The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky affair was perhaps the most inescapable news story of the 1990s. By the time all was said and done, the salacious saga had received hundreds of hours of airtime. It also had transcended the news to become something more like reality TV, complete with doled-out twists and mercilessly edited clips. It might seem impossible, then, that there’d be anything left to say about this moment in history. Yet the Ryan Murphy-produced limited series Impeachment: American Crime Story finds a fresh and compelling angle from which to retell the events.
This country’s reckoning with the mistreatment of Monica Lewinsky has been too little and too late. But this isn’t the first attempt to humanize the media-smeared twenty-two-year-old at the heart of the scandal. Lewinsky has given a TED talk about public shaming, while in-depth podcasts such as Slow Burn and You’re Wrong About have taken a magnifying glass to the ruthless scrutiny to which she was subjected. The tide has been turning for years, and now the latest installment of the American Crime Story anthology serves as the uber-detailed culmination of these attempts to reclaim Lewinsky’s narrative.
The ten-part Impeachment, which credits Lewinsky as a producer and is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, works hard to set the record straight while also keeping the massive political importance of the moment in mind. The series is pointed but never didactic. It always follows the story first, letting the historically misinterpreted moral follow.
Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) plays Monica Lewinsky as a lovestruck, emotionally intense young woman who obsesses about the president as if he’s her flakey college boyfriend. Clive Owen (Children of Men) portrays Bill Clinton, and while his physical transformation isn’t entirely convincing, he nails the voice and cadence very well. If you squint a bit during his scenes, you might actually think you’re watching a documentary.
Owen’s performance is definitely worth talking about, but it’s secondary to the woman-centric vision for the narrative as scripted by playwright Sarah Burgess. She reframes the affair and impeachment saga as a story about intersections of gender, class, politics, and physicality. Linda Tripp, the coworker who recorded Lewinsky at length while pursuing a book deal, is the series’ primary antagonist. As played by Sarah Paulson, this version of Tripp is a busybody and spotlight-seeker who takes pride in overstating her importance to the White House.
Impeachment has an unholy trinity of opportunist women at its center. Tripp, manipulative but never wholly heartless, is in one corner. Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light), the big-haired, big-promise-making advisor to naive Clinton accuser Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), is in another. And conservative pundit Ann Coulter, played with perfectly serpentine cold-bloodedness by Cobie Smulders, finishes out the unbearable triangle.
The show’s first, most heavy-handed episode introduces us to caricature versions of many of these women. Immediately, Impeachment frames the story as a catty fight, the type of story more suited to Murphy’s Hagsploitation-fixated Feud series than this one. The premiere, titled “Exiles,” contains low blows and salacious details, including Lewinsky calling Tripp a bitch and Jones inexplicably asserting that Clinton has a crooked penis. It hammers the point home hardest with Tripp repeatedly professing that she’s unpleasant to work with and almost pathologically vindictive.
Although Impeachment likely takes a few narrative leaps of faith, the overabundance of coverage on this case means there’s not much need for imagination. If any real-life stone is left unturned, it’s Hillary Clinton’s role in the scandal and in her own marriage. While the other women take center stage, Hillary (played by a miscast Edie Falco) is often little more than a sleeping figure whom Bill tries not to wake. The series kindly assumes that she’s in the dark about the affair, and it doesn’t do much else with her.
At first, Impeachment simply seems to be falling into the same blind spots as the news coverage of the scandal did in 1998. As it unfolds, though, the series becomes a careful and deeply mined examination of a complex situation. The People v. O.J. Simpson kicked off the American Crime Story anthology series in spectacular fashion. While Impeachment may not reach its heights, this third installment still thrives on specificity, collective moral re-examination, and compelling lead performances.
Feldstein is eager and effective as Lewinsky, a vibrant and perpetually chatty young woman with little sense of self-preservation. On the news, we often saw the most dolled-up version of Lewinsky. In this more grounded retelling, she spends more time on the phone or treadmill than in the spotlight. There are dozens of humanizing touches baked into Impeachment, but one of the most subtle and persuasive is in costuming that divorces the public, Clinton-courting version of Lewinsky from the young woman she was in everyday life.
Late in the series, we learn about Lewinsky’s troubling history with powerful men, including a camp counselor and a high school staff member. The revelation that she is already an abuse survivor and doesn’t fully realize it hits viewers like a lightning bolt, recontextualizing every decision she’s ever made. In the next episode, the FBI holds her in a hotel for eleven grueling and terrifying hours. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking climax that lays bare the power dynamics at play in this person’s life.
If The People v. O.J. Simpson was about American media’s inability to understand the nuances of race relations, Impeachment is about our historic failure to conceptualize womanhood. Monica Lewinsky isn’t a dangerous seductress at all; she’s a hurt young woman who becomes a cog in the most patriarchal machine imaginable. Determined, detailed, and ultimately humane, Impeachment: American Crime Story thoroughly rewrites the book on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. It’s also capable of closing the case once and for all.