American Crime is constructing destruction. In its fourth episode, the writing of which is credited to Diana Son, the force of the show mellows. There’s one setpiece of an argument, and the signature crosscutting and juxtaposition. But a stillness holds this episode in its place. The personal mysteries don’t expand. The case for Carter develops, but his budding innocence was never in true contention for us. “Episode Four” plants its heels, sicks its characters’ stubborn behaviors on each other, and beckons disaster.
The obvious choice at the start of the series was Russ. A gambler and an M.I.A. father, Russ harbored all of the requisite aftereffects to prompt redemption: shame, guilt, compassion, patience, persistence, and something like self-awareness. By subpoenaing his ex-wife he liberated himself. He’s a man reborn, he’d like to believe. It gives him the confidence to say things like, “I’m not afraid of your mother anymore.” You may even want to pat him on the back: Take a stand; lend a hand. Then you look around at everyone else. A father as sexually delusional as a mother is prejudiced. A businessman desperate to be seen as such. A troubled young man facing murder charges because he is a synonym for a verdict. What is your stake in this, Russ?
Two characters have it the worst. Barb is one (and we’ll get to her, because this woman is recap gold), but first, Alonzo. All of these characters treat their interiority like Medusa. The peril of looking inward is mortal. And none of them are less prepared for their confrontation than Alonzo. Tom at least has Eve. Barb has an armory of rationalization. Alonzo has nothing but volume, which already failed him in “Episode Two.” Here, his shop is vandalized: “Pocho,” the graffiti reads, “Sell Out.” He dared Modesto’s Hispanic population with his assimilation superiority. We know this. But you see him standing beneath this makeshift billboard and you sense his self-loathing manifested and embedded itself on the wall. Alonzo might as well have turned to stone.
His response: to bury it. “Get me paint,” he tells an employee. How many times does he need to be walloped with his own internal crisis? More. Week after week, the show challenges Alonzo to undo his own alienation. His daughter disassembles his façade. A juvenile correction officer doubts the benefit of Tony returning to Alonzo’s care. Each time, Alonzo perseveres. There’s nothing in this whole wide, decrepit world that Ridley and crew are building that can shake him. Except everyone breaks. It’s just a matter of how violently.
One consistency to this show’s take on survival is delusion. Alonzo has been on his own for a while, so you see the sense in his defenses fortifying that alienation. Likewise, Barb accepts nothing that diverges from her personal truth. She’s impervious to disagreements because her reality has little basis in fact. She whips it together from self-deceit and fairy dust. At this point, she’s lucky she hasn’t gotten herself strangled. There are moments in this episode when characters seem close. You couldn’t blame them, although the show would suffer. Mark, who finally shows up, attempts some damage control on behalf of his mother, which amounts to an insanity plea. But to her credit, she scores one triumph—a single retort that may forever capture who she is. In response to the Carlins all but threatening to sedate her, Barb questions Eve’s sense of justice: “An eye for an eye, right, Eve?” Barb is more than aware, of course, of the Carlins’ Christian devotion, and so she (mis)quotes their holy book. Like a good bully, she punctuates her inanity with accidental stupidity.
As much as she resents it, and no matter how many haircuts she gets, Barb doesn’t run the show. Increasingly, it’s Aliyah. She’s arrived with conviction, and lawyers capable of commuting justice. She’s Muslim, wears a hijab, and catches Barb’s wrath for it. But she carries herself with tact. Her lawyer secures Carter a $100,000 bond, but it comes at the price of his relationship with Aubrey. It’s an offer he shouldn’t refuse. It’s a success, one of the few granted to anyone here, but it doesn’t seem a rare gift to Aliyah. Like Barb, Aliyah asserts herself as if no one has ever said “hello” to her. Unlike Barb’s determination, though, Aliyah has guidance, be it divine or logical. You want her on your side. Barb you simply don’t want on the other.
The show toys in “Episode Four” with the sameness of organized religion. There isn’t a lot to be massaged out of the specific sameness. The sermons at Aliyah’s mosque sound very Christian, and of the Carlins’ we could say vice-a-versa. American Crime hasn’t yet displayed much interest in unity. The tension it seems to be subverting is the political one of party lines. To that extent, the depictions of religion here are depoliticized. That’s not to say these congregations are apolitical; Aliyah’s swells with advocacy. However, the intended effect is the political act: subtract the iconography—the holy texts, the crucifixes and hijabs—and can you tell me which is which?
Too much of American Crime plays like this still. We’re watching an exercise. When Gwen’s eyes open, the cliffhanger is: How will she shift the arguments? The show is hard on its people because it believes they deserve what’s coming, and what’s coming is a crisis of self. This is why the show has Alonzo and Barb repeating beats of stubbornness. Every time they narrow their point of view, we wonder what it will take. As the defenses improve, so too will the aggressing artillery. Ridley is going to annihilate these characters. You can see it with Tony. His admiration is transforming into a superhero the sort of kid from whom Alonzo is desperate to protect him. He’s defiant to being seen as “a bitch” and is growing readier to substantiate that defiance. This kid is giving him the tools: swagger and connections. For the father with all of his children still alive and healthy, this is the worst case scenario.
As for the case, the episode updates and twists it with brevity. Perez gets it in, then gets out, though this is indicative of the series. Carter’s bond deliberation lasts a minute and leads to an even briefer encounter between the parents and the prosecutor. He’s accused, mostly by Barb, of underselling her son’s case. He delivers reason, sees its impotency here, and extricates himself from the room. What proceeds is a mashup of soliloquies, of actors striding and storming to different parts of the room, the field of depth of their position along with the direction of their movement signaling their momentary power. Authority dances from body to body, mouth to mouth. The sequence looks dreamlike, as if it couldn’t be occurring in any recognizable reality. The characters talk about being honest—Tom calls his daughter a slut; Eve goads Barb; Russ makes some desultory acknowledgement to his past woes—but you watch this conduction and know it for what it is: an encapsulation of this series’s political thought. Everyone shouts and accuses, but no one stands on a patch of ground deep enough for any of their heels.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter.