Until its intense final few minutes, the sixth episode of American Crime's second season was also the show's most frustrating. It too often felt like filler, padded out with overwritten scenes that didn't quite ring true. The performances, especially by the young cast members, keep it working, but it's starting to feel like this ten-episode season could have been trimmed to a tight nine or even eight.
To start the second half of the season, Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) is preparing for his return to Leyland Academy after his suicide attempt and subsequent coming-out. He's going about his day, going to the gym to practice basketball, when we overhear Coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) talking to Eric's teammates: "He's your friend. He's your fellow student." Clearly, this episode will be about acceptance and recovery. (Or lack thereof.) As Dan finishes his speech, a dumb teenager spells out why he won't be comfortable showering with Eric.
Meanwhile, Leyland Headmaster Leslie (Felicity Huffman) is being yelled at because she's planning to "celebrate" Eric's return. Some people just want this swept under the rug. We learn that Anne (Lili Taylor) has sued Leyland for negligence. Leslie describes how she's deftly spun the story from a team being accused of illegal behavior to the tale of a hysterical mother. Her tone makes it seem like this whole situation was a "win" because it allows Leyland to promote tolerance — never mind the lives it tore apart. Leslie is actually planning an assembly to welcome Eric back, so she needs a speech written to promote inclusiveness, preferably by a gay writer.
Despite being told that they only have one witness (Evy) who can only support parts of Taylor's story, Anne is digging in her heels about the lawsuit. The school knew about the party and she wants public atonement, not just a settlement. The episode, in many ways, is about people fighting reality. There's not enough evidence against Leyland for a lawsuit, but Anne is out of options. A public assembly for a student accused of rape might not be the best idea, but Leslie won't take no for an answer.
In a scene with him and his new boyfriend, we dig deeper into Taylor's (Connor Jessup) mind-set. He is still struggling, largely because his mother won't let anything go, but also because of his own conflicted feelings about what happened that night. Even his boyfriend believes it was a 3 a.m. hookup and Taylor just freaked out. He puts his hand around Taylor's neck, noting how he likes it a little rough. In therapy later, Taylor again pushes the issue back to Anne: "My mom is obsessed because of what happened to me." He also notes how Eric doesn't have to hide. Seriously: There's an assembly being planned for his rapist! The therapist wants Taylor to write down the bad things that happened to him, but he can't bring himself to do it.
Leslie meets with her legal counsel, who really wants her to settle. Sure, Evy is the only witness, but she saw him before and after, and her story has been unwavering. It would play well in the court of public opinion. Everyone will understand that the school failed to protect a student. It's time to settle. Leslie doesn't think Anne will agree, though: "She wants us to bleed in public."
At Taylor's new school, Thurgood Marshall High School, the issue of preferential treatment has turned into a major problem for principal Chris Dixon (Elvis Nolasco). What began as a couple of kids protesting the suspension of a Hispanic student has turned into dozens of angry kids and parents. Chris meets with a Hispanic teacher who says he's going to take some time off instead of crossing the line. This issue just won't go away; it's a parallel black eye to what's happening at Leyland, but with different undertones and potential repercussions. Will the two schools tie into each other narratively, or are they just meant to comment on how drama unfolds at different socioeconomic levels?
During the assembly, which still seems really implausible to me, Eric gives a speech about returning to school. We cut from the assembly to Leslie, who has a skin-crawling meeting with Eric. How will she use this young man to her advantage? I don't even want to watch. Leslie is such a fascinating character, though. She's not wrong when she says, "People are afraid of what they don't understand," but she's using that truth to her benefit. She's a spin master. Her latest manipulation is a doozy: She wants Eric to give an interview about being an openly gay athlete.
Back to Taylor. He meets with the man who took care of him at one point in his life — his mom had to go away — and confronts him about a few issues. Interestingly, one of the first things that Taylor says is, "I messed up. I lied." What did he lie about? Is he just talking about his sexuality, or is he confirming what his new boyfriend suggested? Was it a hookup gone too intense? Before that can be explored, Taylor turns the conversation again, telling the man how homophobic epithets at a Colts-Packers game made him stop wanting to go to games. As he says, "I'm confronting things."
In a horrendously overwritten scene, we then learn that Eric's mom, Lillah (Emily Bergl), is an awful human being. First, she tells Eric's dad, Curt (Brent Anderson), that it would have been better if Eric had killed himself. If he died, then "we could have buried him." Then she goes a step further down the grotesque ladder, asking Curt if he molested his son and that's why he's gay. I know it helps a show like American Crime to include portrayals of homophobia — and I know that people this awful do exist in the world — but this scene was overcooked and unnecessary. We already sympathize with Eric, a suicidal young man who was literally ripped out of the closet by a school now trying to use him for positive press.
After a brief, cryptic scene in which season one's Richard Cabral gets involved, sending someone a message that reads, "NOW YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO GET ASSAULTED," we get another overwritten sequence in which Terri (Regina King) verbally attacks Anne at her job. Terri strides across the room, yelling, "Your son is a whore!" Yes, they've set Terri up as someone with a serious temper, but she's also very aware of how she's perceived, so I'm not sure I believe that she'd do this in public. After the confrontation, she comes home and cries with her husband, Michael (André Benjamin).
Eric's interview goes pretty horribly wrong — he uses a homophobic slur and Leslie gets it squashed — we see a meeting with Chris and the community. Students at Thurgood are being marked absent and facing truancy charges, even though they're protesting outside. There's no sign that this will get better soon. What will Mr. Dixon do?
Eric's first game back on the basketball team doesn't go as poorly as the interview, but it certainly isn't good. People in the crowd yell at him, and Kevin gives him the cold shoulder afterward, convincing him not to go out with the rest of the team. Is Kevin homophobic, or is he just mad about the legal trouble and public shaming caused by Eric's actions? While Kevin dines with his other teammates, we learn that most of his anger is actually directed at Taylor. "There's no reason that he can't get handled," he says. Uh-oh. Minutes later, Eric calls Taylor and baits him into the ambush. The team will lure him into a beating.
Before the finale, Leslie calls legal with a quick about-face: It's time to settle. As Taylor flees across the rec-center parking lot, chased by four members of the Leyland basketball team, we see Michael meeting with a cop. He's asking the officer to do something drastic, the details of which we don't know. He says it's time for him to be a man: "Find a way to let this woman know she's messed with the wrong family."
- I'm increasingly impressed with the young cast, especially Jessup and Pollari. They were both given characters who could have turned into melodramatic caricatures, but have been grounded in a way that makes them the backbone of the show. Their arcs are the most essential to the season.
- While it's still a good show, this episode had more filler than usual, and many scenes felt a bit overwritten. The scene between Anne and Evy's dad? We didn't need it. I worry that the narrative has simmered a little too long this year. Based on the last five minutes of the episode and next week's previews, though, I don't think that will be a problem from here on out.
- With Taylor's line about lying and the scene with his boyfriend, it seems like the writers are suggesting that the sex was consensual. It's daring to remove mystery from a show like American Crime with just four episodes to go, but season one did something similar. It starts off a mystery about "what happened that night," then becomes more about accusations and consequences than details.
- Lingering questions: How do you think the protests at Thurgood Marshall will play back into the Leyland saga? What convinced Leslie she needs to settle? How will Richard Cabral figure in the rest of the season?