The People vs. O.J. Simpson season finale recap: The verdict is in
We all knew how this story was going to end.
Before The People vs. O.J. premiered, skeptics argued that there was no reason to dramatize this trial. Anyone old enough remembered every beat; anyone younger knew, at the very least, what happened at the end. The great surprise was that The People vs. O.J. turned out to be so revelatory: both literally, in the little-known nuggets it contained, and in a broader, more thematic sense, as it offered new, intelligent perspective on events and people that had long since descended into caricature.
And now we've reached the ending. The great triumph of "The Verdict" is the way it manages to wring suspense from a preordained conclusion. That's due, in large part, to a script that lingers on the details of the hours leading up to the verdict, showing the tension and pressure in both the courthouse and the country at large. For a moment, as Judge Ito's clerk began reading the jury's verdict aloud, I wondered if The People vs. O.J. would deviate from the truth, showing us a hypothetical reality in which O.J. was convicted before snapping back to the ending we already knew to be true.
But in the end, "The Verdict" plays it straight — right down to the clerk stumbling over the name Orenthal James Simpson. Look beyond Ryan Murphy's dramatic camera work and you'll see that The People vs. O.J. is essentially a perfect recreation of the moment O.J. Simpson was found not guilty:
But the verdict, while obviously essential to the story, is arguably the least interesting part of "The Verdict." The truly interesting part is what comes after. Creatively, there's only so much you can do with what happened in the courtroom, which is an iconic matter of public record. But when it comes to what happened to these specific historical figures after the trial, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had choices to make: what to depict, what to leave out, and when to leave them behind.
Their choices are telling. For the most part, The People vs. O.J. has been pretty even-handed about depicting both sides of the narrative — but in the end, the series can't hide its contempt for O.J. Simpson. In an extended epilogue, "The Verdict" tracks the emptiness of O.J.'s life after his acquittal. It starts with his would-be triumphant drive back to Brentwood, where he's enraged to discover that protesters have refused to accept the jury's verdict as the truth. He throws an incredibly depressing house party full of hangers-on looking to revel in his infamy. When he vows to find the real killer of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, his partygoers respond with the awkward, scattered applause of a group that assumes the killer is already standing in front of them. His own son buys O.J. a dog, he says, to ensure that he "always had a friend." As O.J. walks outside alone to stare at the life-sized statue of himself that sits in the yard, in the full glory of his football days, Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" plays over the soundtrack, and it's clear that O.J.'s life without Nicole will be a hollow one, even if he's not behind bars.
But the series is just as interested in how the verdict lands on the lawyers. The episode's most pointed exchange comes when Chris Darden confronts Johnnie Cochran in the wake of the verdict. As Cochran offers to help Darden integrate back into "the community," Darden interrupts him to deliver his own scathing verdict on what Cochran really accomplished. "O.J. is the first black defendant in history to get off because he's black," says Darden. "All the people saw is how well you can twist the system. This isn't some civil rights milestone. The police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven't changed anything for black people here — unless, of course, you're a famous, rich one in Brentwood."
It would have been easy for The People vs. O.J. to let Darden have the final word on the subject — but true to form, the series refuses to let anyone be wholly correct. As Johnnie Cochran joins his team for celebratory cake and champagne, he turns to the TV to see President Bill Clinton addressing the nation about the verdict. "Americans see the world differently, generally, based on their race. That troubles me," says Clinton. "I think the only answer to that is for us to spend more time listening to each other, and try to put ourselves in each other's shoes, and understand why we see the world in different ways, and keep trying to overcome that." The sight of the U.S. president candidly discussing the state of race relations on national television is enough to make Cochran cry. "That's the victory," he says. "Our story is now out of the shadows."
On some level, both Darden and Cochran are correct. That's the trouble with the O.J. Simpson case; it's too complicated, with too many extenuating factors, to be boiled down into a single takeaway. The prosecutors and the victims' families are understandably horrified that the murders of two people became a footnote in the larger whirlwind of the trial — a reality that The People vs. O.J. tries to correct for by concluding on a picture of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. But it would also be disingenuous to pretend that the O.J. Simpson trial didn't grow into something bigger and uglier and more complicated, without any easy answers at the end, and The People vs. O.J. doesn't try.
But if the story didn't really end with the verdict, The People vs. O.J. does give us the chance to say goodbye to its chief players. To my mind, the show's emotional ending comes before that O.J. epilogue, as Marcia Clark and Chris Darden walk out of the D.A.'s office arm in arm, to drown their sorrows over a drink, with Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" playing over the scene. "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me," Simone sings — and then the scene cuts away, before she can reach the climactic "And I'm feelin' good."
It's an appropriately bittersweet note on which to end The People vs. O.J. It's been more than 20 years, and despite countless books and stories and documentaries and news programs and now, finally, this excellent TV dramatization that have examined and explained this case from every angle, it's still hard to find much to feel good about.
Read previous The People vs. O.J. Simpson recaps:
- The People vs. O.J. episode 9: The Fuhrman tapes
- The People vs. O.J. episode 8: Runaway jury
- The People vs. O.J. episode 7: If it doesn't fit...
- The People vs. O.J. episode 6: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
- The People vs. O.J. episode 5: The race card
- The People vs. O.J. episode 4: Don't forget the dark truths at the heart of The People vs. O.J.
- The People vs. O.J. episode 3: The Kardashian problem
- The People vs. O.J. episode 2: The run of his life
- The internet's next true-crime obsessions will be The People vs. O.J. Simpson