You Better Well Be the Ringmaster: American Crime Story ‘Conspiracy Theories’ (Recap)


Throughout American Crime Story, the series has emphasized audience viewership of the O.J. trial, and rightfully so: media coverage and its reception took the case from being a simple question of an accused murderer’s guilt to a television sensation. But law students, a group of whom Alan Dershowitz instructs through trial footage in the teaser of “Conspiracy Theories”, are one demographic the show hadn’t previously represented as being O.J.-obsessed. By bringing them into the fold, “Conspiracy Theories” shows how the O.J. trial became the media frenzy it did, and why it continues to fascinate us years later.

“You better well be the ringmaster,” Alan tells his Harvard students in reference to their need to control publicity circuses around high-profile cases, a piece of advice they eagerly lap up. He’s busy doing his own little bit of ring-mastery by faxing the idea for the “Colombian necktie” defense to Johnnie Cochran. Even if Detective Tom Lange has never heard of this particular execution technique and Marcia Clark deems it worthy of mockery, the jury is taken by the idea, and Christopher recognizes the prosecution’s need for a similar gambit on their side. Like Dershowitz’s students, Christopher longs to be a ringmaster in his own right. Marcia, on the other hand, believes in the integrity of their case, and she hopes that the “cold hard proof” of the infamous gloves will render legal theatrics unnecessary.

Robert Kardashian, similarly, feels less persuaded by the idea of lawyering as circus leading. He’s skeptical of the suggestion of Ron and Nicole’s murders being drug-related, and his inability to conceive of a viable alternative to the current defendant, along with the damning connection between the gloves and Nicole, makes him wonder if Uncle Juice really is a murderer after all. His search inside the bag O.J. gives him, while A.C. looks on, is a tense moment of doubt for Robert, but it’s a fantastic opportunity for David Schwimmer. The actor has been a bit overshadowed in the last few episodes by the powerhouse performances of Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, and Sterling K. Brown, who continue to be no less impressive, but the bag scene gives him a chance to show off his chops. With the exception of John Travolta, whose prison argument with O.J. over his pro-police pin is his weakest scene to date in an overall shoddy performance, the acting on American Crime Story is outstanding, and Schwimmer’s look of terror as Robert looks in the bag is a welcome reminder of the depth of the cast.

But if Travolta undermines the ensemble’s strength, Paulson and Brown are there immediately afterwards to remind us of just how good they can be. The show has been doing an outstanding job of gently showing the flirtation between Marcia and Christopher, and their shared look outside her hotel room in Oakland may have been their most palpable moment of romance. The palpability makes Christopher’s unwillingness to act all the more heartbreaking, for both us and the disappointed Marcia, who responds with the cold dismissal, “Good night, Darden.” He immediately recognizes his missed opportunity, and Brown’s physicality beautifully expresses the extent of Christopher’s frustration with himself.

Of course, Christopher’s biggest frustration is soon to come. He realizes what he thinks is his opportunity to become the ringmaster, even if it only disappoints Marcia even further: they have to make O.J. try on the gloves. But Christopher doesn’t know that Bob Shapiro has already discovered that they won’t fit his client, which makes him more than happy to let the prosecution sink their own case. Christopher tries to take Alan’s advice, hoping to cop some semblance of Johnnie’s legal pyrotechnics, and he fails miserably.

The corresponding scene is a mesmerizing ending to “Conspiracy Theories”. Even though we know that it “doesn’t fit,” in the real-life Johnnie’s immortal words, there’s a remarkable amount of tension as O.J. struggles with the gloves. Regardless of the correspondence between their fit and his guilt, the scene is suspenseful and captivating. American Crime Story has done an impressive job of imbuing well-known facts with enough intrigue to make them play like gripping fiction, and “Conspiracy Theories” is no exception.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.