Warning: This recap for the “From the Ashes of Tragedy” episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story contains spoilers.
Twenty years on, everyone is still mad about O.J. Simpson. Between Simpson’s alleged crimes, his trial, and the ensuing media cacophony, nearly every spectator found their most devout cultural beliefs questioned and rattled. The whole mess was a veritable buffet of troubling social ills, and they all seemed to be in conflict with one another. Did your sympathies lie with systemically oppressed ethnic minorities? What about victims of domestic violence? Were you comfortable with wealthy people attempting to buy their way out of a crime? But what about obvious police corruption? Should we even get into whether celebrities are above the law, or are they sometimes unfairly targeted? The O.J. Simpson trial forced everyone to become inconsistent and hypocritical, and this alone drove a nation mad. Which is one reason why The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is an absolutely perfect show for our times. All of this is still happening.
While there are any number of reasons to harbor anger from this legit title holder of Trial of the Century, it can be easy to forget that at the root of it was the tragic murder of two people. The People v. O.J. Simpson reminded us of this right upfront, and in providing visual re-enactments of things we only knew from court transcripts, the saga now has an immediacy and humanity where there rarely was any before. But more importantly, our collective anger now has context, a retroactive illumination that A Current Affair didn’t provide us back then. That alone makes this show invaluable. Also the wigs. THE WIGS.
While this thing is easily the most austere and “respectable” (an overrated principle) series Ryan Murphy has created so far, The People v. O.J. Simpson is still VERY much a Ryan Murphy show. Written by erstwhile comedy writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who wrote the masterpiece Ed Wood), it treats its facts with seriousness while also completely embracing the baked-in camp of seeing people in terrible ‘90s attire intone dramatically into blocky cell-phones. Not since Lee Daniels dressed a White House butler and his wife Oprah in matching warmup suits has a work blended straight-faced reverence and subtle camp with such audacity. As the rest of the season unfolds, we’ll know more about how successful the writing and staging will be, but at least we know we’ll be able to laugh out loud at some of the wardrobe decisions. Seriously, what a relief!
But yeah, this show is instantly amazing, and more pressingly, important. Let’s talk about it!
We began with a chill-inducing montage of news clips covering the Rodney King beating and its riotous aftermath.
You know, just in case you weren’t sure if this particular chapter of history was STILL HAPPENING. But it was also a reminder that before O.J. Simpson had so much as looked at Nicole Brown Simpson sideways, racial tensions in Los Angeles were already a powder keg scenario. In other words, a crucial context for why literally everyone was 100 percent ANGRY about this case right away.
We then shifted to some artfully, frighteningly tense scenes where the camera drifted around an eerily quiet wealthy neighborhood. That’s where a troubled-looking O.J. Simpson emerged from his house and climbed into a limo where he made reluctant conversation with his star-struck driver. If O.J. Simpson was the main character of this story, then His Fame was second on the call sheet.
Minutes later, a neighbor came across the infamous white Akita with blood-caked paws. Man, if only dogs could literally talk… Think of how many murder cases would be solved so much more quickly! Anyway, here’s what the dog wanted everyone to see:
Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson’s corpses lying slaughtered at the entrance of a condo complex. Yes, this opening sequence was a horror film, and it immediately had more visceral weight than any lurid courtroom descriptions. Already this show meant business.
We then met the three detectives (including Mark Furhman) who arrived at O.J.’s house ostensibly to alert him to Nicole’s death. But they found a haphazardly parked Bronco with suspicious blood drops in and around it. They all then hopped the front gate and began casing the yard — where there was an eerily lit, giant statue of O.J. Simpson — and they encountered a bodacious babe in the guest house:
KATO KAELIN. That wig! What’s that immortal line from Valley Girl? “He’s got the bod, but his brains are bad news.” Well, Boardwalk Empire’s Billy Magnusson is the perfect Kato Kaelin, A+. Anyway, Kato directed the detectives to the side of the guest house where he’d heard some loud bangs earlier… And that’s where they found a bloody glove. As the detectives announced ominously: This wasn’t just some corny Brentwood mansion… “This is a crime scene.”
So then we met Marcia Clark’s perm and also Marcia Clark, a busy single mother who did NOT have time to plan a damn baby shower. Within seconds of learning from the detectives what was going on, she marched her crispy-ass hairdo down to City Hall and got to WORK. She only barely knew who O.J. Simpson was, but she DID know what violence against women was, and she was gonna nail this guy. Again, from my recollection of the trial, Marcia Clark was painted as ineffectual and unlikable, but Sarah Paulson (and the wig) made her immediately compelling, in a chain-smoking, no bullsh*t kind of way. And honestly, it’s like that perm was so crispy I felt like I could hear it? Man, it was Emmy O’Clock ALREADY.
We then met David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, a family friend of O.J.’s. He showed up along with the throngs at O.J.’s front gate and demanded to see his friend. It was definitely so touching to see the millionaires of Brentwood having each other’s backs so much. If Brentwood millionaires don’t stick up for each other, who will?
We then saw an infamous recreation of the cops temporarily placing O.J. into handcuffs, which was filmed by a very rude and nosy camera man, and which tipped off the world to the fact that O.J. was a suspect. Already the media were VERY involved in this case, and no amount of O.J. Simpson temper tantrums were going to change that. (Seriously, Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s performance was really just him alternating between looking miserable and then suddenly shouting at everyone. Very intense.)
