Halfway through Impeachment, the latest installment in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology, an eager Linda Tripp sits among the remains of a holiday party in her living room. She’s waiting, it seems, for an elusive gift that never made it under the Christmas tree. Her eyes drill holes not into the fireplace, but instead the window.
Then come the headlights our conspicuously desperate villain has been waiting for. She ushers the government officials into her living room and, finally granted her 15 minutes in the limelight, musters her haughtiest tone. “Were you not all briefed?” she scolds. “I assumed you’d all come briefed.”
It’s in scenes like this that Sarah Paulson, Murphy’s inevitable but misguided choice to play the impossibly contradictory role, is at her most effective. Her Linda Tripp is a bruised ego come to life—a bitter tangle of disillusionment, misplaced anger, and corrosive envy. The dissonance between Tripp’s self-importance and her bumbling thirstiness captures Impeachment at its most withering. The series excels when it highlights the comical gaps between the American elite’s ego and the actual impression they leave on any normal human being. But its preoccupation with Tripp’s appearance, even as it tries to critique the maltreatment she endured in real life, flattens a thorny character into a two-dimensional caricature.
American Crime Story uses the benefit of hindsight to re-examine the pervasive news sagas that double as America’s favorite legends. The People v. O.J. Simpson methodically and convincingly chastised a sexist public for its treatment of Marcia Clark, and Impeachment clearly wants to bring a similar level of nuance to Tripp’s story—even if it stops short of exonerating her. So why does this season spend so much time echoing the already well-established narrative that she was a dowdy, embittered old hag?
As laughable Tripp certainly is in that post-Christmas party scene, that display of hubris is a welcome bit of humanity—or at least, it’s a nice break from watching a thin, heavily padded actress wolf down a seemingly endless stream of frozen dinners.
Impeachment explores how narcissists, when emboldened with too much power, can convince themselves that all kinds of ego-stroking behaviors are actually good and moral. Although there was never any love lost between Tripp and Bill Clinton, the series posits that they’re not that different—neither can see past their own egos, which is why neither can admit even to themselves that they ever exploited anyone. While Clinton insists that allowing Paula Jones’ lawsuit against him to proceed while he’s in office is the worst decision in Supreme Court history—“Don’t talk to me about Dred Scott!”—Tripp spends multiple phone calls with her literary agent psyching herself up to sell out her friend.
“I mean, someone needs to end this before anyone gets hurt,” she says.
“You could do a book,” Margo Martindale’s literary agent Lucianne Goldberg replies.
“You really think so?”
It seems intentional that Beanie Feldstein’s Monica Lewinsky not only looks but acts uncomfortably young. As told by Impeachment, Lewinsky was the victim of multiple transactional relationships with people who used their maturity and standing to gain her trust and then betrayed her. The Booksmart star captures the tempestuousness of young romantic and erotic obsession but struggles to accentuate her character’s trauma as the abuse becomes public gossip. Scenes that should drive home just how deeply her exploitation ruptured Lewinsky’s young psyche instead feel like one-note moments of kiddie-crush desperation.
Then there’s Paulson—and, yes, that fat suit. It figures that Murphy, who often taps Paulson to tackle his shows’ most daring high-wire acts, would want her to play Tripp, and sometimes it works. The American Horror Story MVP shines in scenes that let her play up the character’s delusions of grandeur. When Tripp shows up at an electronics store in a full trench coat and sunglasses to buy a tape recorder, you can hear the spy-thriller music playing in her head—even if it is non-diegetic.
That said, however, Paulson never seems comfortable in her character’s body—perhaps because it’s not her body. (Or her nose.) Somewhere between the fat suit, the SlimFast we see Tripp making at the very outset of the show, and many frozen dinners eaten alone in front of the TV, it begins to feel as though Impeachment enjoys making fun of Tripp’s appearance just as much as it does criticizing others who did so when she was still alive. On the one hand, Impeachment makes sure to show us how upset Tripp is when she sees John Goodman playing her on SNL—but then again, she does so while once again shoveling frozen potatoes into her mouth in a darkened room.
No one is clamoring for a season of ACS that vindicates Tripp in the mold of, say, Marcia Clark, whose sympathetic portrayal in the first season of ACS prompted a long overdue re-evaluation. Still, the hollowness at Impeachment’s center stems, in part, from its reluctance to let viewers see the commonalities we’d be ashamed to admit we share with Tripp—at least, so far.
Tripp was not the only person who spent several years in the 1990s poring over every detail of Monica Lewinsky’s sex life with lurid obsession. Critics only received seven out of 10 Impeachment episodes for review, which end before the Lewinsky-Clinton affair became public fodder. Perhaps in those last few episodes, we’ll finally meet the most relentless villain in Lewinsky’s story—a ravenous, tabloid-obsessed public that enjoyed every minute of her evisceration.
It feels inevitable that we’ll see Paulson re-enact the one news address the real Tripp ever gave before Impeachment ends. As she emerged from testifying before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury, Tripp told the public, “I am you… I’m an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making.”
As ludicrous as such a claim is—Tripp had, after all, just executed one of the most high-profile betrayals in human history from inside a building most Americans will never see in person, let alone set foot in—it’s fascinating to imagine the parallels Impeachment could draw between Tripp and its viewers. After all, the “you” with whom Tripp was trying to align herself was not the real America, but its idealized version of itself. One could argue that this virtue-obsessed yet prurient government worker is a pretty great stand-in for the puritanical streak that continues to run through much of this paradoxical country’s veins—that her inability, at every step, to acknowledge how she’s using Lewinsky mirrors America’s own refusal to stop drinking its own Kool-Aid. But that’s hard to get across when you’re busy getting the fat suit and the yellow teeth just right.