Wednesday, October 20, 2021

‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ Recap: Season 3, Episode 3 “Not to be Believed”

Impeachment: American Crime Story is a conundrum. Does the political atmosphere in Washington D.C. create the environment that causes scandal or does scandal follow certain individuals who are predisposed because of their personality, to work in Washington? When you look at Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, and Linda Tripp, their personalities seemed inevitable to this collide. Monica Lewinsky is a young intern from wealthy circumstances enough to live in the Watergate and pay for outfits that can turn a President’s head. She has had a weakness of bad unavailable boyfriends. President Bill Clinton is the most unavailable man in the universe and a sitting President who can’t help himself (at least by his account) to affairs. Then there is Linda Tripp. She thrives on the Washington drama. It becomes her second job.

So far in the season, Monica has been able to prolong the relationship with President Clinton by showing up at events and being asked back into the White House for illicit visits with Bill Clinton. This is the episode where the affair finally stops. Paula Jones is still out there trying to get justice, having success in the courts, but she gets bogged down in the Washington swamp of shady characters.

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The episode starts out in LA. You see the CBS studio shop manager dumpster dive full of papers. He finds something, goes home, dials up his AOL. Without the creepy music, I wouldn’t have known I was watching the right show. The manager opens the paper he finds from the dumpster. It’s an email from one CBS executive to another with gossip about NBC’s Jerry Seinfeld making a deal for a million dollars an episode. It’s at this point I think the writers have lost their mind. Nope. As he is about to send the story you see him put on his fedora and we see the famous tag line, “The Drudge Report.” Apparently Matt Drudge was a CBS shop employee.

For those who know their journalism history, it was Matt Drudge who broke the story that Newsweek had proof of an affair between President Bill Clinton and an intern, via The Drudge Report. This might have been the first news story to go “viral.”

Civil Immunity

One thing that American Crime Story does so well is to take tidbits of the current story from a different era and include lines that ring true even now. In the beginning of the episode, the Supreme Court decides that Paula Jones’ civil lawsuit against Bill Clinton can go forward. An aggravated Bill Clinton tells the White House Chief Counsel, “They are trying to use the legal system to overturn an election and they won’t stop until I give in and leave office.” No matter what side of the political aisle you come from, it’s interesting to see the origins of those issues that plague us today.

Sexual Harassment is only the first crime.

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Impeachment is different from the previous American Crime Story seasons. There isn’t one crime or one murder. This is a complicated story that some will say is an American salacious story but not a criminal one. Taking on impeachment means getting into the muddy waters of politics. American Crime Story is no stranger to controversy. The OJ Simpson story was their first season’s focus. In season 3 each episode feels as if ACS must prove the worth of their season. One thing I commend ACS for doing in each episode is going back to the central theme of crime. In episode 2, it was Ann Coulter who forecast Bill Clinton’s perjury.

In this episode, it’s Linda Tripp who says to a crying and dumped Monica Lewinsky, “He chose to start a relationship with an intern, which got you kicked out of the White House, and then he strung you along for eternity… this has been a calamity for you professionally.” Monica was banned from the White House because she had an affair with the President. This is textbook retribution for the affair. President Clinton’s behavior seems especially creepy as he says to her, “You are a special, vibrant girl. And you don’t see it yet but you are just becoming the person you are going to be and that woman is going to do stunning and marvelous things.” As Michale Isikoff, the Newsweek journalist a few scenes later states to Matt Drudge, “I write about abuse of power. Sex is one of the ways this President goes about that.” It feels especially true in this episode.

Fake News?

A nice distraction from the heavy storyline is the meeting between Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge. Seeing her volley with Matt Drudge makes me want to give these two their own show. She is nothing if not highly entertaining. The actors Cobie Smulders (Ann Coulter) and Bill Eichner as Matt Drudge are not only believable but they make me feel like the actual Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge are deep fakes of themselves. A disappointed Ann says after the news of the Paula Jones settlement, “I feel like I just watched the challenger explode.” She makes an awesome character to hate especially after she says, “The Office of the President used to mean something. Now any flabby con man will see a path to the White House.” I think I can name a few recent Presidential candidates supported by her that fit that description.

Speaking of fakes, this episode shows the clash between traditional journalism and the up-and-coming internet journalism created by those like Matt Drudge at the Drudge report. In one scene, Matt Drudge sits opposite Mike Isikoff in the Newsweek DC office and scoops him letting him know that he already knows he is talking to a second woman claiming harassment against the President. It feels like a standoff between old and new media. As Isikoff asks how Drudge got into this business without a journalism degree, Drudge states, “I got shut out of that game, I couldn’t afford it. And the one day I buy a modem and the whole news business cracks open.” As Isikoff doubts, “I don’t know if unsourced internet gossip has cracked open the news business.” Twenty years later Newsweek is a fraction of the size it was in 1995 and the internet is where most people read the news. It’s a great scene.

“I am not supposed to cry.”

But that’s the side salad. Why people tune in to Impeachment: American Crime Story is for the main course. And that main course is the relationship between intern Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton. I keep having to say those titles to myself because in any other context the depth of their power difference is almost infinite and maddening. I can’t think of a larger power difference between an intern and a sitting President.

At the heart of the episode is the breakup between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Fake supporter and friend Linda Tripp pens a letter for a despondent Lewinsky to send back to Clinton after he tried to end the affair. I am grateful someone is in Monica’s corner but I am sad it’s Linda Tripp. In the scene where Tripp types the letter with Monica Lewinsky, she tries to even the playing field between intern and President. She would almost seem maternal if it weren’t for the fact that she is helping Monica to get more information for her book. Monica is discarded like used tissue from an old cold by the President, as Tripp asserts.

We want to see Monica Lewinsky go into the White House after the received letter defiant and strong, but instead, she cries. It’s then that we realize the person she is facing is the Commander in Chief and “leader of the free world.” The odds seem insurmountable. Unfortunately, Monica Lewinsky has the worst ally. Who needs enemies when your best friend is a lying Linda Tripp.

The climactic scene in episode 3 is when Monica Lewinsky is told by Betty Curie, not to cry as President Clinton berates her for her “disrespect” and her “ingratitude” for writing a letter and allegedly threatening him. “It’s illegal to threaten a President,” he says. I am shocked at Bill Clinton’s indignation considering he started the affair with an intern.

Not to be Believed

Even though I voted for him twice, my body tenses up with disgust for President Clinton. Monica and he fight about the letter. I am awed that she can say anything to him. And then she cries. He stops her. Again, Clive Owen makes me see it from Bill Clinton’s view and I begin to think this is how he makes himself sympathetic to those he hurts the most. It’s how Hillary Clinton keeps forgiving him, how Monica Lewinsky must have agreed to come back into his arms, and how was able to convince himself to continue even though he knew what he had done. I haven’t mentioned what I think of the portrayal of Monica Lewinsky played by Beanie Feldstein. She is fantastic. But in this scene between Lewinsky and Clinton, she has earned her acting chops as she goes through a series of emotions before she cheerfully announces, “And here is Betty” as she leaves. One can only marvel at how Lewinsky is able to even function.

Let me take a moment to address the casting of this season. It is difficult for a show to cast actors for people who are still living and it is almost impossible to get the casting right for the most famous Americans who ran the United States in the 90s. If someone told me Clive Owen would be Bill Clinton, and Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, it would have said it’s “not to be believed.” But it works. Instead of going for the low-hanging fruit of choosing characters that look like their real-life counterparts, ACS chose actors who could do that for us through their craft. Hiring high-caliber actors who give great, believable performances make this story work. It makes me come back for more even when I know the outcome of the story. It’s the HOW of this series that makes it television magic.

The episode continues and when Lewinsky tells Tripp to call the White House, Tripp goes in a different direction. She decides to talk to Isikoff and Newsweek. She drags the drama out of the Pentagon and into a hair salon where she tells Isikoff to meet her. If that’s not a girl boss move, I don’t know what is. Sometimes I hate to love her but I can’t stop loving Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp. At one point she seems savvy and sophisticated and maternal, but then characters like Katherine Willey (Elizabeth Reaser) pull the dirty film off Tripp to reveal a truly dusty and revolting figure. She spills her money when Newsweek edition hits the stands buying three copies. She walks to her car and opens the magazine to glance at her name in print. In it you see her saying Katherine Willey is not to be believed, the title of this episode. The viewer knows that this is a lie. Tripp lied to Newsweek. She can’t let them scoop her story about Monica she plans to sell in a book. Tripp is not to be believed, which is the irony.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of deplorability to spread around as Susan Carpenter-McMillan talks Paula Jones’ husband out of a settlement so characters like Ann Coulter and the Republicans can use her to go to trial against the President.

The most deplorable is where the buck stops, as President Harry Truman coined. It stops with one of his successors, President Bill Clinton. This episode is a reminder of that. He has all the knowledge of what has occurred and all of the power of the other characters in the story combined. Yet his last scene in this episode is silencing an intern to ensure the person she confides in most keeps his secret. In the end, Monica Lewinsky is left with no one to confide in and no one who believes in her. She is left with gifts of first edition books and emotional scars that she will have for the rest of her life.

Perhaps it’s this that is most criminal of all. Employees who swore an oath to this country used an intern for their gain for sexual pleasure, money, and power, whether it be the President, Linda Tripp, or the conservative underbelly. Paula Jones is just the introduction to what the next episodes will show happened to Monica Lewinsky. The fact that this story is real seems unbelievable. It’s criminal and it is why it is an American Crime Story.

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