Oh man, Johnnie Cochran’s closet. It looked VERY similar to Chanel’s closet on Scream Queens, and that is a compliment. Suits and shirts in every color, this scene found him attempting to pick out a suit that wouldn’t frighten his current client, Michael Jackson. Yes, you read that right, Michael Jackson was apparently frightened of green suits, so Johnnie Cochran had to go with a gray one. Already Johnnie Cochran was kind of the best character, and this was BEFORE we saw him shout at Christopher Darden about being a proud black man, and then go on CNN as a talking head. In this episode he hadn’t yet signed on as O.J.’s lawyer, but it was obvious he was already dead set on doing so.
O.J.’s FIRST choice of attorney was Robert Shapiro, played by a truly amazing and intensely creepy John Travolta. (He seriously played this role like Betty Davis had just crawled out of a toxic waste barrel. AMAZING.) The only problem was, Shapiro had a reputation for simply getting his clients to plea-bargain, and O.J. was NOT about to do that. When Shapiro leaned in and asked confidentially whether O.J. had done it or not, O.J. didn’t even hesitate:
I think my favorite part about this show so far is how irrelevant it is whether O.J. did it or not. I mean, it’s like, duh, but the writers aren’t super interested in re-trying him here. This saga seems mostly to be about how a deeply and systemically flawed culture can delude ourselves into rallying behind whatever flawed agenda we’ve chosen to live by. Even later when O.J. “fails” a lie detector test, his lawyers don’t even bat an eye. It’s not about whether he did it or not, it’s about whether he’ll be acquitted. It’s a frustrating, shades of gray distinction, but still important.
As Faye Resnick and Kris (Jenner) Kardashian, Connie Britton and Selma Blair seemed to be dressed as characters from Ryan Murphy’s earlier modern masterpiece, American Horror Story: Coven. But where they could have easily been present for sheer camp value, there was a chilling moment at Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral when they conferred about whether O.J. had actually done it, and lamented not having “seen the signs” of habitual abuse that may have led to Brown Simpson’s murder. I don’t have a lot to say about Kris Jenner’s current celebrity, but just knowing that she watched a close friend possibly fatally succumb to an abuser amplifies her IRL pathos considerably. (Praying that these two characters get to do a lot more on the show, because they were instantly iconic.)
Oh, and guess who ELSE showed up for the funeral?
The Kardashian girls! And of course they were laughing and giggling up a storm. Inappropriately stealing the spotlight, even at funerals.
Outside, rabble had shown up to shout at O.J. Simpson as he walked inside, but I was VERY into this woman sporting the stunning fascinator. Did she seriously put on her best funeral couture so that she could stand on the street and shout at O.J. Simpson? I would like to learn more.
One thing I really liked about the way this thing was filmed was how often it treated us to arresting imagery. This shot above was fine art. Watching O.J. Simpson climb through that wall of flowers to kiss his possible murder victim on the forehead (good thing her neck was tastefully covered!) was truly moving and uncomfortable. Again, nothing that we heard from pundits or court transcripts can compare to seeing this stuff unfold, and filmed so beautifully at that.
Speaking of fine art:
In possibly my favorite moment of the episode, O.J. was aroused from his medicated slumber while crashing in Kim Kardashian’s bedroom, away from the media’s prying eyes. And her bedroom wall was plastered in Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Joey Lawrence posters! Again, I don’t have a lot to say about the current Kim Kardashian, but if her childhood bedroom really did look like this, then I am a fan. VERY relatable.
From here on out, O.J.’s mental state continued to decline. He was set to turn himself in at the courthouse, but his lawyers insisted he subject himself to tons of specialists (which Shapiro admitted might be used in case they needed him to plead insanity). But O.J. was clearly in no rush to get downtown… Instead he wanted to write a handwritten will and also possibly commit suicide!
His ostensible reason for wanting to end it all was that he felt he’d never get a fair shake and that public opinion had already decided he did it. But, uh, the subtext here, and particularly in Gooding’s performance, was that this was definitely a guilt-based panic. His agitation and paranoia just never really felt like those of someone who was confidently innocent or even remotely curious about what had actually happened. (Earlier a detective remarked that when O.J. first heard Nicole had been killed, he didn’t even ask how.) Kardashian (sort of this show’s everyman character) attempted to talk O.J. down, but the second he turned his back, O.J. had fled into the backyard and presumably into the backseat of his white Ford Bronco.
This was going to be a long day.
And that’s where “From the Ashes of Tragedy” left us: At the inception of perhaps the story’s most over-the-top chapter. Now THAT is a cliffhanger.
What’s truly remarkable about this series is how it can wring tension and surprise out of entirely unsurprising events. We all know the bullet points and then some, yet there’s something instantly riveting about seeing it brought to life in the real locations with era-appropriate props and costumes and extraordinary wigs. From the cast to the understated (yet still enjoyably pulpy) writing, to, most of all, its almost shocking contemporary relevance, The People v. O.J. Simpson is a rousing success. We may already know the facts about happens next, but this is human version we’ve needed all along.
What did YOU think of “From the Ashes of Tragedy”?
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX