The solitary man or woman on an empty bed, contemplating their isolation, a tucked away gun their only companion, belongs to a certain class of hopeless imagery. Hitchcock’s bomb—or, gun—is under the table, all right; we watched it be put there. In “Episode Ten,” Barb gives Russ the gun. In the finale, Russ gives Carter the bullet. This is that big finale moment. It reverberates in ways both predictably constructive and destructive. It also feels out of place. “Episode Eleven” punctuates a season of television that dealt blows with words and often fumbled real action.
American Crime’s best scenes, bar none, have twisted television’s most familiar setpiece—characters, in a place, talking—with formal elegance. The devil-angel and ghostly reflections on Carter’s glass barrier come to mind, as does a slow pan between parents from the back seat of a car, and jump cuts of a father frantically gathering himself at his kitchen table, among more. Rarely will you see characters relaying information to each other rendered with such beauty and conviction.
Early on, “Episode Eleven” has Hector talking with his lawyer through a six-square-inch window in the prison door. The lawyer is trying to form a defense that poses any threat to the prosecution. Hector is uncooperative. He toils over responsibility, and duty to consequence. When his lawyer pushes for practicality, Hector leaves. His physical world is a prison cell, and even that he may not have for long. His response is to alleviate the confinement the only way within his power: intellectually, spiritually. If this scene were about the merits of his defense, it would be flat, the wrong-kind-of-cold open. Instead, it launches the episode into grappling with accountability and accounting for an absence of truth. Later, we watch Russ make a series of phone calls. He’s begging a lot of voicemails. One man flails for help, where there is none, and the other rejects powerless assistance. This is how this show imparts survival: by the will of a person.
No one in this season has had more will than Barb. She proved it once more last week in relinquishing the gun you knew was destined to kill someone. Her talk of letting go this week is her boldest effort. She’s turning over herself and all of her natural impulses to the scrap of clarity before her: Nothing more can be done, by anyone. This goes for everything. Matt’s body is on its way to Oakland with Gwen. Russ’s will soon follow. Mark offers to begin funeral arrangements and she looks at him with a sort of disgust. (Huffman is too ragged to lavish any of Barb’s decisions with words of much action. Her exhaustion now recolors conviction as burdensome.) In a season of television in which everyone has spoken their heart—whatever’s intact—what’s left to say?
Except for Russ murdering Carter, which unspools a succession of death, the finale sprouts off tangentially. The careful ambiguity Ridley’s created over the course of the season undermines the finale’s attempts at closure. The periods feel false. Hector, who’s freed after the prosecution’s only witness fails to show, rides off into the sunset, warmed in its glow, and the season cuts to black as he’s reborn anew. Barb collapses in the coroner’s parking lot after reaffirming Mark’s desire to cut ties; Rachelle brings her back with a fading out speech about life’s subordination to personal choice. Alonzo finds a San Jose property to turn into a new car shop; Jenny stays behind, which is agreed upon warmly, so that it attests to the character with which Alonzo always aimed to endow his children. It’s a good deal of hope, which the series needed, and never more so than here, but there was a specificity to the show’s pragmatism that the finale compromises. It unintentionally insinuates a binary—hope versus despair—when the rest of the season eluded moral classifications. That dance was what mattered.
The quick turnarounds, then, feel a bit superfluous. One of the benefits of an anthology series is the condensed planning. You tell a single story over your allotment of episodes and you move on. This creates a different sort of anticipation for the ending. Traditional series draw on years of conflict, development, misfires, and growth to summate dozens or hundreds of hours of television in one. Shorter, contained stories tantalize another force: momentum. All of a sudden, it stopped—or, with Russ, mutated. “Episode Eleven” has several fruitful scenes, particularly Aubry’s dying hallucination, in which her hospital door opens, she gazes at crying newborns of all ethnic mixology, finds Carter’s body unattended, and by her presence resuscitates him, gripping his hand, sobbing, overwhelmed by the purity of her deepest dream come true. But she’s dead, wrists open. The couple who “saved” each other kills each other. The callback is heavy. In their last conversation, Carter revels: “You could take dreams and make them seem so real.” So could the show. Outside of Huffman, Aubry and Carter’s dreamlike fixation was the season’s strongest emotional weapon. We shouldn’t be surprised. Ridley and crew trafficked most confidently in the abstract.
“Episode Eleven” tries to prop this up against bitter realism. But the realism, as has been the case for most of the season, relies mostly on tone. Russ’s character-flip, for example, is inelegant but is useful to get Barb, a better character, to a worthwhile place. He spends the trial defining himself as the mediator. His family could find each other again, and he has it in him to fuse. The stakes are high—they are everything—and he fails. He sets himself to climb a mountain that floats overhead. He could jump and reach, but his son’s dead, and so is his family. He conforms, as people do, bits of reality to his own narrative. At first he’s the deadbeat father fighting to stamp out his mistakes. Then, as the Carlins and Barb fracture, as her attempts to politicize sympathy miss, he sees a chance to reinvigorate his importance. But it’s a hoax. Barb gives him nothing more to react against, to level. He flounders. She urges him to let go. He takes it as euthanasia.
This recurs throughout the back half of the finale. Characters who can’t cope suffer. They all struggle for footing. The lack of direction plays here like the last breath. Carter’s, Russ’s, Aubry’s final moments suggest these people will repeat themselves, that their self-destruction might be hardwired. They come in to each other’s lives at their most combustible, and sure enough, they burn each other down. A unifying or even grossly shared theme evades season one of American Crime and its multitude of engagements. But a conflict it returns to repeatedly is the dustups between characters’ separate illusions. In this way, “Episode Eleven” offers little hope for fantasies of orderliness. Aubry believed her and Carter’s love was preordained. Carter believed he could withstand anything, for Aubry. Russ believed he could ascend from the lonesome pit into which he pushed himself. Ridley, indeed, reveals symmetry: The season opened with Russ confirming the identity of Matt’s body; it closes with Barb doing the same for Russ’s.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.