Television

Impeachment’s Villain Isn’t Who You Think She Is

The series takes Lewinsky’s side, but it also humanizes the woman who betrayed her.

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp raises her left index finger at Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky as they stand together in an office, smiling collegially
Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Tina Thorpe/FX

Authorization, like authority itself, is a tricky thing. Impeachment: American Crime Story, about the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair, is the third season of the FX anthology series, but the first to be effectively authorized by the real-life version of its major character. The creators had already optioned a book on the scandal (by the disgraced Jeffrey Toobin) when producer Ryan Murphy saw Monica Lewinsky at a party and told her he thought it would be “gross” for anyone to try and tell the story without her. Lewinsky, who was just 24 when the nation turned her into a punchline and destroyed her life, agreed to come on board as a producer. Impeachment is the grand apologia she authorized—but maybe not the one she deserves.

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In the 20-plus years since Clinton–Lewinsky became a national scandal, it has been combed through and over, largely without Lewinsky’s participation. A biography in the immediate aftermath was followed by more than a decade of almost complete silence. Then, in 2014, she wrote an essay for Vanity Fair contextualizing what happened to her as bullying. That piece contributed to the spate of reconsiderations, still ongoing, of 1990s-era female tabloid fixtures that has included Anita Hill, Tonya Harding, and more recently Britney Spears, but not exactly Lewinsky herself.

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All of this would seem to make her a perfect subject for American Crime Story, which has always had a revisionist bent. The first, O.J. Simpson–centered season single-handedly resuscitated the reputation of another woman who became a punching bag for ’90s tabloids, prosecutor Marcia Clark. The second, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, repositioned a sordid murder spree in the larger context of homophobia. But Lewinsky occupies a unique place in the culture as the woman so scandalized it’s nearly impossible to forget her. She is the figure we did dirtiest, most lastingly, and for the least offense. Unlike with Clark or Versace, her story doesn’t pack a “well, I never thought of it that way!” punch. If you never thought we did Monica wrong, you’ve just never thought about it.

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Impeachment, then, finds itself on firm moral ground, on a righteous mission to dramatize Lewinsky’s harrowing, unjust experience. But like a scuba diver on dry land, some series aren’t suited to walking on anything so solid. Impeachment, the first installment not to be about grisly murder, is, in long stretches, much more claustrophobic, sloggy, and hellbent on illuminating injustice than its predecessors ever were. But even as it centers Beanie Feldstein’s generous, humane portrayal of Lewinsky and builds to her abhorrent treatment—and a few good episodes—it keeps heading for more ambiguous waters. This is how Impeachment, heralded as Lewinsky’s long-awaited reputation reclamation, also weirdly works to the advantage of its undeniable villain: Linda Tripp.

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Through the first seven episodes sent to critics, the series is essentially a pas de deux between Lewinsky and Tripp, played by Sarah Paulson with padding, hulking posture, and a prosthetic nose. (The Impeachment proboscis team worked overtime on this project; the actors playing Tripp, Clinton, and Paula Jones all have honkers to rival Kidman’s in The Hours.) The first episode barely contains Lewinsky, focusing instead on Tripp’s backstory as a longtime civil servant who despises the Clintons and comes to hate them even more after Vince Foster’s suicide. She’s subsequently bounced to the Siberia of a Department of Defense cubicle, where she meets Lewinsky, also in exile from the White House.

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Like Mrs. America, FX’s recent historical drama about the Equal Rights Amendment and its destroyer Phyllis Schlafly, Impeachment’s central character is a conservative villain, but Mrs. America respected Schlafly even as it critiqued her. Impeachment is not nearly so deferential to Tripp, who is unpleasant company, an aggrieved, self-aggrandizing sourpuss who immediately clocks Lewinsky as a useful tool. For people who were not fully sentient during the Clinton scandal (a cohort in which I count myself), Impeachment’s treatment of Tripp may seem cruel, putting Paulson in a fat suit and showing her whipping up diet shakes all the time. But attention and good acting are their own kinds of sympathy—as they were in Mrs. America, which was accused of softening Schlafly. With repeated exposure to Tripp, the major beneficiary of the show’s overly long episodes, her sourness starts to seem a little hilarious, like she’s a supporting character in The Office, by way of a horror movie. Her mercilessness, her bluntness, the chip on her shoulder coalesce so that you begin to see what Monica might have seen in her: not only someone probing and (artificially) patient, but, ironically, the kind of friend who would always tell you the truth, even as she starts recording Monica’s every word.

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Here the show goes even further on Tripp’s behalf, positioning her Judas wiretapping as being animated not only by petty grievances, a corrupt moral calculus, and desperate self-regard, but also an actual point. Impeachment has elected to tackle this hashed-over saga by focusing on the women integral to it, not just Lewinsky and Tripp, but Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) and her consigliere Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light, who has maybe supplanted Paulson as the Ryan Murphy Repertory MVP). Supporting characters do flit in and out. Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) and Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) in particular feel teleported in from a campier, more buoyant show.* But the focus is explicitly not on the larger political context, the various -gates and yearslong scandal hunt that built to the Kenneth Starr investigation in the first place.

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In backgrounding partisan politics and foregrounding Lewinsky’s experience of being strung along by the leader of the free world, at great personal expense, whether she knew it or not, the show makes Tripp an awful friend, a bitter woman, a conservative hack primarily responsible for the world crashing around Lewinsky’s ears, but one who is also granted an inch of ground to stand on. Bill Clinton was far worse than his allies and friends ever wanted to admit. That she chose the most harmful, duplicitous, self-serving way to address this is still true—but if she comes out looking bad, it’s still better than she’s ever looked before.

It’s a little hard to suss out how much of this is purposeful and how much inadvertent, because even as we, like Tripp, are observing what the relationship is doing to Monica—making her desperate, fixated, ever waiting by the phone—the show is fuzzy on the question of Clinton himself. There’s a kind of bifurcation between the relationship’s effect on Monica—destabilizing—and the show’s gentle treatment of him. Impeachment seems to have little doubts that he exposed himself to Jones and that he ultimately misused Lewinsky, but Clive Owen’s Clinton is deeply understated. (Edie Falco’s Hillary is barely in the show.) There’s no Slick Willie here, no Big Macs, just a low-key lonely, deceptively charming guy. While at this particular moment I don’t want to be calling out for more didacticism in our television, the soft spot for Bill Clinton in this explicitly feminist retelling is a song that’s been playing for 20 years. I’m interested to see, though, how the final episodes handle Juanita Broaddrick’s accusations.* Maybe Murphy et al. have some new tune cued up.

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In Slate’s own podcast series about the scandal, Slow Burn Season 2, host Leon Neyfakh explored the way the Lewinsky scandal exposed a fault line in the feminist movement about questions of agency and power. Monica Lewinsky had long insisted she wasn’t coerced by Clinton, that everything was consensual, that she, at 22, could make her own free choice about having a relationship with the most powerful man in the world. Twenty-plus years later, that assertion looks a little different, even to Lewinsky—how much agency can anyone have when facing a power differential so vast? But a show so closely aligned with Lewinsky’s perspective is not free to jettison her agency—and maybe it shouldn’t be. Ultimately, the weaknesses of Impeachment might just be our own. All this time later, we’re still in the middle of figuring out how to weigh what happened, the only settled matter being that the whole thing fell on the wrong person.

Correction, Sept. 7, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Ann Coulter’s first name and Juanita Broaddrick’s last name.

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