During the current season of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, we’ll have our resident political science professor, Matthew DeSantis, recapping the episodes and providing analysis of the real-life Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Come back every Wednesday for new recaps.
At some point in our lives, we have all gotten into trouble and thought our world was coming to an end. Perhaps it was getting an F on a school assignment or staying out late after curfew or getting pulled over for speeding. Whatever the reason, we have all experienced that feeling of dread in the pit of our stomach, the panicky feeling when you can’t get your heart to slow down, or for your palms to stop sweating. However, very few of us, I imagine, have been pulled into a hotel room and questions by government investigators and threatened with 28 years in prison. Yet, that’s exactly the position we find 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky in this episode and at once we can empathize with her but also shake our heads slightly as we have been watching this train go off the tracks for five episodes and are somewhat disbelieving of the naivete she displays. However, that feeling of getting caught is universal and is palpable through the episode.
“Manhandled” the sixth episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story mostly focuses on the tribulations Lewinsky goes through during the time in which she is in “custody” after being set up by Linda Tripp. I put custody in quotes because Lewinsky is never arrested, read her Miranda rights, or explicitly told she can’t contact a lawyer, though she’s certainly dissuaded from doing so by multiple members of Ken Starr’s team. The episode opens with Tripp setting the trap at the Pentagon City Mall where the show started episode 1 yet we see that scene through the lens of Tripp as she nervously phones Monica to set up a time to meet. Tripp, always attempting to be the center of attention, is running late, which causes independent investigator Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks) to say, “Who runs late to a sting operation?” The answer, of course, is Linda Tripp. The entire process is time-sensitive because Clinton is testifying the next day and Newsweek has a scoop on the story and will likely run with it within the next 24 hours. Eventually, Linda makes her way to the food court with the agents and suddenly, we’re all caught up to where we started in the first episode.
Most of the episode takes place in the hotel room where independent investigator Mike Emmick leads the interrogation and attempts to convince Monica to cooperate and entrap President Clinton and Vernon Davis prior to Clinton being under oath the next morning. Emmick is deemed by the Starr team to be the best “good cop” and plays his role well as he calmly and coolly lays out the evidence they have against Lewinsky for signing a false affidavit and explains to her that she could face 28 years of prison time for all the offenses, which is incredibly unlikely, but in the moment, Monica freaks out. She screams through the door at Linda Tripp who is seated in the other room and starts crying and hyperventilating. The odd thing about all of this is that the investigators and agents, who are all men, seem completely unprepared for her reaction, which is stunning given that they’re confronting a 24-year-old young woman about a crime that will potentially bring down the President of the United States and make her one of the most infamous women in our country’s history. Lewinsky even becomes suicidal and goes so far as question what would happen if she jumped out the window. Emmick assures her that everything will continue to move forward with or without her assistance, but he also continues to remind her that they can make all the charges go away if she cooperates. Lewinsky wants to speak with her attorney who was provided to her by Vernon Jordan and who drafted the false affidavit and while Emmick never tells her she can’t, he strongly insinuates that it would not be in her best interest and that time is of the essence.
Meanwhile, while all of this is happening, Tripp is dismissed and you get the sense that for a woman who believed she was doing some heroic tasks, she was just a minor cog to get to the person (Lewinsky) that really had the goods. Meanwhile, Lewinsky keeps trying to figure out a way out of the situation and buying herself time in the bathroom while Mike Emmick updates Ken Starr who promptly brings in the “bad cop” Jackie Bennett, who lays down the law and demands Lewinsky’s cooperation. Monica tries to use what leverage she thinks she has and manages to get herself out of the hotel room, unaccompanied, for 30 minutes for the purpose of calling her mother. As Lewinsky leaves through the Pentagon City Mall to a payphone in order to call her mother, her paranoia is getting the worst of her, and the scene reminded me of Goodfellas when a coked-up Ray Liotta is convinced helicopters are following him the entire day. Ultimately, Monica calls her mother, Marica Lewis (Mira Sorvino), and explains the entire situation, which sets into action a chain of events that ultimately will lead to Lewinsky going home that evening, but there are still several hours to go before we get to that point. Lewis calls her ex-husband and Monica’s father, Bernard Lewinsky, who then consults with family attorney Bill Ginsburg. Ginsburg assures Lewinsky that he can get this whole thing cleared up and that Monica isn’t going to prison for anything, least of all petty white-collar crimes. The most noticeable trait of Monica’s parents is the wealth and status they have. It’s been hinted at through the series that Monica is a rich kid from Beverly Hills, but until you see them, you don’t fully realize just how privileged, and perhaps sheltered, Monica really is.
