Trials end. A long criminal trial is like a capacious balloon. In a conviction, the air that filled the balloon, no matter how stale and fetid the testimony was, stays inside, settling uncomfortably into history. An acquittal, on the other hand, lets out the air instantly. The prisoner is released. “There is no red tape after an acquittal,” writes Jeffrey Toobin. “The handcuffs come off, and you’re on your way” (431).
“The Verdict,” the 10th episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, by necessity has an altogether different tone from the rest of the series. In place of process, we have finality. The characters we gotten to know over ten weeks and ten hours get to the endings of their stories, whether we like those endings or not. The conflicts are resolved. At least the questions this series raised, like that balloon in the sky, about how movies and television differ from one another gets answered in soaring fashion. In Episode 10, those dialectics–Is is the ten-hour movie or the ten one-hour movies–come colliding against each other with a force that would leave Eisenstein shining with approval. In “The Verdict” those questions of whether or not there could be a hung jury or a mistrial in the O.J. Simpson case; about which one will win: the prosecution’s mountains of evidence or the defense’s race card and its “better story”; about whether a freed O.J. could go back to the life he had before; about whether the verdict would spur race riots in L.A. like those that followed the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King–they all get answered. But who is satisfied with the answers? And more immediately, what do we, over two decades later, make of it all?
I believe that the key moment in Episode 10 comes when Chris Darden sweeps into Marcia Clark’s office when they know there is a verdict and that it was arrived at in under four hours. “Marcia,” Chris says in a medium close-up, “What if we won?” A tight close-up on Marcia’s face as it threatens to break into a smile, is followed by a Spaghetti Western-tight choker close-up on Chris, popping a grin that he still holds from breaking out into a a full 16 x 9 smile. Director Ryan Murphy lets us take in the full implications of this “What if?” It’s a brilliant moment. It beings back for a second director Anthony Hemingway’s fugue of faces–a ready Marcia and an uncertain Chris. What if O.J. had been found guilty? It would have meant that a jury of ten blacks and two whites found an African-American, white-identified superstar culpable on the evidence. It would have meant that the defense’s suggestions of a shadowy conspiracy in the absence of any other suspects or plausible clues pointing to anyone by O.J. Simpson failed to convince the panel most likely to believe Johnnie Cochran’s “better story.” It would have meant that the defense could not manage to deflect O.J. Simpson’s guilt onto the LAPD. It would have meant that the evidence was so overwhelming that even the monstrosity of Mark Fuhrman couldn’t distract from it. Would it have caused riots? It was a downtown jury, not the ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian in suburban Simi Valley who exonerated the white officers who were caught on tape beating a black man within an inch of his life. In fact, however, the U.S. Justice Department was bracing for riots if the verdict was guilty.
Even if somehow the viewer didn’t know the outcome in advance, the way Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski structure their script of Episode 10 cleverly forecloses the possibility that the prosecution will win. In the previous scene, the deputy, who is a middle-aged white guy like those LAPD officers who had deferred to O.J. throughout his life in Brentwood, tells O.J. he has nothing to be nervous about and asks for his autograph on a football; does he think he had better get it while the “football great” is still his prisoner? Just as the prosecution seemed ill-starred even on its good moves, so omens that should presage conviction don’t. Statistically, as Darden tells Clark, fast jury deliberations mean guilty verdicts. The only testimony the jury asked to hear again was that of Allan Park, the limousine driver who drove O.J. to the airport the night of the murders. Toobin wrote,
Park struck me as the most powerful government witness in the case. It was absolutely clear that the Bronco was not parked on Rockingham when he arrived to pick up Simpson. Its absence . . . doomed O.J. Even worse, . . . was that Park was fairly certain that the Bronco had returned by the time they left for the airport–an even more incriminating fact.” (427)
From Darden’s line, “What if we won?,” Murphy boldly cuts to an equally tight close-up on O.J. in court to the sound of Ito’s gavel. There will be no more “What ifs,” but one was more than enough.
