Home LIFESTYLE Style News American Crime Story: Gay Shame and the Redemption of David Madson

American Crime Story: Gay Shame and the Redemption of David Madson

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This post contains spoilers for American Crime Story Season 2, Episode 4, “House by the Lake.”

At this point TV viewers tuning in to Season 2 of American Crime Story will have sensed that something’s up. Promotional materials promised a glitzy, pulpy dive into the high-fashion world of the Versace family and a grisly murder in sunny Miami. But after two episodes with nary a Versace in sight (don’t worry, they’ll be back), audiences must have realized that producer Ryan Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith actually had a different—and, in my opinion, better—show in mind. The star of Episode 4 is not any of the A-list names like Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, and Darren Criss or even one of Ryan Murphy’s regular players like Finn Wittrock. Instead, the breakout here (and, perhaps, of the series) is 30 year-old Australian newcomer Cody Fern playing Andrew Cunanan’s second, most personal, and misunderstood victim: David Madson.

Speaking with Vanity Fair’s podcast Still Watching: Versace, Fern admits that this episode and American Crime Story as a whole represent a bait and switch in order to get audiences to care about Cunanan’s less famous victims and the plight of gay men, more broadly, in the 90s. In this episode specifically, Fern and Smith are determined to redeem Madson who was, for so long, erroneously accused of being Cunanan’s accomplice rather than an innocent casualty.

Last month at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, when asked about the slightly deceptive title The Assassination of Gianni Versace, both Ryan Murphy and Tom Rob Smith were quick to defend it. The People vs. O.J. Simpson, they pointed out, wasn’t a show primarily about O.J. Of course, they’re right. Along with a searing look at racism, sexism, and the rise of reality TV in the 90s, the main takeaway from American Crime Story’s first season was the redemption of maligned prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Madson, of course, is not nearly as well-known as Clark and that, Fern argues, is what makes Season 2 even more extraordinary. “Everyone was ready for this to be a huge, splashy, fashion drama,” Fern tells Still Watching “but [Ryan Murphy] really honors the victims who came before. Four people who aren’t fashion designers but who had a family and were loved and were brought into the sordid world of Andrew Cunanan and went down because of it. [Their] stories are equally as vital as Gianni Versace’s. For Ryan to really focus on those stories is incredibly brave and does great justice to those people.”

Madson’s mysterious role in Cunanan’s murder spree baffled law enforcement for over a year (and beyond). Why would an innocent man go on the run with a killer and stay with him for six days? For a detailed breakdown of the main clues and theories swirling around Madson’s role at the time, you can go here. But for Smith and Fern, Madson’s driving concern in his final days was clear: internalized gay shame. It’s true that American Crime Story had to do a lot more theorizing than usual in this episode—with both Cunanan and Madson dead there is no way to know exactly what happened on their six-day journey. (We do know, however, that Aimee Mann never serenaded them in a Minnesota dive bar.) Smith tells Still Watching: Versace: “There’s a dilemma [with this episode]. You are, ultimately, joining dots rather than dealing with transcribed or videotaped evidence. I tried sticking to the fundamental truth which was that a) Andrew was a liar and was trapping David and b) David was full of love and ambition and wasn’t involved in the killing in any way.”

Fern admits those six days on the run were the most fascinating to him. “What the series deals with is not only how the police bungled the investigation because of homophobia at the time, but also this internalized of gay shame. David is dealing with a shame that’s been following him around his whole life.” As the show depicts, Madson was out to both his immediate family and his Minneapolis friends and co-workers, but what the episode theorizes is that he wasn’t ready to to be out to an entire world of strangers.

Smith calls David the hero of Episode 4 and used his own life experience as a gay man to extrapolate what Madson might have been feeling. He tells Still Watching:

Andrew’s cleverness is that he plays on a very deep-seated fear which
we’ve always felt as gay men and women that if somehow you open the
door to our private lives, everyone looking in is going to be shocked
and appalled and we’ll be disgraced and exiled. Now, suddenly, by
killing Jeffrey in that apartment that lingering nightmare becomes
true because David knows that if he opens the door to that apartment
the world is going to be shocked and appalled. They’ll think he was
involved somehow. It’s going to be very hard for David to extricate
himself from the trap that Andrew’s sprung around him.

Smith’s efforts to redeem Madson entirely in the span of an hour may have resulted in a bit of white-washing of this particular character. The real Madson was a bit older than Fern (and a good deal older than the baby-faced Fern looks here). According to Maureen Orth’s well-researched book Vulgar Favors, Madson was a beloved but forcefully charismatic person who dated a good deal and was hardly the Midwestern babe in the woods this series would sometimes have him be.

