TV Review: ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ Season Finale

'The People v. O.J. Simpson' Finale
Courtesy FX

Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Verdict,” the season finale of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

We already knew the verdict, which you would think would drain the season finale of “American Crime Story” of tension and suspense. And you would be wrong. Confounding expectations has been this drama’s strong suit from the start.

Like every other hour of this fantastic season, the writers, cast and directors dug into the characters and circumstances in ways that made the narrative come alive in powerful ways. The verdict may have been a foregone conclusion, but this set of specific and complicated responses from these fully realized characters were absolutely worth seeing. The crisp, wonderfully modulated finale felt fresh, important and vital, not least because even though that trial is over — the reconstructed version of it, anyway — the unfinished business of race still dominates American life today.

The verdict in the O.J. trial, as everyone knows, brought forth starkly different responses from African-Americans and white Americans, and the chasm between the two groups could have made for a cartoonish and predictable story. Any time an event elicits such polarized opinions, with people on each side of the debate looking at each other in helpless incomprehension, the chances of a fictional depiction of that dichotomy tipping into parody or heartless condescension are high.

That didn’t happen here, As “ACS” has shown, week after highly entertaining week, walking ideologies did not battle each other during the O.J. Simpson trial. People did, and people are messy. Nobody’s just one thing, and even though every character in this story came out the other side of the trial with some of their biases intact, this was a story of people grappling with something massive and challenging. With cardboard characters, that would have gotten old, but with lively, complex people on display and sometimes changing right before our eyes, it felt like anything could happen, and that sense of energy never flagged during this excellent hour.

When it began, the case was a big deal, but few of the people in this tale truly expected to become part of a national soap opera that lasted for months. The lawyers wanted to win, and each faction thought they were right — but like every other human being on the face of the earth (aside from Robert Shapiro), each one of these people felt doubt at one time or another. And as Ryan Murphy’s supple direction made clear, most of them had to come to terms a gaping void in their lives when it was all over.

There were so many unforgettable moments in the finale. With the hindsight of history, we can say that it was delusional for Christopher Darden to speculate that he and Marcia Clark may well have won the case. But that’s been the cautionary tale of this finely wrought season: Most people involved in this story were so invested in their own furious efforts to win or spin the case, or so invested in the narrative they brought to it or their efforts to control public opinion, that they lost sight of the bigger picture.

Darden’s tentative optimism was hard to watch, given how much tenderness and poignant pain Sterling K. Brown has brought to the character. In every single scene he’s in, you want things to go well for Darden, and they rarely do.

But few things in the last several episodes have been harder to look at than the face of David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian. The character never got a ton of lines, which was the right choice. In a team packed with strutting peacocks and towering egos, the guileless Kardashian was winning precisely because he never expected to speak, let alone be listened to. He was “an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two…/ Deferential, glad to be of use.”

In a weird way, though they were on opposite sides of the case, Darden and Kardashian emerged as the fulcrums on which the drama turned. Darden was seen as a turncoat by the African-American community, many of whom saw his participation in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson as a betrayal. Darden himself angrily made it clear to Clark in a previous episode that he knew he was on the team largely for P.R. purposes. The D.A. couldn’t have an all-white team of lawyers try to take down a prominent black man, and yet aside from Clark, few people in the office ever really had Darden’s back.

I wouldn’t be as presumptuous as to equate their situations, because there are complexities within each and Darden faced many obstacles that Kardashian didn’t. But the truth is, both ended up isolated and unloved. As the country came together to witness the reading of the verdict, both of them came to realize how alone they truly were. In this swarming mass of teams, sides, winners, losers, commentators and hangers-on, they were men apart.

As the lone black man on the prosecution team, Darden didn’t fit in anywhere, and as a member of O.J.’s loyal entourage who could not escape the idea that the Juice actually killed two people, Kardashian was also bereft. As such, both men serve as great examples of why this season of television was so gripping: It wasn’t about assigning people into neat, predictable categories, it was about exploring the unpredictable situations that bubble up when your best efforts to be a good person and do the right thing run into the brick walls of fame, money, bias, ignorance and race. The results aren’t pretty, but as depicted here, they sure are fascinating.

There are many things to be impressed by in this hour, but one that I kept coming back to was the way that Murphy’s direction evolved and changed to fit a series of very different moments that still worked well as a whole. There was admirable cohesion to the visual narrative and the editing was marvelous; jagged when things were spinning out of control and precise when depicting complex confrontations.

The emotional calibration of each moment in the finale was simply terrific; heart-rending scenes were spare and powerful, suspenseful scenes popped with visual and auditory energy, and the verdict scene made us wait for the big moment in an almost deliciously painful way. Much of the success of the hour had to do with the intelligent use of sound, actually. Not a pin dropped in the courtroom during the closing speeches, and other moments echoed with things unsaid; silences and pauses reverberated with loss.

The closing arguments were also case studies in suiting the movement to the moment. Murphy’s camera and the dialogue by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski perfectly captured the differing styles of each lawyer.

  • Marcia Clark’s summation was clipped, precise and underlined by the simmering, quietly controlled anger that Sarah Paulson brought to the role. She was framed with geometric precision and squared edges.
  • The camera lingered on Chris Darden’s face, which is always the smart thing to do, given how much compassion and taut internal conflict Brown brought to the role. His performance so often drew upon stillness and watchfulness, thus the camera was also quiet, the better to absorb his passionate focus.
  • During Johnnie Cochran’s speech, the camera bobbed and weaved and moved with the lawyer; his momentum could not be contained. The drive that allowed him to fight the LAPD and not give up for decades powered him through yet another fight — and he clearly viewed that moment as a combination of dancing, preaching and fighting. And yet Ryan didn’t overly amplify the “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line, which was depicted in a simple and straightforward manner. It was such a powerful moment, and viewers needed to see it sink into the jury’s minds (some of which were already made up, of course).

