The young Bob Dylan had a talent for amplifying any conflict, from the trivial to the grand. If you’ve seen the backstage documentary Don’t Look Back, you’ve seen Dylan go to work on a British reporter, eager for a political and semantical melee, and reducing this man not only to a sense of unpreparedness, but also insufficiency. Before long, you lose your enamor for Dylan’s rhythm and intellect. You feel for the interviewer. He wanted to talk to a musician, a budding icon. He got a smart ass.
The third episode of American Crime has structure, merit, theme, melodrama, but it also has characters who partake in little other than indignation. Tom’s strange denial of his daughter’s infidelity morphs to resentment when Eve reveals she’s known. Aliyah, Carter’s sister and formerly known as Doreen, deepens her pitch and enunciates when a prison guard botches her Muslim name. Alonzo’s brother shows up after hearing about Tony, and is banished after Alonzo catches him drinking in front of the otherwise alone Jenna. Ridley blocks together with these conflicts a jigsaw of allegiances—familial, political, racial, religious—and their breaking points. Over the course of the episode, and afterward, there’s an intellectual clarity the show can ride (high ratings be damned). Within the scene, though, and save for Russ, the only choice the characters seem to make is to get pissier. “Episode Three” is an expensive dramatization of the arguments we fantasize about having but could, or would, never execute.
Barb is the queen, here. It takes about two minutes of screen time to reject Barb’s hate crime offensive, and you should see the way disgust and despair mingle across Felicity Huffman’s mouth. She’s subpoenaed. (Can you imagine the satisfaction of serving someone like her?) Russ wants to unlock Matt’s ashes from his ex-wife’s grip, so his son can be buried nearer to his daughter-in-law, and Barb folds, with that tone she deploys for blacks, thems, illegals here insinuating her capitulation is not a win for Russ, the Carlins, her comatose daughter-in-law. She others Russ for exercising decency. But her emotional greed no longer intimidates him.
Huffman’s is a different sort of greed: her character continues to be the show’s most interesting, while also its most repellent. She plays the role straight. Barb is prejudiced. She’s racially entitled. She’s a congregant of that certain American pseudo-prosperity gospel: pure self-reliance. Huffman enters each scene with the audience remembering her as a monstrosity of pettiness. Then something happens. A prosecutor mercifully, but outright, discards her push for a bias case; Huffman gives you nausea. Russ, empowered by the Carlins’ insistence, ignores her cool defenses and Huffman—with inflection and pace—gives you decades of hardship, of struggle, of single motherhood. She’s come to work, on this ever-taller task of humanizing that aunt you most want to slap. Ridley is clearly embarking on a sort of reclamation project with Russ—American Crime’s only to this point. But without his most loathsome character, his show would be close to emotionally vacant.
It would not be in danger, though, of formal invisibility. There is no show airing on television right now with more visual daring. As tightly directed as The Americans is, its art is spare, relying on camera height variation, perspective shifts, and pacing. American Crime is developing a recognizable visual identity to which few other programs besides Hannibal aspire. Notice the careful pan from the backseat of the Carlins’ car, as Tom rationalizes his mindset to Eve, the camera panning from his face to Eve’s, her head turned away from him; and the shot catching the reflection of Tom’s mouth in the rearview, halfway through the pan. Jenny visits Tony and the camera lingers on Tony’s hands, and he tells her to keep away their dad. The one that startles, though, occurs during a different visitation. As Aliyah and Carter unleash on each other years of bitterness, Aliyah’s feint reflection in the glass barrier overlays Carter’s face, like a matching thumbprint. It turns Carter into something like a hologram. But he wants nothing to do with his sister (and her Allah), who he sees as a traitor. He bolts upright. But because she doesn’t flinch, this outline of his face lingers the glass—his sister his ghost. Hands, reflections: the show uses its camera to fragment its characters.
“Episode Three” is a masterclass in narrative choreography. That’s not to say complexity is a clean substitute for warmth, or sorrow. This is a show spurring grief, fear, and distrust, and its heaviness sits on your stamina rather than your heart. Barb spouts off about deserving judicial racial equality and the show cuts to Aliyah in her hijab. Aubrey dismisses her foster father’s support while the juvenile center says Alonzo Tony will benefit more from staying with them than at home. All of it clicks. But do you tremble? Do you cry? Do you rejoice? There’s melodrama all over this show: the tense, elongated shot of Gleendilys Inoa’s face as her Jenny tells a cop no; Tom and Eve’s spat over Gwen demanding Eve’s confidence as a wife, as a mother. But the show’s flipped things. The subtext is raw, and the emotion is subdued.
Part of this is a symptom of the way Ridley is telling this story, and the way he’s telling it resembles Asghar Farhadi’s The Past. That movie takes a family sunk deep in a history interwoven with betrayal and secrecy, and out of them forces forgiveness. It tells this story through a series of characters walking into rooms and recalling things—or intentionally not—with other characters. Likewise, much of American Crime can be distilled down to the dilemma Do I, or don’t I mention this at this moment? You’re supposed to distrust all of these characters. It improves the secondary mystery, the whodunit. More importantly, if we break down the social tropes Barb, Russ, Carter, Aubrey, Tom, Aliyah, and the memories of Matt and Gwen embody, we can concede their vacuity and reconstruct ourselves from there. That’s why the show suffocates you with drear. It will give you oxygen when you most need it—when, in fact, there’s nothing you need more.
Where American Crime, specifically “Episode Three,” differs from The Past is in scope. The topics about which Farhadi has his actors shouting are limited to the characters’ personal histories. Their baggage is theirs, not society’s, and in this way, their strife is universal. Ridley tries to reverse engineer this, which often leads to nowhere pleasant. He goes after the gamut hot-button institutions and issues, adding to the critique in “Episode Three”: post-9/11 xenophobia, “post”-race racism (Alonzo condemns for a sneak-attack reporter the Mexicans giving Mexican-Americans a bad name), parenting defensiveness, and our suspicion of law enforcement and the hands that feed it. This was its purpose—my goodness, it was its marketing campaign; how many agencies would salivate over a tagline hinging on “race relations in America”? The show values political morality. It’s not Carter’s drug habits Aliyah hates. It’s his market responsibility: his drugs are white drugs, his girlfriend a white woman rather than the “good colored” one he had, as if one is Walmart and the other is Whole Foods.
Tony’s cellmate bloodies Tony’s nose with a basketball early in “Episode Three.” We all could’ve used a duck! “Don’t be such a bitch,” his savior tells him. But who’s coming to our back—Ridley? Can we trust him with our loyalty, our hearts? Are Tom and Eve going to wind up like Russ and Barb? Is Russ going to reunite his family around this tragedy? Will Barb find a pair of glasses to go with her new hairdo, a pair that widens her tunnel vision? (These are not hopes.) Ridley has drawn good characters, inserted them into grave circumstances, but asks no more of them than he does of us: watch, learn. With a show this didactic, of course that’s partly in the architecture. But you don’t just need a vessel to get to a new place. Any monkey can turn a wheel, throttle an engine. You need guidance, leadership. You need someone, anyone worth following. There’s a reason that incensed genius sold millions of records.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.