Throughout The People v. O.J. Simpson, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have mostly treated its principal players with a high degree of irony. Although this irony hasn’t kept the show from deeply humanistic moments, such as Robert Kardashian’s growing suspicions of O.J.’s guilt or Marcia and Christopher’s unkillable “will they/won’t they” flirtation, none of the characters have been immune from corrosive mockery. Between Johnnie Cochran’s hypocritical use of racial epithets and the eyebrow gymnastics John Travolta has whipped together to play Bob Shapiro, the immortal characters of the O.J. trial have been ironic figures in Alexander and Karaszewski’s vision.
By contrast, in its penultimate hour, The People v. O.J. Simpson moves towards a clearer empathy with its ensemble. However much we’ve laughed at the characters in the preceding episodes, “Manna from Heaven” focuses on understanding why they act as they do. It’s a powerful approach to a conclusion for a show that could just as easily lean on its camp for a purely corrosive satire of the media frenzy surrounding the O.J. trial.
You feel for Christopher in the teaser, as Johnnie accuses him of racism for suggesting the existence of a “black voice.” Although Christopher has made no shortage of missteps, including this one, they’ve come as the result of him being placed in a difficult situation: forced to be an enemy of the black community, it’s understandable that he’s balked under the pressure. Johnnie is happy to exploit Christopher’s weakness to suit his aims, showing no hesitancy at all to pull “the race card.”
But even this tendency gets a sympathetic and affecting treatment in “Manna from Heaven”. The title refers to Johnnie’s pseudo-religious conviction regarding the significance of the tapes and the importance that they be released. The show quashes feelings of skepticism towards his legal maneuvering by making clear just how seriously he takes his project. Johnnie isn’t needlessly using “the race card,” in his mind, he’s revealing “a smoking gun for the United States.”
There’s certainly plenty of smoke. As with F. Lee Bailey’s use of the N-word in trial to provoke jurors, the show smartly chooses not to dance around Mark Fuhrman’s racism. We listen in horror, along with the lawyers, as he announces his hateful views. Whether or not they influenced his work on the O.J. case is another question, and one the series leaves unanswered, but his words are still treated with the ugliness they deserve.
It’s an ugliness that might not particularly ruffle Judge Ito beyond the normal standards of human outrage, were it not for one surprise guest star on the tapes: his wife, Peggy York. As with the portrayals of Christopher and Johnnie in “Manna from Heaven”, there’s little mockery of Judge Ito himself regarding his treatment of the tapes. There’s the bitter irony of the arguably irrelevant tapes having an undue impact on the trial, yes, but the show takes Judge Ito’s twin, crushing realizations that his wife lied about knowing Detective Fuhrman and that he made appalling comments about her.
The revelations about Detective Fuhrman’s remarks lead to the thrilling third act debate between Marcia and Johnnie over whether or not the tapes should be admissible in court. If the sincerity of Johnnie’s convictions gets confirmed earlier in the episode, this scene leaves no doubt as to Marcia’s belief in her cause. Sarah Paulson’s strong work shines here, showing Marcia’s frustration over the barriers preventing what she’s sure should be an easy conviction. Her argument for the tapes’ irrelevance is compelling, as appalling as they are, and “Manna from Heaven” works particularly well for not making the two characteristics mutually exclusive.
Even between the characters, an increasing sense of empathy runs throughout the episode. Well, between Marcia and Christopher, anyway, whose mutual disgust over the progression of the trial rekindles their timid romantic interest in one another, as the shot of them holding hands in the office tenderly illustrates. As angry as they’ve been toward each other, they have a mutual goal, and it brings them together more than the pressures of the case can drive them apart.
But Marcia still has plenty to overcome, as the emotional last scene reinforces. “You got everything,” her coworker says to her after bringing the news of her being granted custody. Marcia knows better, of course, as happy as she is about the ruling, and the zoom out which brings “Manna from Heaven” to a close functions as a moving reminder of the human toll of the O.J. case. The pervasive presence of this toll, as seen through Marcia, Johnnie, Christopher, Judge Ito, and even O.J., tempers the irony of The People v. O.J. Simpson and plays a crucial part in its gripping drama.
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.