Everything else is straight action. In actual footage, crowds of African Americans cheer wildly, while whites are shown shaking their heads or staring in stunned silence. So much of the dramatization, including the reading of verdict, with the clerk stumbling over the name of “Orenthal James Simpson” the final time she will read it, is enacted close to the way it happened. After a commercial blackout, Kardashian rushes to the men’s room and vomits–into the sink; he doesn’t even make it as far as a toilet. Everything O.J. does after leaving prison confirms Kardashian’s suspicions. O.J. says he’s glad he’s not being taken home in a Bronco (Is it because of the Bronco’s notoriety from the events of the slow-speed chase, or because riding in a Bronco would put him back in the vehicle that took him from his home to the Bundy scene and back?). He gives back to Kardashian the Bible his friend gave him as he entered jail, an act that O.J. seems to intend to as a show of gratitude for his friend’s deep concern but that instead demonstrates just how little it meant to him. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he want to keep it? Is this the Bible that Bobby has open by the side of his tub as he prays for his friend at the beginning of Episode 2? As the Goldmans get in their car to leave the courthouse for the last time, Kim asks her father, “What do we do now?” We know that what they do is press a civil suit against Simpson, a legal action that Simpson will lose.
As O.J.’s Brentwood friends shun the party he throws for himself, and the Riviera golf club refuses to take his reservation, and his former friend Bobby drops the Bible so that it lands next to an ice bucket, O.J. begins to recognize that he is now a pariah. He goes outside in the dark and confronts the statue of O.J. the football hero. The distant sound of crowds is heard; the echoes of stadiums full of crowds cheering for O.J. the star running back seem to blur into the raucous, contentious protesters outside the courthouse and the angry cries that presage everything from outraged citizens in Ferguson, Mo. to the purposeful demonstrators of Black Lives Matter. No one brings down the statue, but one senses that it’s only a matter of time.
The final 35 minutes, after the verdict is read, double down on the entire series’s even-handedness. Cochran patronizingly offers to help Darden “come back into the community,” and Chris devastatingly replies, “this isn’t some civil rights milestone . . . You haven’t changed anything for black people here, unless of course your famous rich one in Brentwood.” It’s a wonderfully satisfying moment because for once Cochran doesn’t have a comeback. He receives vindication of a sort in the next sequence when back in his office he sees President Bill Clinton on TV, in a bi-partisan meeting with Congressional leaders, saying that Americans should “put ourselves in each others’ shoes and try to see why we see each other in different ways.” An irony is that among all the faces at the table, not a single one is black; this is probably due to the fact that Clinton now had to deal with the many white conservatives swept into office in the 1994 “Contract with America” midterm election, which brought in the first GOP House of Representatives in forty years, as well as a Republican Senate.
Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton “our first black president.” Clinton actually had played golf with O.J. not long before the murders. By the time of the verdict, however, according to George Stephanopoulos in the memoir he published after leaving the Clinton White House, “the . . . acquittal made Clinton anxious. He feared it would fuel white resentment and feed the prejudiced notion that ‘blacks can’t be trusted with the criminal-justice system.’ An acquittal would deepen racial divisions” . No doubt Clinton wanted to calm the waters, which he continued to try to do in his address, “Racism in the United States,” delivered the morning of the October 1995 Million Man March on Washington, which was organized by Louis Farakkhan of the Nation of Islam, the presence of whose famed Fruit of Islam bodyguards to protect Cochran and the defense team so infuriates Robert Shapiro in Episode 10 .
The fact that the O.J. Simpson verdict came down just twelve days before the planned March allowed Clinton to speak to the divisions opened up by the jury’s decision stand. Johnnie’s tears on the president’s response seem a wishful reaction to what Darden more justifiably deems “payback.” Darden’s bitterness, and the dislike of Affirmative Action that he expresses in Episode 5, apparently moved him to declare himself a Republican in the months after the verdict and to request a speaking slot at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego; GOP officials scheduled Darden to give a five-minute speech on the third night of the four-day convention, but then scratched it, citing time limitations .
Episode 10’s bombshell may be the revelation that Marcia’s special motivation comes from her desire to find “vengeance for victims,” resulting from her own rape in Italy by a waiter when she was seventeen. Among the many smart choices the series made, this was one of the shrewdest; one can easily imagine this motivation being revealed in Episode 6 “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” where it would have added to that segment’s emotional dynamite. Or it could have been revealed even earlier. But here, in the anticlimax, after Marcia’s private outburst in front of Gil and Chris–“I’m so ashamed!”–and her professional performance in the government’s official press conference with the Brown and Goldman families, she shows Chris why her job isn’t just about career and image. In the last time Chris and Marcia will be seen, he appears in her office door. “Hey, Big Time,” he says, as he has addressed her in her doorway since long before he was involved in the Simpson case. It’s like a reprise, a repeated stanza. Marcia tells Chris what she went through, her repression of the rape until she tried her first rape case as a prosecutor. Her story told, and with Chris having already said that it’s quits for him, he asks “What do you want to do now?” She replies, “Is it too early for a drink?” And out they walk into the proverbial, fluorescent-lit sunset, turning off the lights as they leave. Nina Simone sings her a capella song, “A New Life.” The End, for them.
