Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode four of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” titled “100% Not Guilty.”
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) may have been blind to a lot of issues she would face in the O.J. Simpson trial, but one thing she saw with keen foresight: the power struggles within the Dream Team.
“You know what O.J.’s biggest problem is?” she asks her confidant Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), over tequila in her office late one night (that is, other than his obvious guilt). “That pileup of egos called the Dream Team. It’s a dozen alpha dogs in a cage match. They’re going to tear each other up and implode.”
This episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — which chronicles the road to the trial, from pretrial hearings through jury selection — takes us inside both the prosecution and the defense’s strategy sessions, under Anthony Hemingway’s dramatic, intense direction. And while Clark certainly has her own issues to contend with (more on that later), the alpha dogs are indeed fighting for power as she predicted.
Bob Shapiro (John Travolta) never ceases to remind all concerned at every opportunity that he’s “lead attorney,” despite the recent addition of the showboating Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) to Simpson’s (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) defense. But that first team meeting couldn’t be more awkward — despite the lox and whitefish from Nate & Al’s. Shapiro bungles it with his opening question (“Who thinks O.J. did it?”), which is met with a resounding silence, and a reference to “these people.” Cochran chastises him: “In this case you need to choose your vernacular very, very carefully.”
Over brunch with Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) isn’t thrilled to learn that Shapiro’s strategy is to cut a deal. He’s even less happy to learn he’s expected to work pro bono. “Trust me, you’ll dine out on this for the rest of your life,” says Shapiro. Snaps back Bailey (who as with last week, gets to deliver crackling one-liners), “Yeah, but Patty Hearst paid.” Sensing weakness, he switches his loyalty to the other big dog. “The parries and the jabs, that’s how these cases are won, not by settling like a p—y,” he tells Cochran. “Johnnie, it’s time for you to make a move.” And when rumors of infighting spread to the press, Bailey even goes on “Larry King Live” ostensibly to defuse them, but effectively pouring oil on the fire, calling Shapiro an “empty suit.”
Meanwhile, Cochran’s been dismayed to see Simpson’s state of mind — he’s depressed, listless. The episode opens with a flashback: Simpson remembering the good, old days when he used to go to clubs with his buddy Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and sniff cocaine off girls on the dance floor. But now he’s stuck in a jail cell. (I’ll spare you his rant about the effect of the food on his digestive system.)
Vance delivers a stunning, stirring pep talk as the camera swirls around them, telling Simpson what he once meant to him at a low point in his own life, watching a football game where Simpson came back again and again. True story? Or clever fiction? It doesn’t matter. The preacher struck a chord in his audience: “You are an inspiration,” says Vance. “I am an inspiration!” replies Simpson. His swagger is back, and the next time we see him in the courtroom, he declares himself “absolutely, 100% not guilty.”
So the stage is set for an inevitable showdown between Cochran and Shapiro. First it’s dueling press conferences over the prosecution’s selection of jurors; then it’s an argument in the judge’s chambers over whether they’d play the race card, which leads to a face-off in the hallway. “Don’t ever contradict me like that again,” thunders Shapiro. Counters Cochran: “You contradict yourself, Bob. We all have longer memories than your previous soundbite.” Touche.
The final straw is a strategy session where Shapiro tries once again to argue for a plea deal, but Cochran’s team has just been presenting Simpson with evidence of a maid who might be able to contradict the prosecution’s timeline. That’s when Kardashian, too, has had enough. Using Shapiro’s ill-timed Hawaiian vacation as cover for a coup d’etat, Cochran’s team sweeps in and scoops up the case files, while Kardashian convinces a reluctant O.J. it’s finally time to switch lead attorneys. Shapiro returns home — clad in a hilarious Hawaiian shirt — to find out he’s been dethroned, via a Daily News front page delivered via fax (remember that crinkly, smudgy paper?).
So it’s one more tense, crowded conference room meeting where Shapiro petulantly demands to know who’s delivering the opening statements. He’s lost the backing of everyone in the room, who voice their support for Cochran. Simpson, who’s patched in via speaker, rambles through a labored football analogy, before — after prolonged prodding by Kardashian — finally endorsing Cochran. The king is dead. Long live the king.
It’s hardly wine and roses, though, for the prosecution. Clark’s boss, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), has not only taken death penalty off the table, much to her chagrin, but he’s forced a jury consultant, Don Vincent, on her, and she doesn’t like the results. The case is clearly divided on racial lines, and while Clark thinks she has a rapport with black women, the results say the opposite. Vincent has harsh advice for her about her personal appearance, her wardrobe, her hairstyle. “Try smiling a bit more,” he says condescendingly. Clark has also to endure sitting on the other side of a glass wall hearing herself referred to as a “b—h,” while the participants all smile and nod in agreement.
When it comes to jury selection, she ignores his advice, at her peril — as we of course know. Clark assumes black women will be on her side: “If I can make it black women we’re in good shape… They’ll sympathize with Nicole. They’ll make the connection. OJ’s abuse led to murder.” But the defense’s research has told them opposite: That they think Nicole is a gold-digger. So when Cochran gambles, excusing a white male juror and gaining a black woman in his place, Clark lets the woman stay. She doesn’t use her available challenges, believing in the woman’s questionnaire. “We cannot be so hung up on skin color,” she says, words she will certainly come to regret. But even O.J. sees the inherent bias of this jury: “If these people convict me, maybe I did do it.”
Of course, neither side sees Faye Resnick (a scene-stealing Connie Britton) coming — and neither side is pleased. Her book about her friendship with Nicole Brown, “The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted,” causes a seismic disruption on the case, with its sensational tales of abuse, drug use and casual sex (“She loved to give a Brentwood hello,” trills Resnick, between puffs of a cigarette and sips of champagne). The prosecution worries it will taint the jury pool; the defense argues it’s full of lies (“That’s not true, that’s not true, OK, that’s true,” concedes Kardashian). Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) suspends jury selection for two days so that both sides can vet the book, but ultimately decides to let it proceed.
But the prosecution has one more move to make. Prodded by Garcetti to once again “fix the optics,” Clark recruits Chris Darden as third chair. So the defense’s strut into the courtroom to begin opening statements hits a skid when they spot him sitting at the opposite table. “When did they get a black guy?” says Simpson, prompting a sly smile from Clark.
A few notes:
• The series has been criticized for not giving ample voice to the victims, but this week we got to hear from an impassioned Fred Goldman (Joseph Siravo), who visits Marcia Clark’s office along with daughter Kim to deliver an angry, heartbroken missive. “It’s like Ron is a footnote to his own murder,” he tells her. “We are going to get him,” assures Clark. “You’d better,” he counters.
• A shout-out to the production designers: As much as this series feels modern, it still needs those telling details to anchor it back in 1994. It’s not just Shapiro crumpling up that ancient fax paper, but also that odd, distracting mass of sand timers on Judge Ito’s desk. Bravo.
• We see Ito’s wife, LAPD captain Margaret York, hesitate before signing the spousal consent form — she doesn’t want to ruin his moment of glory. But that’s going to come back to bite her, when her name resurfaces on the infamous Mark Fuhrman tapes. She’s one of many people he disparaged in interviews with a North Carolina screenwriter, but she swore in an affidavit that she did not remember him.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.