Two confessions end “Episode Nine” of American Crime. One addresses the title: the murder, and murderer, of Matt Skokie. The second affirms a life. The latter closes the show. Taken together, they announce American Crime’s denouement. There’s plot left to work out, and details of the case. But the show with crime in its title was of course never about a single transgression. The trials, here, have been interior, that of a racist mom, a self-loathing immigrant, a deadbeat father, a repressed Christian, a drug addict, and the drug addict’s foolhardy love. Verdicts are nearing.
The confession to killing a man and shooting a woman swings like the showstopper, but, literally, it isn’t. In detail, for her lawyer, the DA, her foster mother, and us, the killer outs herself. Director Jessica Yu pushes the camera in for the account, for the detective running out of the room to find a recorder while Aubry fires her attorney and puts out of its misery her relationship with her foster dad. For the disbelief and clarification, Yu pulls the camera out. The scene is like a physical exhale. Her foster mother cries.
But we don’t share the room’s surprise. Carter, her boyfriend and the presumed guilty, may not be as docile as Aubry makes him out to be. There’s a pistol-whipped drug dealer out there who’d have something to say. Save for that one assault, though, her characterization mostly holds up. He’s cool. He can endure, for her. The foster mother pegs him better, as an enabler with the aspirations of a savior. Aubry, on the other hand, is walking self-destruction. She’s cut a man’s throat, without regard for her lethality. She convinced Carter, while out on bond pending a murder trial, to take off. Perhaps she’s not worst case scenario-addict, because the treachery of addiction can be as fantastic as it can be fatal, but if not, god help her. She’s almost singlehandedly distorted the show’s sense of truth—the factual sort. She’s manipulated everyone with whom she’s interacted, including Carter, and by extension, us. Trust, honesty, and loyalty have been pushed past disrepute to a point of irrelevance. Did she kill Matt? Was she raped by her foster brother and his friends? There exist answers. Can we possibly know them?
The authorities don’t. Aubry gives them narrative coherence, which is legally invaluable. This, she says, is the truth: Carter gets drugs from Matt Skokie but comes up short on money; Matt concedes sex with Aubry as acceptable tender; Carter declines and robs him; Barb’s racism apparently had sunk into Matt and grown; Aubry returns later, with a gun (not Carter’s) for self-defense, to settle; Matt sexually assaults Aubry and winds up shot dead in the face, his wife taking a bullet as well. Aubry packages the story with a kicker, too, noting the river into which she tossed the gun, a detail she’d know only as a cop or as the person who disposed of the firearm. This passes logical perimeters the story slung onto Carter never could. Neither the detective nor the DA challenge her. Essentially, all they ask is for her to speak up—Let the whole world know, you, Aubry Taylor, did it.
The detective, in the excitement, practically leaves on the recorder a note to his future self: “in the psychiatric ward.” At this point, the state’s investment in the factual truth is selfish. The case has made the DA’s office look clumsy. Resolution compensates for that, so they’ve become desperate for it. What they need from the truth has morphed from the whole of it, to a convincing version of it. This is the crux of American Crime: a deconstruction of objectivity. Which doesn’t mean that none of them can be fair. American Crime is searching for that transcendence of truth, which would require the many subjective realities in competition here synergizing. Unity by empathy is greater than compromise.
Structurally, then, “Episode Nine” recalls the series’ first few episodes. The show began aggressively, in its form and rhetoric, but the aggression was a defense mechanism for cores of empathy abused over the years, the decades, the centuries. “Episode Nine” goes from what we’d conventionally call a twist, to a quiet—dare I say, tender—moment between Barb and Russ. Barb’s activist friend, Nancy (Lili Taylor), worries Barb might be tempting suicidal thoughts. She asks Russ to talk to her. Seeing what we’ve seen of the two of them, we think no. But Russ assures Nancy that Barb “wouldn’t” (which refers to murder—of Carter—and suicide), and the sincerity and sureness of his tone comes only from a place of deep knowing. He brings old photos of the boys to her. She’s apprehensive about letting him in. Before long, they’re reminiscing, as much as they can with each of them a force of inertia against the other. He tells her that everything good in the boys’ life was because of her. It hits her like a twist of equal proportion to the state witnessing Aubry’s admission.
Early in the episode, Nancy had to comfort Barb, who’s distressed by the epiphany of her bigotry. This is what sparks Nancy’s worries. It’s a misreading—a worthwhile one, since it leads to Russ giving Barb that line about their boys she probably couldn’t dream of anyone telling her. Rather, there’s a latent similarity in the arcs of Barb and Aliyah. The show has worked these two to their cores. Tony’s in prison, watching his accomplices get killed by guards, and Carter’s gasping and failing to justify his love for Aubry. But it’s Aliyah and Barb who have had to back down, to reassess the mechanisms that have protected them to this point. Barb realizes her emotional security, or the illusion of it, was built on a hatred she didn’t intend. Aliyah, a couple of episodes ago, reemerged not as Carter’s advocate, but his sister.
Both have fought, politically and legally, for their families. And now it’s all been reshuffled into a yet undefinable configuration. The target is not her brother; the murderer is not an impoverished black man. This is new. And so, when they pass through the courthouse’s two metal detectors simultaneously, in a low, daunting symmetrical shot, and the protestors they’ve left in their wake shout through the glass doors, the adversary is palpable. But, in dynamite turns, Huffman and King give us more: Barb and Aliyah recognize each other as their equal, tragically opposed force.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.