The second episode of American Crime's second season doesn't really boast revelations or plot twists. And yet, it's anything but a throwaway. The writers of this increasingly impressive drama are taking the careful route, defining their characters in ways that will resonate throughout the season. This episode feels even more confident than the premiere, and we've still got so much television left to go.
At the end of last week, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor) calls 911 to report the rape of her son Taylor (Connor Jessup), so this week opens with the cops at the Blaine apartment. A theme of this week's episode quickly becomes clear: Can parents take control of their children's choices? As the officers ask Anne a few questions, it's obvious that she doesn't have much to offer. Taylor may have been drugged. He doesn't remember. He doesn't want to come out. He doesn't want to talk about it. Does Taylor really not remember anything or is he hiding something?
Meanwhile, Leslie (Felicity Huffman) and her board seem unfazed by a town meeting that derides the entire existence of Leyland Academy. People in the world of American Crime are always judging or being judged on issues outside of their control. Shouldn't the students born into families rich enough to go to Leyland be considered? Is that a reversal of the class bias that leads students to think that the Blaines are white trash? These questions will creep up again and again this episode. After the meeting, Leslie mentions the "allegation" from the Blaines, emphasizing that others shouldn't publicize the rumor. She's a spin master, talking in circles about attention, accountability, and "what they don't know." Her speech ends with a narrow, spine-chilling smile.
As Anne lovingly pressures Taylor not to give up, we cut to a truly painful scene in which the young man is examined. The forensic nurse explains the process of the rape kit, and we never see her face, a staple of American Crime's visual language. Authority figures are often faceless, while the show focuses on those impacted by their authority. This is a subtle trick, which the show has used to great effect in both seasons. (It appears multiple times this episode to focus our attention.) Overall, the detail in this sequence — from the examination process to Taylor's tears to Anne's questions — is remarkably purposeful. This issue will not be treated sensationally. It's scary, confusing, and heartbreaking.
Next, we see Terry Lacroix (Regina King) as she's caught in a road-rage incident on the way to work. She videos the guy on her phone, and when she gets to work, she calls Ken at the Indianapolis Police Department to get him in trouble. She's got POWER, and she will not hesitate to use it to solve any problem in her life. Don't get on her bad side.
After a brief scene that develops Eric's (Joey Pollari) dynamic with his father, we cut to Coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) making a boat in a bottle for Leslie. His goodwill quickly curdles, though, after she tells him to punish someone on his team for the incident with Taylor. Dan is super-protective of his players, pointing out that even a one-game suspension could hurt the punished player. How would college recruiters see it? What about the boy's reputation within the school? Unconcerned, Leslie lays down her demand: One player must be suspended for one game. I'm surprised she thinks that would have any effect, but I guess it shows something other than complete denial. They agree that they can't sit Kevin because of the Lacroix family power, so it will have to be Eric.
Dan meets with Eric to break the bad news, and then we cut to a crucial scene that involves an emotional Eric talking to Kevin (Trevor Jackson). They both seem particularly secretive, using phrases like "running his mouth." Neither seems to profess innocence or lack of knowledge about what happened at their party. Would Taylor run his mouth? If he does, will that land them in more trouble? Kevin, who seems to know as much as Eric does, tells him, "You just need to chill." They could dig themselves into deeper trouble if he doesn't.
We jump to Taylor's girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivera), who is at another school where racial conflict is a daily concern. We finally get to meet Chris Dixon (Elvis Nolasco, who delivered the best performance in season one), the principal of Evy's school. Clearly, this place is the foil to Leyland Academy. While Leyland's board members discuss million-dollar donations, Dixon and his team debate the timing of free breakfast for lower-income students. Each school faces conflicts, just with different rules, but both have arguably lost sight of the welfare of students.
Kevin comes home to an angry Terry. We think it will be about the photos, but instead, she's fuming about a $900 receipt for a gift he gave to Val. Terry truly hates Val. It's no accident that this scene immediately follows the one about kids who can't afford to eat breakfast. These students are on very different ends of the economic spectrum. Terry thinks she's protecting Kevin, warning him against baby mamas who want to get paid, but she's awfully disgusting here. She believes that economic class should determine who dates her son. Everyone who doesn't have money are "straight hos." She even refers to "the WTs" — it took me a minute, then I realized she means "white trash." Ugh.
As Leslie manically brushes her teeth, we flash back to a meeting earlier that night in which she tried to sell naming rights at Leyland for $1 million. The prospective donor doesn't really care, again essentially arguing that Leslie's students don't need more. They're already privileged. This upsets Leslie, and she's not exactly wrong. Just because they're rich doesn't mean they did something wrong.
At last, the Blaines get some support. Taylor and Evy meet. He's clearly still upset. She asks him, "Are you good?" He's certainly not okay. Anne is speaking to a therapist — another barely seen authority figure — and he warns her to look for the signs, such as when she feels stressed or anxious. Has Anne dealt with depression or suicidal thoughts?
We see Eric meet with a young man. They drive off together in a fast car, then make out. Yes, it turns out that Eric, who was introduced while talking about how he wanted to "rape" a hot girl, isn't heterosexual. (It's unclear if he's gay or bisexual.) The hookup goes too far for him; he just wants to kiss. He looks torn up and emotional. Eric is clearly closeted, so perhaps something consensual happened between Taylor and Eric at the party? Remember: The first time we saw Taylor, he was looking an image of a handsome guy on his phone. Is he hiding his sexuality as well? Could their relationship be the secret that Eric was worried about? Is that why Taylor isn't talking? Does Kevin know?
Finally, Anne meets with a detective to reassert that someone slipped something into Taylor's drink. The detective is skeptical. She says, "I don't care what you call it, I just need you to do something." It's an appropriate bookend to the last episode, in which Anne's accusations weren't taken seriously by authority figures. Just as it seems like Anne might pull back, she tacks the other way, playing the only card she has left: the press. "Before you say anything, are you sure you want to go public with this?" "Yes, I am."
- If you're wondering which tune Dan listened to while he built his boat: "This Feeling" by Alabama Shakes.
- Speaking of music, the score that plays during the "previously on" sequence really sets the tone for American Crime, almost like an overture. It's little choices like this that separate great shows from good ones.
- There's a fascinating repetition of the word "bitch" in Eric's arc this week. First, he doesn't want to smell like one when his dad suggests Axe Body Spray. Then, Kevin tells him, "Don't be a bitch about it" after he's suspended. He even uses the word to describe the car he's about to drive. What does this tell us? That Eric's greatest fear is being seen as weak, as someone who can be controlled or mocked.
- There's such an incredibly subtle flow to American Crime that can be hard to catch on first viewing. Scenes comment on each other within an episode — such as the Chris/breakfast scene to the Terry/Kevin scene — and even from week to week. If showrunner John Ridley keeps this up, American Crime will soon be one of the smartest shows on TV. It's certainly moving in that direction.