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American Crime Story: Versace Is A Much-Needed Lesson In Empathy

'It doesn’t excuse what Andrew has done, but it explains it'

On Wednesday night (March 21), the Season 2 finale of Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story placed the final puzzle piece in the jigsaw of Andrew Cunanan's story.

The twisted narrative that spanned his 27 years and pushed further back in time with each new episode ultimately led us right back to where we started in the premiere: to the days after Gianni Versace's murder. But the feelings toward Cunanan (Darren Criss) that we were left with as he took the life of his final victim — himself — are markedly different than those we felt as we watched him approach the gates of Versace's (Édgar Ramírez) mansion and murder the celebrated fashion designer in cold blood.

But contrary to our usual feelings toward a central character, it's not sympathy that we're feeling. It's empathy.

"When people say, ‘How can you humanize somebody like this?’ I say because he’s a human being. Everyone is human. Although, unfortunately, he’s famous for horrible things that I am not exonerating him for – they are deplorable and a tragedy and unforgivable," Darren Criss told MTV News. "I'm not playing a killer; I’m playing a person."

Starting with the one point of familiarity in Cunanan's story — Versace's murder — it felt like the only way forward was to go backwards, building a visual of the spree killer's history with each episode and introducing us to him as a gay man in the throes of unrequited love, and before that as an escort for older men, and before that as the prized son of an immigrant who tangos with federal law and ultimately flees the country, leaving his family behind.

All the while, we have a constant reminder of who he ultimately becomes as we watch him pick off his five known victims: Jeff Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin, William Reese, and Gianni Versace.

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"We start with him as this absolute monster who is doing the worst crimes, and so up front we’re saying, 'This is who he is.' And then we’re saying, 'How'd he become like that?'" writer and executive producer Tom Rob Smith said. "One of the advantages of the backwards narrative is you’re very clearly telling the audience, 'This is someone who's done these absolutely terrible things,' so when you get into that stuff, you're not trying to say that forgives him. That’s just to say where he comes from."

Executive producer Brad Simpson agreed, "It doesn't excuse what Andrew has done, but it explains it."

This ability to understand a person, regardless of whether they were right or wrong, is empathy in its most pure, unaffected form, and being able to empathize with someone who confidently and consistently makes bad decisions helps us identify those turning points in which they begin to lose their sense of morality. In watching Cunanan's early missteps, one can't help but feel that this spiral was "preventable," said Simpson.

"When you go back to his childhood, you see that this is a kid who wasn't born to be a murderer. He's somebody who might've been a little unstable, but he was talented. He was somebody you and I might've been friends with in high school because he was extroverted and interesting, and something went wrong," Simpson added. "Here's a kid who was the product of some sort of bad childhood situation and at some point, somebody could've helped him and they didn't."

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Interwoven in that dialogue is an exploration of LGBTQ culture in the '90s, a time when Don't Ask Don't Tell seemed more like a blanket rule than a military creed and the AIDS epidemic incited fear and prejudice toward the gay community. Versace navigated that feeling of shame that often comes with rampant homophobia and the lingering effects of it, as told through the dual narratives of Versace and Cunanan, two charismatic men who took drastically different paths.

"It was such a lonely period of time," described Max Greenfield, who played Ronnie, a struggling HIV positive gay man in Miami and the closest Cunanan had to a friend in the two months before he murdered Versace.

In the finale, Ronnie poignantly stands up for his marginalized sect of society while being questioned by the FBI, asserting that the authorities failed to locate Cunanan because they "were disgusted by him long before he became disgusting." He evokes the empathy that was built upon throughout the season, adding that Cunanan was never hiding; "he was trying to be seen."

"One of the things that we've talked about is how dangerous it is ... when you tell people that their voices don't matter," Greenfield said.

"When you do it from such an early age, when you're sending that message to a young person who then thinks without even being told that their voice doesn’t matter or that they should be ashamed of who they are and ashamed of what they think and what they believe and their voice – it's heartbreaking, and, really, the result of it can go in any different kind of way. That's what the story is. It can result in beauty in Gianni Versace's case, and it can result in real chaos and terror in Cunanan's case."