Part of me thinks that the rape motivation is too neat, as if Marcia’s overwhelming drive, which was clear almost as soon as we met her in Episode 1, let alone through all ten hours, needed to be explained. But another part of me is very glad I know it, and glad that it doesn’t color every action she takes, as an earlier revelation of it would have done. A & K needed to hold it until now. The jury that she felt wouldn’t listen to her, so intent were they on “payback,” gets their last rejoinder. And the series is already done with the jury. Judge Ito dismisses them and thanks them for their service. Lon Cryer, a volcanic mountain of a man, turns toward O.J. and makes the Black Power sign. Marcia takes astonished note, and they are gone.
“The Verdict” unavoidably invites back into the show the sensationalism and recriminations, which moved a few of us to shut the trial out of our consciousness while it was going on. Episode 8 “A Jury in Jail,” for instance, created empathy with these sequestered souls. With the jury’s deliberations, and the majority’s feeble objections to the prosecution’s case and clear indications that they bought the defense’s racial appeals, the book deals by jurors who lasted on the panel until the end, and appearances on talk shows by others as soon as they were dismissed come trickling back. Regardless, the O.J. Simpson case, the series persuades us, mattered; it summed up twentieth-century postwar America in its last TV-dominated, pre-internet, pre-HDTV era. (Remember when HDTV was supposed to come in at the beginning of 1997?) In a sense, the series manages to vindicate nearly everyone the case touched (with one exception whom I’ll get to). It manages to consider all sides, a nearly impossible feat.
The show’s most lasting achievement may be to demonstrate what long-form television can do that a two- or three-hour work of cinema cannot do, even though I envy those who saw at least some of this show on a big screen either at the premiere in January or the showing of the finale last week. Even the commercial blackouts serve aesthetic purposes. A movie could not use three different directors, two black, one white. The four episodes–1, 2, 6, and 10–that Ryan Murphy directed have a kinetic flair and editorial spark that Hemingway and Singleton do not match. Murphy’s episodes, on the other hand, lose a bit of the tension of Hemingway’s. The longer takes and hand-held camera favored by Hemingway wield a bite, satirical yet objective, especially in EP 4 “100% Not Guilty,” EP 7 “Conspiracy Theories,” and EP 9 “Manna from Heaven,” that Murphy moves a little too quickly to register.
Is this story a tragedy? As a personal drama, the O.J. saga may have been a contemporary version of Othello, with no Iago necessary. O.J. supplied all the rage, jealousy, and anger himself. Chris Darden’s summation, as the series portrays it, narrates how O.J. was driven to murder. Johnnie Cochran, with his ambition for a better story to tell the jury, admires it, and that’s why he congratulates Chris on it. As a social phenomenon, the “Trial of the Century” was another dividing line between the races in America. Many found the whole case to be sadness, terror, and media exploitation on a mass scale, while the legal machinery of the trial gave the country a lesson in how its court system worked; I recall hearing a filmmaker say that courtroom dramas could no longer show lawyers walking right up to the witness stand and the jury box, after the world had seen an actual trial in which the lawyers take their places behind lecterns and microphones. The series, however, has performed the alchemy of great art, making something beautiful out of human faults, emotions, mistakes, and accomplishments.
Finally, even a ten-hour series has had to elide much about this exceedingly complicated case. There are characters eliminated and events streamlined, even in the “Where are they now?” epilogue shots (For instance, Gil Garcetti did lose a re-election bid in 2000, as the epilogue states, but after he won a second term the year after the O.J. trial, in the 1996 campaign we see him preparing for in Episode 9). Actuality is not terribly compatible with drama, which is exactly a reason why we need it, and despite the fact that real life often makes great drama.
Does O.J. get his just deserts*? Well, probably not, at least not in his criminal trial of 1995. Episode 10 has what we can call an onion-peel structure; as each layer peels away, we are finally left, or more precisely we and Robert Kardashian are left, in the series’ final twelve minutes, with O.J. As I’ve said before, the series is at its most modernist when we are with O.J., whose actions require our interpretation. Cuba Gooding Jr. must have felt as if he were acting in the Theater of the Absurd, while everyone else is in a mid-century legal drama, say, The Crucible or 12 Angry Men. In the impending Emmys, Courtney B. Vance will probably win Best Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his bravura Johnnie Cochran, and deservedly so. But it’s Gooding who has the most difficult role, and probably a thankless one. He doesn’t look like O.J. (Who would?), but he’s a likable actor and compelling presence. He doesn’t look like a killer, which makes him just right to play O.J. Simpson, who didn’t look like one either. Simpson put a twist on the main principle of American jurisprudence, that one is “innocent until proven guilty.” O.J. was famous until proven guilty, charismatic until proven guilty. As Lon Cryer says in the jury room, “I will never, ever think that they proved it.” “Never,” seconds another. “Never, ever, ever,” says a third.
