Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 7 of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” titled “Conspiracy Theories.”
If you could pinpoint a single moment when the prosecution lost the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it was arguably when Simpson struggled to pull on those leather gloves.
It would provide Johnnie Cochran with that famous line for his closing arguments, which must have been ringing in the jury’s ears as they deliberated.
And 20 years later, it would offer a dramatic conclusion to yet another tension-packed episode, brilliantly directed by Anthony Hemingway. “Conspiracy Theories” charts the ups-and-downs in the ongoing battles within the prosecution and defense teams, where what happens outside the courtroom matters even more than what happens inside.
Take the dream team, which grows ever more fraught with its many egos and competing self-interests. With the revelation last week that Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) has a few skeletons in his closet he’d rather keep private, it was only a matter of time before the media he’d been feeding started feasting on him instead. Whatever he offered his ex-wife to keep silent must not have been enough, because she shows up on “A Current Affair” exposing his double life and only too happy to chat about those allegations of abuse. Cochran’s able to brush off the reporters who are lying in wait for him at the courthouse, much to Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden’s (Sterling Brown) amazement: “He’s made of goddamned Teflon!” marvels Darden. But his wife is having none of it, when he tries to pin the blame on on Robert Shapiro: “You made the world your stage. You wanted the attention. And now you got it.”
Shapiro (John Travolta), meanwhile, is rattled by Gil Garcetti’s (Bruce Greenwood) cold shoulder, amid the accusation that the defense’s strategy is inciting more racial unrest in the city. When he shows up in court with a police solidarity pin trying to mitigate the damage, he not only alienates the rest of the team, his client’s none too happy — and calls him to his jail cell for a good old football pep talk. “Why are you crossing the quarterback?” says Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.). “I don’t want to hear no bulls–t in the third quarter. You’d better think hard and fast about whether you want to be on this team.”
But the team member O.J. should be worried about is his best friend, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer). His lingering doubts only intensify when the ever-manipulative Shapiro — trying to woo Kardashian to his side in favor of a plea deal — points out that O.J.’s garment bag, which Kardashian’s been holding, just might contain the murder weapon. Panicked, Kardashian runs home to search it, calling over A.C. Cowling as a witness. He rifles through the bag — clothes, laundry, a few copies of Penthouse. Nothing. It’s a testament to Hemingway & co. that the show manages to wring suspense out of the scene — we all know, of course, the search will prove fruitless. Yet I still held my breath.
There’s tension, too, at the prosecution table, but it’s all of the sexual kind. Clark and Darden are all flirty glances and teasing one-liners, culminating in a weekend getaway to Oakland for a birthday celebration for a friend of Darden’s. His buddies egg him on: “Tonight’s the night.” But after a drunken walk back to her hotel room, he doesn’t make his move, and the disappointment is writ large on her face. What might have been.
The best two minutes of this episode, though, come in the bar, when Paulson-as-Clark systematically dismantles the conspiracy theory that the cops planted the evidence against Simpson. Using just a few (OK, more than a few) shot glasses, she tears apart any notion that a “super secret cabal of OJ hating racist cops” could have put all the blood and DNA in the key crime scenes. “You got schooled!” says one of Darden’s pals. If only she could have done that demonstration as effectively in the courtroom.
But back in L.A., she’s all business once again (no need to shut the door, Darden — you lost your chance) and she won’t hear of his suggestion that he have O.J. try on the gloves. “We’ve been dealt a king and a 10. I don’t know why you want to ask the dealer for another card,” she says. “Because I know it’s an ace,” he insists. He tries again in the courtroom; she shuts him down. Hard.
So we’ve got two lawyers, Shapiro and Darden, both on the outs with their teams, both looking for a big moment. And Shapiro sees his, when he spies the gloves and realizes they’re too small. (Factcheck note: According to Jeffrey Toobin’s book, yes, the gloves were out and about for everyone to examine. “Just about every lawyer tried them on,” he wrote.)
So with a few wily words to Darden, courtesy of the ever-witty Lee Bailey — “You my friend, have the balls of a stud field mouse” — Darden does what he promised he wouldn’t. And it couldn’t go worse. Simpson mugs for the jury (the best acting of his career), as we all remember from the trial footage, and utters those famous words: “These gloves are too small.”
The damage is done. Darden rattles off a litany of excuses, but Clark’s furious — and Team O.J. couldn’t be more smug. Shapiro’s back in the fold.
At the start of the episode, we see Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler) schooling his law students: “If there’s going to be a media circus, you better well be the ringmaster.” He uses that lesson to create a conspiracy theory about a phantom drug deal gone awry, but ultimately his point is best illustrated by that move in the end. Shapiro & co. outfoxed Darden, nudging him into creating that iconic image that would come to define the trial.
Gloves. Set. Match.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.