Finally, this show bleeds.
American Crime’s rhetoric has often fractured how we can watch this show. It can be sociopolitical experimentation, it can be character study, but it can’t blend the two. This leaves the former mode feeling fraught. The best platform for rhetoric in performance art is an actual platform. The theater stage trades verisimilitude for the milieu of a public forum. Aliyah’s advocacy, juxtaposed against Barb’s cable news bigotry, against the media fitting a victim and a suspect into status quo narratives, against—It’s a shakedown. Particularly in the early going, the show’s more utility than experience.
The cast has internalized all the debating. On Huffman, on Martinez, on Nolasco, on Cabral, you can see all of the arguing and resistance in the wrinkles, in the tired muscles, the downward mouths, in the tears, and in the sense of peace. Each of their turns this week lack bombast. Barb is defeated. Alonzo has hope, bittersweet as it may be. Carter is resigned. Hector is doomed. They’re coming to a place of acceptance, which is where the peace comes from, but what they’re accepting may be an unfolding of their worst fears. Hector, for example, is extradited. In the span of three days, he’ll go from fantasizing about a technology job in the mountains with his family to receiving his sentence from a Mexico judge. The perspective he built for himself, filled with second chances, is shattered.
The show tries expediency with another character—Russ—and it doesn’t work. All of a sudden, he’s Barb. He berates the D.A., he hassles Mark. Ridley and episode scribe Sonay Hoffman swing and miss, too, with a monologue by Jenny later on. Yet, the falseness of both is swallowed up by the surrounding context. Russ adopts Barb’s pulpit because Barb’s abandoned it. Jenny goes on about her victimhood and its unintended repercussions on her brother because Alonzo has reunified his family. Ridley has overextended American Crime’s political topicality at times, but where would we be without the stubbornness, the borderline redundancy? American Crime has always made up for its uneven emotionality with fire. With “Episode Ten,” it releases characters from themselves. No one is going much of anywhere, emotionally, other than somewhere else, but the deflation is a stupendous and evocative relief.
The other part to the thrust of the episode is, and it can’t be overstated, the central performances. Huffman, Martinez, Cabral, King, Gerard are all themselves crescendos. Each has a scene in “Episode Ten” in which their characters cannot escape the truth. No one not related to his son will come to his aid, and Alonzo is compelled by his guilt—not over being an immigrant, but a poor father. Aliyah knows Carter’s love for Aubry is more electric than the bond she and her brother have regrown. She keeps from Carter Aubry’s confession, and so has to subject their new bond to the elements with a final trust me. Hector, the schemer, the hustler, begs for mercy. The postures haven’t been dropped; Ridley’s stripped these people bare. It’s voyeuristic and unsettling and, as the impending reality sets in, it’s devastating.
Ridley constructed prisons of perspective around these characters. They’re as much enshrouded in fabrication as we were engulfed by their talking points. None of them are equipped for vulnerability. Barb hands over her gun to Russ, opting out of what she despairs is a royal clusterfuck. She doesn’t have it in her, going on and not. Russ pats himself on the back about this later with Mark. He struts and authoritates like he prevented another tragedy. This is inflation, pushing out the nugget of truth that Russ indeed extracted honesty from his family. It’s just Ridley wont’ give him the win alone. It’d run counter to the show, which operates not in the concrete terms of cause and effect, but in the abstract, in tug and pull, in endurance and erosion. Distortion will always mar progress.
Huffman, specifically, is dynamite in the uncertainty, just as her character is at its least explosive. The episode opens with her grounding Russ as they wait to meet with the D.A. When the D.A. informs them of the cases changing circumstances—that Carter will not be charged with murder, someone else (Aubry) has confessed—when Russ recites the usual Barb protests, Barb says “Thank you” and leaves. She brings Russ the gun and has no spirit left to mask her exhaustion, her grief. Russ sits alone in a bedroom with the gun; he demands Mark not shun his mother. Barb, though, just wants to be sure of something with Mark: “But not love?” Cadence, inflection, and facial cues have been Huffman’s weapons of subtle destruction. When she asks her son, the one not dead, if he in fact does not love her, the contorted havoc of these weapons is total.
For weeks, American Crime has waited for us shout for the truth. “Episode Ten” lays the tension central, but affirms it relevant only insofar as it’s present. And it very much is, but it’s fading, and the characters who exit this for the better will be the ones who can distinguish submission from acceptance. Last week, Carter gave in to Aubry’s foster mother. She asked him to let go of Aubry, and because a prison cell doesn’t give a person much leverage, he implied surrender. Director Jessica Yu put the reflection of the foster mother over Carter’s right shoulder. This week, as Aliyah clings to the hard-earned loyalty of her brother, pleading for his confidence one last time, director Millicent Shelton puts his sister’s reflection over Carter’s left shoulder. The visual echo reverberates throughout “Episode Ten.” Power, roles, and mindsets have flipped, but there is no clarity of a devil versus an angel. Characters have left or right, and they have to choose.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.