From the tight close-up which begins “The Verdict,” The People v. O.J. Simpson concludes the way the show has been from its premiere and throughout its remarkably consistent and astonishing season: focused on humanizing the sometimes difficult-to-believe participants in the O.J. Simpson trial. That begins with the man himself, who, after being primed by Johnnie Cochran, gets a chance to speak in court in spite of Marcia Clark’s objections. Cuba Gooding Jr. has done an incredible job balancing O.J.’s fundamental fragility with his charisma and boisterousness, and the scene shows him at his best. As he speaks, it’s difficult not to be moved by his words, no matter what the advantage of future knowledge of O.J. leads us to believe.
But as the teaser of “The Verdict” comes to a close, both sides still need to prove their respective views of O.J. to the jury, and the first act looks at their final efforts to do so. Johnnie’s “a-ha!” moment, in which he writes the immortal “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line, is among the least convincing scenes of the hour, as it resembles the unfortunate sequences in music biopics when artists compose their most famous works in lightning strikes of inspiration. But “The Verdict” more than makes up for it with Courtney B. Vance’s gripping delivery of the words in court, which is among the strongest scenes in an overall captivating performance. Even in The People v. O.J. Simpson’s incredible ensemble, Vance has consistently managed to stand out.
Still, Vance has gotten quite a bit of competition from the actors portraying Johnnie’s legal opponents, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. In their dual closing statements, Paulson and Brown show off their acting chops to capture the characters’ legal chops, with Marcia leaning on the overwhelming physical evidence and Christopher concentrating on O.J.’s history of domestic violence. The determination of both lawyers stands out, as does that of Johnnie, and the scene works as much as a chance to see the personalities and performances interact as it does as a final argument about O.J.’s guilt. It’s been a blast to watch these three compete with one another, and the exchange of closing statements is a fitting final clash.
Of course, it’s only the jury’s thoughts on the clash that really matter, and “The Verdict” uses the jurors much more effectively than the episode from their perspective, “A Jury in Jail.” Even beyond the reduced time spent showing them, there’s less of an attempt here to get inside the psychologies of the jury members, which works better due to the limited amount of time the show gives to establishing their characters. Instead, “The Verdict” mostly presents the facts: there was an initial 10-2 vote, followed by a brief deliberation, after which the jury found O.J. not guilty. The understated insinuations of bullying add a human touch, but without the forced attempts at characterization which bog down “A Jury in Jail”.
The jury is crucial to the story, and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are smart to bring them back to the forefront in this restricted way. Along with the documentary footage throughout the episode, which pairs nicely with the footage of the Rodney King riots that opened the show, the jurors bring us outside of the dominating perspectives of the attorneys and defendant to give a more balanced view of the trial. Alexander and Karaszewski’s ability to present personalities like Johnnie and Marcia as nuanced, well-rounded individuals has imbued the series with pathos, but the jurors provide a point of view none of the major players in the case can give. As one juror holds his fist up to O.J. in solidarity after the verdict is read, his genuine belief in the story Johnnie presents shines through.
Johnnie and the attorneys all believe strongly in their cases (except for Robert Kardashian, of course, whose horror at the verdict is an excellent final showcase for David Schwimmer), and therein lies The People v. O.J. Simpson’s great strength. In spite of the hypocrisy of the prosecutors’ insistence that Mark Fuhrman’s racism doesn’t matter but O.J.’s history of domestic violence does, the show makes no effort to downplay their faith in their cause. To the contrary, as Marcia and Christopher give an emotional press conference, their belief in themselves, even after the verdict has been issued, remains clear. The same is true for Johnnie, whose tears as he listens to Bill Clinton on TV provide an obvious but still welcome parallel. Even if the lawyers act in exaggerated ways, their exaggeration only comes out of genuine beliefs in their respective causes.
As for O.J., the show smartly leaves inconclusive what he really believes. Instead, the O.J.-centered final act leaves us to meditate on the awkward state of half-guilt in which he remained until his conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping in 2008. He’s left jail, but the alienation he feels from the many who continue to believe in his guilt make life on the outside into its own form of imprisonment.
And even in refusing to let O.J. off the hook, the show finds pathos in his situation, thereby epitomizing what’s made it work so well. It’s hard to tell from the show what exactly Alexander and Karaszewski believe about Simpson’s guilt, but that doesn’t keep them from being any less interested in him as a human being. As with the attorneys who attack and defend him, even though their actions can be questionable, the human toll is never in doubt.
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.