Impeachment: American Crime Story, a new series depicting the events surrounding the Clinton impeachment trial, premiered last week on FX. Episode One, titled “Exiles”, gets busy laying the groundwork for the main event, what appears to be the ultimate villain origin story in which, well, every single character you meet is the villain.
The episode begins in January of 1998 with a pre-Washington, D.C. Monica Lewinsky packing up her apartment (including her copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the latest Washington Post with the headline, “Clinton Wins Second Term”) before stopping by her favorite coffee shop where she breaks the news to the barista that she’s, “moving to New York next week.”
Cut to a jejune Lewinsky settling into her new life as a D.C. power woman by working out and ordering non-fat lattes, when she gets a call from Linda (Tripp) offering to meet her for lunch with a “solution to [her] problem.” In perfectly detestable Linda Tripp fashion, Lewinsky’s deus ex lunch date turns out to be a set up, and F.B.I. agents quietly whisk her away to the Ritz Carlton for questioning about her connection to the Paula Jones lawsuit crimes. It’s here that Lewinsky refers to Tripp as a, ‘treacherous bitch,” and somehow, with her permanent chagrin, we get the feeling that Tripp must be deserving of the name.
We are then taken back five years prior, to simpler times in July 1993, when Linda was secretary for the White House counsel and Vince Foster, and “Whitewater” wasn’t yet followed up by the word “scandal.” Linda is dowdy and bitter, as she tramples through the halls of the West Wing gossiping to friend Kathleen Willey about run-ins with First Lady Clinton in the communal bathroom.
The series does attempt to show Tripp some mercy early on when she compassionately brings lunch to a very (understandably) distraught Vince Foster. Any shot at redemption is thwarted, however, when (spoiler alert) Foster “kills himself” shortly after. (Yes, I put it in quotations and no, we don’t have to say anything further.)
We are soon introduced to true naivety in the form of small-town Arkansas girl with big hair, Paula Jones, right as news of her alleged unfavorable encounter with the President of the United States went public, as told by David Brock on the front page of The American Spectator issue titled, “His Cheatin’ Heart.” However, to husband Steve’s relief (?), Jones’ encounter with Clinton was not consensual, and she agrees to take the case of sexual harassment to court, if only to appease Steve and his “budding” acting career. What Jones was hoping would be a quick, hush-hush case resulting in a humble apology from the president and a guest star role for Steve on then popular sitcom, Designing Women, unfortunately turned into a humiliating public announcement at the 1994 CPAC followed by a conference with press that questioned the veracity of Jones’ statements and eventual laughter and mockery. The televised debacle did happen to catch the eye of a predatory Ann Coulter, however, who saw an opportunity for exploitation and swooped in to hire big-shot Washington lawyers to take Jones and her sexual harassment case under their wing.
Some quick background information, for those who need a refresher: Paula Jones alleged that on May 8, 1991, while working as a state employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, she attended the Annual Governor’s Quality Conference at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Jones alleged she was asked by an Arkansas State Police trooper to report to Governor Clinton’s hotel room in the Excelsior, (which is now the Little Rock Marriott), where Clinton propositioned and exposed himself to her. She claimed she kept quiet about the incident until 1994, when the aforementioned David Brock story in The American Spectator was printed. Jones filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton on May 6, 1994, two days before the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.
Right away, Paula is swept away to the law offices of Cammarata and Davis in D.C., where she virtuously offers to prove her credibility by drawing the president’s private parts — and where of course, none of the very curious eyes in the room dared to stop her from doing so. A down-trodden and overwhelmed Paula is eventually pushed by Steve and the lawyers to file a suit with no time to rethink because as we know, statute of limitations waits for no woman. In Paula’s final scene of the episode, the lawyers ask Jones if there is anything in her past that she doesn’t want “coming out — because it will,” and soon after, the district court case against the president of the United States is announced in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, back at the White House in ‘93, the walls are closing in: Linda’s human skin is eroding from all of the hand-wringing as she reaches out to a mostly uninterested Lucianne Goldberg with hopes of writing a tell-all book; The president somehow manages to make more poor choices by kissing Kathleen Willey; and Bernie Nussbaum gets out of Dodge.
Tripp’s illusions of grandeur are destroyed when she receives news that not only is she is being demoted from very important White House staff member to Pentagon cog, but that her replacement is none other than a nonplussed Kathleen. Linda launches a (somewhat impressive) rant about how she had to suppress her staunch conserative values and had to bite her tongue throughout her time working under the Clinton administration, and that Kathleen simply wasn’t worthy and only got the position because the president knew she had a rich husband. To which Kathleen replies, “The president has no idea who you are.”
The episode wraps up in April 1996, when again, we see Monica Lewinsky setting foot in a new office but this time, just like Tripp, she’s been transferred to the Department of Defense from the White House.
Tripp’s curiosity is piqued by Lewinsky, as she struggles to piece together why a young, cute White House intern would be sent to the Pentagon, only to be scheduled to return once the new administration takes over the following year. Tripp gets just close enough to Lewinsky to confirm that her suspicions are true, and we are left with the notion that Tripp’s tell-all novel will now be anything but, “stale White House gossip.”
Overall, I appreciate the series taking the time to take the scandal all the way back to its conception, rather than the usual in medias res of a blue dress and shaky podium. But, I would be lying if I said the timeline didn’t get a little turbulent at times — the jumps from this year to that year back to the year after that can be jarring. But, perhaps that makes for an accurate portrayal of a deeply confusing period, all the same. While there are many different routes with twists and turns throughout the first episode, I look forward to watching the rest of the series play out because as we know, all roads will eventually lead to a gripping dead end.
Episode Two of Impeachment: American Crime Story airs Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST on FX.