I was 9 when the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict came down, but I remember the moment perfectly. I was in a fourth grade classroom, and one of the teacher’s aides came in after having watched the decision.
My fourth grade teacher asked: “Guilty?”
The aide replied: “Not Guilty.”
For a few minutes, there was chaos. Some kids jumped around the room, while the rest of us didn’t really know what to make of it. Not only was I nine, but I also didn’t have a clear understanding of the case. My parents had sheltered me from it, for the most part. What I did know, though, was that it was important, and that no one knew which way it would tilt until the decision finally happened. I felt the world shift on its axis, even if I wasn’t sure why.
I was expecting The People vs. O.J. Simpson to be all about tabloid juice. I was wrong. Over the course of 10 episodes, the first installment of American Crime Story dug deep, confronting viewers with everything from systemic racism and sexism to the many ways in which the media can pollute the judicial process. I went in expecting raw entertainment and instead found one of the most incisive pieces of serialized storytelling I’ve seen in years. Ryan Murphy and his team did something marvelous with this show, and they deserve every accolade they get.
But there was one thing I was never sure about: How do they end this?
Everyone knows how the O.J. Simpson trial ends. If you don’t, you’re either eight years old or living in the mountains somewhere, curing venison. It is perhaps the most famous conclusion to a murder trial since Leopold and Loeb in 1924. How do you make something that universal compelling again?
The final episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson is called “The Verdict,” and the titular decision takes up only a few minutes of the episode’s running time. The rest is about the greater verdict. The rest is about how this story will never truly have an ending.
Watching the finale of this first American Crime Story cycle, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a line from True Detective, another recent American crime drama triumph: At one point in that show’s first season, Detective Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) declares that “This is a world where nothing is solved.”
The story that spawned that quote is great, but the case for its truth has never been stated more plainly than in American Crime Story.
With the possible exception of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who sees triumph as he watches President Bill Clinton discuss race relations on national TV, no one in this story walks away unscathed. Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), already under fire because he’s perceived as a turncoat for prosecuting another black man, collapses into the arms of the Goldman family in the aftermath of the trial. Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) reels as she watches what she once saw as an airtight case crumble before her eyes. Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) sees himself turn from all-star attorney to second fiddle as Cochran rises to media stardom. Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) finally realizes, in his own mind, that he seems to have spent more than a year standing up for a guilty man.
Then there’s O.J. himself (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who rejoices at his freedom even as he sees his old life slipping away. In the aftermath of the verdict, O.J. throws a party at his Brentwood estate, and asks one of his sons to make a reservation at his favorite restaurant for the next day. The son comes back and says “They can’t make room for you,” an insult added to the injury of protestors greeting Simpson outside his home earlier the same day. In the series’ final moments, Simpson confronts the statue he had erected in his own honor, a monument to past football glory, on his own lawn, and the chants of “O.J.! O.J.! O.J.!” ring in his head.
This is a world where nothing is solved.
Simpson will never be the same. Clark and Darden are defeated. Shapiro and Kardashian are shells of the men they used to be. Most importantly, though, no one ever does time for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and it’s no accident that the final image we see on this show is of their smiling faces next to their dates of birth and death. There is no ending. There is only suffering, and it is a suffering filtered through a prism of racism, sexism, media exploitation, hate, fear and a courtroom that often passed for a circus. This can’t be fixed, and while that’s the stuff of great drama, it’s also the stuff that keeps you awake at night after the credits roll.
For all its juicy, often humorous twists and turns, this is where The People vs. O.J. Simpson cements itself as a work of TV brilliance. This could’ve been a Sunday night TV movie attempting to distill the ugliest tabloid details into two hours. Instead, it became an ambitious, unmissable TV achievement that hammered home a crucial point about all of its key issues: We still don’t have the answers, and that’s why we have to keep asking the questions.
Read Matthew Jackson’s earlier coverage of American Crime Story here.