It could be argued that the line of dialogue that Cochran had  — “That’s the victory” — wasn’t necessary in the post-verdict celebration scene, given the contents of his conversation with Darden moments earlier. But there’s no denying that Courtney B. Vance will be nominated and probably win a lot of awards for his portrayal of Cochran. One simply hopes that the same is true for all three members of the central trio (Vance, Paulson and Brown). They were all smashing, and there are few things I want more than to see Paulson and Brown work together again.

If “Darden Clark P.I.” is not on offer any time soon (and to be clear, I’d absolutely watch that show), then perhaps we’ll see them pop up in the next iteration of “American Crime Story,” which will be set in New Orleans. The actors’ chemistry is too potent to never see them on screen together again.

I felt nothing when O.J. shed tears in his Brentwood bedroom, but that’s because almost everything interesting about this series happened around the Juice. He was the self-absorbed center around which the story turned, and the lawyers, jurors, friends and relations in his orbit simply got more screen time than he did.

That said, Cuba Gooding Jr. acquitted himself well in the role, and was certainly interesting to watch O.J. realize that being declared not guilty was not the same as the world — especially his white friends from his pre-trial days — thinking he was innocent. The Riviera Country Club would not be the last place to close its doors in his face. As he stalked through a series of camera flashes, you could see it dawn on him that even though he was out of jail, he’d be serving a different kind of sentence from that moment onward.

Though the high quality of the rest of the season had prepared me somewhat for a strong finish, it’s astonishing that the finale was able to seamlessly weave such an enormous range of reactions. In file footage from the day of the verdict, we saw the joy of black onlookers and the head-shaking disapproval of whites; there were the stunned sobs of Ron Goldman’s family in the courtroom and the louche vibe of O.J.’s money-making acquittal party.

Woven into those bigger set pieces were small moments that told stories of their own: A black juror gave O.J. the black power salute, and at first O.J. was too stunned to even acknowledge it. A second later, Marcia shot an angry glare at O.J., who numbly but happily looked away. Earlier, Shapiro’s response to the presence of the Nation of Islam, who provided Cochran’s security, was another tightly controlled moment that spoke to a deep and tangled history between groups that shared little except mistrust and suspicion.

There was the stunned look Gil Garcetti wore at that pained, muted press conference, especially when a reporter asked about when Garcetti’s office would begin looking for “the real killers.” There was the quiet interlude with the prison guard who tipped off O.J. about the verdict (not before trying to acquire an autograph, of course). The saddest moment had to be when Darden broke off his post-verdict speech and simply sobbed in the arms of the Goldman family.

“What do I do now?” was the post-verdict question that faced all the participants, who would be marked by their association with the trial forever. The Goldmans faced that stark, awful moment in their car, which was in a parking lot that was almost empty. Similarly, Darden and Cochran encountered each other in a hallway that held no one but themselves; for all the furor over the verdict, the framing of various scenes and Murphy’s use of silence and space emphasized how empty and lost most of these people felt without the framework of this overwhelming, at times incomprehensible trial.

O.J. began facing the truth about his post-trial life at a party one of his only true friends — a former friend, actually — couldn’t wait to leave. But as this show has always known, the entire nation needed to face the deeper questions raised by the trial in a deep, sustained and urgent way.

Nothing would change for black Americans, Darden asserted; they would continue to be ground down by a system that would be forever rigged against them. Cochran’s face, when he saw Bill Clinton talking about the verdict, told a different story: In that post-win moment, he clearly felt optimistic that America would finally begin to not just have another interminable “conversation about race” but begin to actually change.

Twenty years later, it looks like the verdicts offered by both men were right.

A few final notes:

  • Part of the effectiveness of the finale came from the score of composer Mac Quayle; the use of his spare, haunting music helped set the tone of the finale and helped serve as a reminder that this entire story was, after all, about death and loss.
  • As I wrote earlier in the season, I was highly entertained by John Travolta’s performance as Robert Shapiro and I hugely enjoyed the actor’s big, bold choices, which worked well for this show. And the fact that he was able to invest Shapiro’s braggadocio with pathos, as he did in the hallway scene where once again, the super-lawyer couldn’t quite connect with his supposed colleagues, is proof that Travolta always understood this larger-than-life character on a number of important levels. His Shapiro was an egomaniac, of course, but he was always a real person, never a cartoon.
  • In a season full of devastatingly brilliant performances, Paulson’s matter-of-fact recounting of Marcia Clark’s rape was breathtaking. And it was so revealing of Darden that he asked if the rapist was ever punished. These two might not have truly understood where the other one was coming from in a variety of different ways, but they were well-matched in their burning desire for some kind of justice in this hopelessly complex world.
  • The show did a fine job of finding the living, breathing human beings behind the caricatures associated with the case. No one was more in need of image rehabilitation than Judge Lance Ito, who may have had his faults, but he comes across in “ACS” as an intelligent man trying to make the best of an impossible situation. Kenneth Choi did a fine job in the finale and in other episodes of portraying a resigned man who knows that no matter what he does in a wide array of trial situations, he’s going to make someone very angry. And as the “where are they now” closing images noted, Ito’s the only major person associated with the case who never wrote a book about it, which makes him look like one of the classier players in this particular game.

The most recent episode of the Talking TV podcast is devoted entirely to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and its season finale; it’s here, on iTunes and below. For Variety’s extensive coverage of the show, including interviews and recaps, look here