And so we move on to states of obliviousness. In degrees of spades and grains of sand, the parents of American Crime had to let in what was until now some combination of unwelcome and concealed knowledge about who their children might be. Point by point, because rhetoric is largely this show’s petrol, each parent now knows something they hadn’t, and because of this, the tragedy has compounded. Your dead veteran son is now your dead, drug dealing son. Your comatose beauty pageant daughter is now your comatose adulterous daughter. There are bad times to learn these things, and then there is this.
The neatest narrative trick “Episode Two” pulls is with the family whose children are alive and accounted for. Indeed, Alonzo had been clueless to his Tony’s fraternizing with sketchy men. But he can still rest on his son’s pulse and stupidity—and resentment—being the boy’s greatest sin, not maliciousness. Instead of defensive or sorrowful, he gets to be self-righteous, which is to say, he gets to be himself. He stands out because of this. Russ and Barb, Tom and Eve: self-preservation has taken over. They are aspects of themselves, exaggerated and unkempt. When Alonzo allows the police to interrogate his son without a lawyer, when he flounders in an argument with a correctional officer, he is rigorously him. He’s doubled down, and his daughter calls him on it, accusing him being a self-loathing Mexican—a view of Alonzo Tony later echoes—terrified of his children being perceived as another brown, tattooed body in a hoodie.
The scene is a little bit clunky, just as the expository confrontation between Barb and Russ was in the pilot. But Benito Martinez as Alonzo demands all the camera that’s given to him. “Episode Two” lightens up the camera movement (static shots, powerfully, composed much of the pilot), but the technique of characters talking to the shot’s frame remains steadfast. No standard might be more TV than the over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot, and American Crime has banished it. At times, you are very aware of it. At others, like when it locks onto Martinez’s face as his daughter slugs him with condemnation, it’s perfect. “You want to be white” she shouts, “You hate that you’re not” she shouts, all of it accurate, and all of it landing on Martinez with such physicality that you see him begin to double over, his face contorted. We get a couple of jump cuts, his daughter gone, and him staggered in a chair, and some audio: the click of him swallowing, the compression and labor of his breath. You feel it all—that’s the filmmaking—and yet you want thirty seconds more, sixty seconds more, more, more—that’s Martinez—because the technique and the art of the performance have synergized around something difficult: truth.
You could capitalize that “t.” John Ridley writes and arranges this thing like a great big stage. There’s a little bit of pile-on: Barb can’t stop herself, Russ is little but tatters, there are drug addicts who collect idyllic magazine ads. The tapestry is rich, yet you wonder if it’s in excess. For the most part, Ridley doesn’t let you wonder for long. He knocks you down with showmanship like the above, or the opener, which overlayed a rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” at the Carlins’ church with the arraignment—with Barb boring into the lead suspect with palpable anticipation of his incineration. It mixes serenity with vengefulness, which is itself a way to read religion and the religion of justice in America.
Though the pervasive religiosity can broach the grandiose, it colors-me-same all the half-measure of thought the characters dabble in. Barb has that compulsive brand of bigotry that pits the bigot as someone tapped into a deeper, overlooked current of social discourse. It’s what gets people to behold the straight, white male (themselves) as America’s truly disadvantaged. She’s classed up whatever denim, grease, or corn-flecked youth of hers, and Marty’s, with a beige cardigan. If life was to harden her, her efforts have simply rendered her insensitive.
Huffman continues to play her assertive, willful, suggesting sincerity without undermining the decades of leathering Ridley has done to the character’s nail-deep skin. Her tunnel vision benefits her role as mother of a victim, but throttles past her context as a human being. She’s the most challenging character on the show. You’re aware of the bile in your gut whenever she comes on screen. But you remind yourself, over and over, at every “them” she unloads, that her tragedy is her need to defend and protect where none more can be done.
She takes the only real action concerning the crime in the episode. She’s unpersuaded of her son’s drug involvement. First Russ tells her, but he makes the mistake again of being the guy who left twenty years ago, and so he’s pavement. Then, a detective starts, but she makes the mistake of being black. Barb’s prejudices are too reflexive for her objections to push logically past “You’re lying.” No one is hearing her, except for a reporter, who’s paid to. By the end, she’s gathered enough evidence—evidence against everyone but herself, Mark, her living son, and Matt, her slain—to seek out a hate-crime advocate.
The Carlins, Gwen’s father and mother, are coping less like an emotional bulldozer. They’ve turned inward, and upward. Tom folds and talks to Barb’s reporter. It’s brief, and only to request privacy and prayers. His daughter’s condition has made him angry. You watch him squirm as he retreats to courtesy and graciousness when talking to the reporter. But the anger comes not so much from indignation as it does shame. This reporter, by virtue of his trade, can uncover what Tom’s blustered and spittled into a taboo: the sexual assault.
Partially, you’re supposed to think this is a product of his religious perspective. The spirit is the eternal and holiest of commodities a Christian has. Rape desecrates it. Ridley conveys this with moments like Tom and the reporter, or in the pilot, when Tom rebuffs Barb’s attempts to talk about the assault with a call for, yes, prayer. Such scenes insinuate Tom’s devotion to be a sort of sentinel. Whenever a conversation becomes too discomforting, he can step behind the hymnal and commune with the heavens. But when the claustrophobia of media, legal, and familial pressure sets in, you see a man who could storm to his daughter’s bedside, slam the door, take up her hand to his face, and never come out. Eve, who spends most of the episode grounding him with her silence, sees this version of her husband as well. When the police tell him Gwen’s rape kit came back negative, that she had more than Matt in her life, he blisters. “It makes me sick,” he struggles to get out through his froth and disorientation. Eve rips his phone from him, pulls up a picture of Gwen, and holds it in front of his face, like the device could bite, like it would, like he needs it to.
It must be some sort of horror to discover your child isn’t the person you believed them to be. The culpability is unsparing. You raised them, so you have failed. They’re also their own person, a person you love, and so to learn he deals drugs or she is (as colored of now) unfaithful to her husband betrays your own confidence in assessing and bonding with people at all. After all, who might you know better than your children? And to extend: Who might you know less?
Ridley is still taking up arms against racial incognizance, but the deeply American deficiency compelling the distrust, self-loathing, and prejudice is that of empathy. His characters here, in “Episode Two,” entrench themselves in exclusion. They all think they’re outsiders, whether that instills in them pride or guilt. They summon their defenses, because mourning is personal, No one takes the steps to see outside of themselves, and so they must be yanked. Right now, their children (Matt is kept alive through Barb’s crusade for his posthumous innocence) couldn’t be any more exposed, and yet each of the kids, in their own way, is shouting, Where have you been looking? The answer is at themselves. And it has gotten them nowhere.
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.