Amazingly, and to Emmick’s disbelief, Lewinsky returns to the hotel room, but not before running into Tripp in the mall. The scene might seem too unbelievable to have happened, but it did, which speaks to the poor planning and logistics of the operation. Upon her return, Lewinsky lets the investigators and agents know that she’s not agreeing to anything until her mother gets to the hotel, which won’t be for eight hours as she’s taking a train for New York City because she doesn’t like the fly. Everyone is incredulous, but there is little to do other than sit around and wait. While they’re waiting, Lewinsky finally presses to speak with her attorney, and Emmick and the team time it perfectly as they call late in the afternoon and her attorney has already left for the day. With nothing but time, the team and Lewinsky flip channels trying to find something to watch, go down to the mall and shop at Crate & Barrel and even get dinner at a local chain restaurant. Monica even manages to buy herself some time by faking the need to go to the bathroom and secretly calls Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary, at work and at home to tip her off to the investigation; however, Currie never answers, and Lewinsky dejectedly goes back to the hotel room. Finally, Marcia Lewis shows up and she immediately demands privacy with her daughter and tries to convince her to cooperate, but Monica wants to protect Clinton at all costs. Lewis tries to negotiate with the investigators on Monica’s behalf and demands transactional immunity in writing before she agrees to cooperate with the investigation. By this point, it is 11:00 PM and Clinton is set to testify in 10-12 hours. Simply said, time is running out. Eventually, it comes out that Lewis informed Bernard Lewinsky of the situation and that they have a lawyer. Monica calls her dad who promptly puts Bill Ginsburg on the line. Ginsburg gently asks Monica a few questions related to whether she is under arrest or simply questioning and then demands to talk to Mike Emmick. Upon getting on the phone with Emmick, Ginsburg’s entire demeanor changes and he starts cursing a blue streak and calling Emmick every name in the book while accusing him of all types of improprieties. After a failed attempt to get the transactional immunity deal in writing, he demands to talk to Monica again and advises her to simply get up and leave since they do not have the power to keep her there. Again, all of this may sound unbelievable, but it’s all true.
While all of this is taking place, Linda Tripp made it back home and is being questioned by Paula Jones’ attorneys regarding any incriminating information or gifts the president provided to Lewinsky that they can use on him while he is under oath. Tripp continues to rationalize her actions, but the attorneys are far less interested in Tripp’s motives than what she can provide to them prior to tomorrow’s deposition. Meanwhile, across town, Ann Coulter and George Conway have gotten their hands on the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes and have popped champagne bottles as they believe they have found the smoking gun, only to quickly realize they’ve gotten hours of conversations between two rather boring people talking about different types of lettuce and their recent diet trends. Even after they hear from another attorney that Lewinsky has been picked up by investigators, Conway states the obvious which is all the tapes prove is that Clinton had an affair, which is far from anything that remotely approaches an impeachable offense.
The episode ends with Monica and her mother back at Monica’s DC apartment. Monica still wants to try and call Betty Currie to warn Clinton, but her mother insists that it is time that she looks out for herself and her future and stop worrying about others. Monica slips into the bathroom and pulls out several prescription medication bottles and a sharp pair of scissors and you get the sense that she’s at the end of her rope, but rather than doing harm to herself, she collapses in tears on her bathroom tile. Outside of the door, her mother peeks in and mirrors her daughter as she slowly slides to the floor begins to cry as the weight of the moment has broken them both.
- Something that has been eating at me since the beginning of the series that I just need to get off my chest is that I think Beanie Feldstein is completely miscast as Monica Lewinsky. Feldstein, the sister of Jonah Hill, is a tremendous actress who does her best in the part, but she looks nothing like Lewinsky. Yes, Monica may have been a little overweight, but she was tall, confident, and fashionable. You could tell she came from money. Feldstein is short, has dark circles around her eyes, often comes off as mousey and frumpy. I’m not attempting to weight shame Feldstein, but it’s simply a byproduct of portraying a famous person. Everyone know what Monica Lewinsky looks like and Feldstein isn’t it. Again, her acting has been great, but at no point do you think she and Mira Sorvino could ever be related, let alone mother-daughter whereas the Lewinsky and Lewis, despite having different appearances, absolutely gave off the same vibe.
- One of the things I didn’t mention within the recap was Linda Tripp’s diatribe to the Jones’ attorneys about the sanctity of the Oval Office. It attempts to provide her motivation insofar that Clinton, in her mind, had desecrated this noble office by the standards she saw displayed from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Yes, perhaps those men had a certain amount of dignity, though Reagan likely ordered some borderline illegal activities via the Iran Contra Affair, but it’s also a selective memory. John Kennedy had affairs throughout his time in office. Richard Nixon orchestrated a break-in of Democratic Party headquarters from the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was not the first president to do immoral or illegal acts in the White House. He was simply the first one to do so in the 24-7 media environment in which his actions were covered in excruciating detail.
- The show doesn’t explain how Ann Coulter gets the tapes because it would have been even more confusing, but I still think the show is underusing some of their best players. Let Colbie Smulders shine. Get Billy Eichner back as Matt Drudge. These were the people that were pushing the story to the public. The show was very loyal to its portrayal of the day Lewinsky was questions by investigators, but it could have been easily boiled down to 20 minutes of screen time, which would have given the show more room to dive deeper into the network of conservative lawyers working on the case and the non-traditional media figures, like Matt Drudge, who were breaking stories.
- Perhaps the best part of the episode was the claustrophobic chaos it exuded throughout the hotel room scenes. You felt cramped and the camera was always on close-ups but was cutting constantly to different shots to give you a sense of panic. The cinematography in the show has been great and this episode showed off good camera work, but also great editing.
- The absolute best part of the episode was the evolution of Lewinsky lawyer Bill Ginsburg (Fred Melamed) who starts off as a soft-spoken friend of Monica’s dad and the second he’s put on the line with Emmick curses like a sailor and starts screaming demands. The transformation was instant and got me laughing because as the son and grandson of lawyers, I know all too well how easily they can switch off and on their “lawyer voice” when they need it. Bottom line: I need more Ginsburg in future episodes!
You can watch Impeachment: American Crime Story on Tuesdays at 10 PM ET on FX. Get all of Matthew’s political analysis on his weekly podcast ‘From the Swamp to the Swamp’ and follow along on Twitter at @fromtheswamppod.