Neither Fern nor anyone in the cast reached out to the surviving family members of Cunanan’s victims while filming the series—though Ricky Martin, at least, has since been in contact with Versace’s life partner Antonio D’Amico. It was conscious choice they made as a group out of sensitivity to such a great loss. However, the Madson family, specifically, was at the forefront of Fern and Smith’s minds as they constructed this episode. “There was a cloud of suspicion over David,” Smith explains. “The police declared him to be the killer at first and the parents really struggled to clear his name. Such a gross injustice.” Episode 4 of American Crime Story rescues Madson not only from ignominy, but from anonymity as well. Anyone watching this episode and Fern’s irresistibly vulnerable performance won’t soon forget Andrew Cunanan’s second victim—even if he didn’t have a name you’d find on a fashion label.

And as Fern points out, the reverse chronology of American Crime Story acts as another kind of redemption for David Madson. It’s no spoiler to say that Fern as Madson will return for a few more episodes as the season spools back in time and we learn how he and Cunanan first met and fell in love. “There was something nice about leaving this man, David Madson, with a moment of beauty rather than a moment of terror,” Fern explains to Still Watching. “The way we remember David in the series is not the way we see him in Episode 4.” Smith notes that by the end of this hour of television “there’s a sense of David being an inspirational figure rather than someone who people have forgotten.”

To find out more about the true story of David Madson and Andrew Cunanan, you can listen to the full interview with Smith and Fern as well as past guests Maureen Orth, Ricky Martin, Max Greenfield, and Judith Light by subscribing to Still Watching: Versace on Apple Podcasts or your podcast app of choice. New episodes air every Wednesday night.

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Full ScreenPhotos:The Versace: American Crime Story Cast and Their Real-Life Counterparts
Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace

Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace

The Emmy nominee stars as the limited series’s namesake, the flamboyant designer murdered in Miami at the peak of his career.

Photo: Left, by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection; Right, by Rachel Murray, both from Getty Images.

Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace

Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace

The Oscar-winning actress goes blonde to play Versace’s sister, who took over the creative aspects of her brother’s fashion empire after his murder.

Photo: Left, by Catherine McGann; Right, by Samir Hussein/WireImage, both from Getty Images.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan

Criss has come a long way from his Glee days; he plays serial killer Cunanan, who ended his cross-country murder spree by killing himself before the police could apprehend him.

Photo: Left, by Jamie Scott Lytle/Sygma; Right, by Mike Windle, both from Getty Images.

Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico

Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico

The Latin pop sensation shows off his acting chops as Versace’s longtime partner, an Italian designer with a fraught relationship to the Versace family.

Photo: Left, by Alberto Roveri/Mondadori Portfolio; Right, by Venturelli/WireImage.

Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail

Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail

The Ryan Murphy-verse regular plays Jeff Trail, a stalwart military man who becomes Cunanan’s first victim.

Photo: Left, from The Star Tribune/A.P. Images; Right, by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic.

Mike Farrell as Lee Miglin

Mike Farrell as Lee Miglin

The onetime *M.**A.**S.*H. star plays Miglin, a Chicago society fixture murdered by Cunanan.

Photo: Left, by John Reilly/Sygma; Right, by Alberto E. Rodriguez, both from Getty Images.

Cody Fern as David Madson

Cody Fern as David Madson

The Aussie star plays Cunanan’s lover turned victim, the second man killed during the murderer’s spree.

Photo: Left, from A.P. Images; Right, by Amanda Edwards/WireImage.

Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace

Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace

The Emmy nominee stars as the limited series’s namesake, the flamboyant designer murdered in Miami at the peak of his career.

Left, by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection; Right, by Rachel Murray, both from Getty Images.

Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace

Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace

The Oscar-winning actress goes blonde to play Versace’s sister, who took over the creative aspects of her brother’s fashion empire after his murder.

Left, by Catherine McGann; Right, by Samir Hussein/WireImage, both from Getty Images.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan

Criss has come a long way from his Glee days; he plays serial killer Cunanan, who ended his cross-country murder spree by killing himself before the police could apprehend him.

Left, by Jamie Scott Lytle/Sygma; Right, by Mike Windle, both from Getty Images.

Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico

Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico

The Latin pop sensation shows off his acting chops as Versace’s longtime partner, an Italian designer with a fraught relationship to the Versace family.

Left, by Alberto Roveri/Mondadori Portfolio; Right, by Venturelli/WireImage.

Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail

Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail

The Ryan Murphy-verse regular plays Jeff Trail, a stalwart military man who becomes Cunanan’s first victim.

Left, from The Star Tribune/A.P. Images; Right, by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic.

Mike Farrell as Lee Miglin

Mike Farrell as Lee Miglin

The onetime *M.**A.**S.*H. star plays Miglin, a Chicago society fixture murdered by Cunanan.

Left, by John Reilly/Sygma; Right, by Alberto E. Rodriguez, both from Getty Images.

Cody Fern as David Madson

Cody Fern as David Madson

The Aussie star plays Cunanan’s lover turned victim, the second man killed during the murderer’s spree.

Left, from A.P. Images; Right, by Amanda Edwards/WireImage.

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