Slow Burn does not interview Lewinsky, but the show, as a matter of both narrative expediency and historical corrective, infuses the season with her presence and perspective. Its first episode begins with Lewinsky: with the thoroughly absurd scene, at a suburban mall just outside Washington, D.C., where Linda Tripp, the friend who had recorded the phone conversations during which Lewinsky had admitted to the sexual relationship with Clinton, finally revealed to Lewinsky that she had betrayed her. Tripp had arranged to meet Lewinsky for an outing at the mall; instead, Tripp showed up with FBI agents working under the auspices of the independent counsel Ken Starr.
There’s a profound tragicomedy to the whole thing: The agents, once they apprehend Lewinsky—they have no warrant, and rely on intimidation tactics to coerce her into cooperating with them—take her to a room in the Ritz-Carlton adjacent to the mall to question her. The agents expect their tactics will work instantly; they do not. Lewinsky, instead, calls her mother, who boards a train from New York to assist her daughter. And then Lewinsky and the agents wait, killing time by doing some browsing at Crate and Barrel; by grabbing a meal at Mozzarella’s American Grill; by hanging out, essentially, as if they were teenagers waiting for Lewinsky’s mom to pick them up. Lurking in the Scenes From a Mall–style absurdity, however, is the agents’ underlying intent: to scare Lewinsky and make her feel that she has no option but to accede to their will—an approach that, in today’s context, suggests its own kind of coercion, its own kind of seduction, its own deeply uncomfortable questions about consent.
The FBI agents, working under Starr (and under one of his deputies, Brett Kavanaugh), dubbed their attempt to make Lewinsky comply with their investigation “Prom Night.” Starr, in an interview with Neyfakh, professes not to remember how.
What is suggested in those initial scenes of Slow Burn, and what remains a theme throughout much of the show, is how willfully those in power underestimated Lewinsky. The FBI agents, expecting to arrive at the mall to interrogate a flighty, flirty, flimsy girl, figured she’d be easily intimidated into providing evidence that would harm Clinton’s presidency. They were, Neyfakh suggests, profoundly surprised when she refused. It’s a brand of shock that reverberates still, today, in the disconnect between Lewinsky’s role as a national punch line and her new status as, according to her TED bio, a “social activist” who “advocates for a safer and more compassionate social media environment, drawing from her unique experiences at the epicenter of a media maelstrom in 1998.”
In a coda episode of Slow Burn’s Season 2 finale, Neyfakh interviews a group of journalists who had been staffers at Slate during the scandal. One theme the assembled writers (David Plotz, Seth Stevenson, Emily Yoffe, now a contributing editor at The Atlantic) return to repeatedly is how fun the story was for them to cover. This was before 9/11, they point out; it was during a time, they argue, before American politics—or, at least, the conversation about them—became so thoroughly fraught. Stevenson, in a story, made a pun about Lewinsky killing Clinton “thoftly with her thong.” They were all riveted by the Starr report. Neyfakh notes that he is a little bit jealous of their glee: He’s a bit younger than they are—he was in middle school when the scandal was playing out—and he has much more trouble finding the fun in the story. That’s in part, he suggests, because, understanding the world the way we do now, what’s most evident is the mistreatment of Lewinsky by a nation still unsure of how to marry its prurience with its Puritanism. Letterman and his Monica-themed top-10 list. Lewinsky making an early return to public life and getting asked, before a large audience, “How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”