O.J.’s priority after he gets home is to have “the party of the century.” David Schwimmer, another superlative actor, is called upon to react queasily to everything O.J. does to prove he’s still the Juice, able to retain his old life. As he takes a shower–the nudity FX warns us about at the outset–it looks as if he thinks he can wash off everything he has experienced since June 12, 1994, and probably long before that. In his perfect home and his perfect robe, he slumps into an overstuffed chair in his den–and weeps. What is he weeping for? Is it release of emotion, as Toobin describes the tears in the courtroom following the verdict from “everyone in all the families . . . for joy, for sorrow, at their release from this extraordinary tension” (431)? His tears, like nearly all his actions, are ambiguous, left to the beholder. In one of the most telling moments in the episode, O.J.’s eldest child Jason, then 25, comes in holding a puppy. “I just wanted to make sure you always had a friend,” the young man tells his father. He knows what life will hold in store for Orenthal James Simpson.
This blog has been a new and rich experience for me. I thank my readers for your interest amid the wealth of weekly blogs and recaps on this series from every media outlet imaginable, I’m happy if mine somehow stood out. I avoided looking at those, and didn’t even realize how very many of them there were until the last few days. I had no idea what I was getting into at the beginning, although I had no illusions about how much work it would be or how long each post would take me (I know how I work). I embarked upon it because, just as Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Brad Simpson, and Nina Jacobson had never worked in television before, I had never done anything like a weekly blog. I set out to do this because with my particular interest in Karaszewski and Alexander’s biopics, and my sense that this series would sparkle with their unique flair for real-life stories with a quirky and off-center touch, I just thought I could contribute something. I couldn’t have known what a milestone the series would become or how nearly universally acclaimed it would be. Thus I am humbled by learning that the show’s creators, among other readers, would look forward every week to seeing what I had to say. I will say I am embarrassed by the way, with classes, grading, committees, and the day-to-day responsibilities of being a faculty member during a semester, I fell behind as the semester went on. I hope my blogs have been worth waiting for.
I want to thank the Department of English at the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI for sponsoring this blog and for giving me a spot in English Week, which happened to coincide with the week the series concluded. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did us the extreme honor of joining us via Skype and sharing with us their special passion and creativity, as well as their insights into how the series came together the way it did.
Thank you for sharing this remarkable series with me. And if you’re just now finding the site, I hope you’ll go back to the beginning, my prologue back on February 1st, and move with me through the series.
* . . . which, incidentally, is proper spelling.
 “O.J. Simpson and President Clinton.” American Presidents Blog 5 October 2008. http://www.american-presidents.org/2008/10/oj-simpson-and-president-clinton.html. Accessed 8 April 2016.
 Jill M. Weber, “William Jefferson Clinton: ‘Racism in the United States’ (2006). Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project. http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/jill m-weber/ Accessed 8 April 2016.
 William R. Macklin, “Indignation Intact, Darden Becomes Best-selling Author.” Philadelphia Inquirer 3 April 1996. http://articles.philly.com/1996-04-03/living/25662279_1_christopher-darden-trial-predominantly-black-jury. Accessed 3 March 2016.
Richard L. Berke, “Dole Hailed as an Honorable ‘Quiet Hero,’ as Republicans Give Him Their Nomination.” The New York Times 15 August 1996. https://partners.nytimes.com/library/politics/camp/960815convention-gop-ra.html. Accessed 9 April 2016.
Incidentally, in an article written after the acquittal of accused Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman, Darden appeared to indicate that his Republican days are behind him, writing that “the election of Barack Obama pulled us up from the bleak hole created by the Simpson trial and unified many black and white people to believe and hope again—together.” Christopher A. Darden, Michele Noble, “Christopher Darden Believes There May Be Justice Yet for Trayvon.” The Daily Beast 14 July 2013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/07/14/christopher-darden-believes-there-may-be-justice-yet-for-trayvon.html. Accessed 3 March 2016.