintons down by any means necessary, embodied here by Susan Carpenter-McMillan (the great Judith Light), doyenne of “conservative feminism” and Paula’s new handler and image consultant. We’re given more insight into Linda’s life—how she’s had a divorce so boring she feels the details don’t even bear mentioning, how her adolescent children take her for granted even though they (and Christmas decorations) are just about the only things in her life that make her happy and excited. And when Isikoff comes calling at her cubicle for intel about allegations leveled at President Clinton by her ex-friend Kathleen Willey, we see her seize at the chance to play I know something you don’t know, intimating to Isikoff that he could be on the verge of discovering a story much, much bigger.
Two things stop me from giving this episode, and the show, my full-throated endorsement. And no, this time neither of them is the prosthetic makeup. While I still find the prosthetics unnecessary—if it was so important to you to cast people who looked more like the people they’re playing, just do it; if it was so important to you to cast these specific actors in these roles, just let them act—I no longer notice them as much. Maybe it just took some getting used to, but this time around, when I saw Linda Tripp and Paula Jones and Bill Clinton, I simply saw Linda Tripp and Paula Jones and Bill Clinton, not Sarah Paulson and Annaleigh Ashford and Clive Owens in Dick Tracy makeup.
The first thing that gives me pause, or perhaps hinders my enjoyment is a better word for it, is the fact that many of the factors in the story being explored here are still live issues today. This of course is also true of American Crime Story’s previous iterations—racism, homophobia, and the chasm between the rich and everyone else didn’t suddenly go away after O.J. Simpson and Andrew Cunanan did what they did—but the players and the institutions have largely changed.
This isn’t true of Impeachment, which features as a character Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders, note perfect), the ghoulish fascist who’s still spreading her filth today—or for that matter the entire Republican Party, which in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy (news flash: water is wet) has by this point in history shifted its objective from allegedly constraining the powers of an unchecked executive (this is Coulter’s stated goal in this ep) who also happens to be a con man and a serial sex abuser, to installing just such a man as chief executive and removing all checks and balances entirely. This is to say nothing of Carpenter-McMillan’s militant anti-choice bloviating, which given Texas’s dystopian new law against abortion almost physically hurts to hear. The queasiness we feel in recognizing the similarity between conservative movement’s architecture then and now is no doubt intentional, but it removes a lot of the campy fun that is Ryan Murphy’s stock in trade, even in the relatively serious and harrowing O.J. and Versace seasons.
The second thing is an issue of craft rather than facts: the way the revelation of Monica’s affair to Tripp is handled. As noted above, Lewinsky reveals the details of how her and Clinton’s relationship began and blossomed in a lunchroom convo with Linda, many months after it all happened. I get why the show does it like this: Tripp, not Lewinsky, is our true focal-point character, so it makes some sense for the show to reveal this stuff only when Tripp herself would have become familiar with it, and not before.
But romance, even a hugely inappropriate romance between an intern and the world’s most powerful man, blossoms in the moment. By treating the formation of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair as a fait accompli, the show leeches much of the sense of intensity, intimacy, and discovery from those early flirtations and meetings. Monica can say how hot it all was, but it’s hard to intuitively grasp when it’s all being told in the past tense, even as the show really gets into the weeds of it all, from Monica flashing him her thong to Clinton buying her a copy of his favorite book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (In retrospect, Gale Boetticher’s gift of this book to Walter White in Breaking Bad is darkly hilarious).
Be all that as it may, this is a strong second outing for Impeachment, rooted in sharp interpersonal observations and an awareness of how the personal and political intertwine, fuel one another, feed off one another, until the people are consumed and only the politics remain.
Sean T. Collins () writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and , really. He and his family live on Long Island.