How does American Crime move on after the shocking events that ended last week’s episode? By focusing on responsibility and recovery. This week, only one scene includes the actual school shooter, Taylor Blaine (Conor Jessup), who is now behind bars for killing Wes Baxter (Michael Seitz). The authorities found his “kill list” and know that he waited in Headmaster Leslie Graham’s (Felicity Huffman) office with a loaded weapon. And yet, the episode doesn’t spend any time with Wes’s family, either. American Crime isn’t just about the people tied to criminal events. It’s also about the outside repercussions of their actions.
To highlight this theme, showrunner John Ridley and director Kimberly Peirce chose to intercut the episode with testimonials from real survivors of school shootings and bullying. We hear from a teacher, who witnessed a shooting by a student named “Dylan,” and it’s likely that she’s speaking of Dylan Klebold and Columbine. We hear from a young woman who almost killed herself after her school shamed her for coming out. Perhaps most emotionally, we hear from a woman whose son did kill himself after being bullied. Weaving these interviews into the episode is a directorial masterstroke. These people talk about healing, then the show’s characters try to do just that. Ultimately, this amplifies the emotion of the episode and the purpose of the entire season.
Coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton) is giving a speech in the gym to the entire school, trying to find the words for a situation that was once unthinkable but has become tragically common. This is directed in a subtle, brilliant way by Peirce; we see shots of Michael Lacroix (André Benjamin) and Leslie in their homes, devastation painted across their tear-marked faces. Dan says, “If we don’t love each other — I mean really love each other — this is what happens.”
During the brief scene that follows, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor) visits her son in jail. We learn that he did indeed have a kill list, and he was waiting for Leslie to come back. It’s all true.
We then see the opposite kind of maternal behavior in Lilah Tanner (Emily Bergl). The mother of now-out Eric Tanner (Joey Pollari) blames her ex-husband Curt (Brent Anderson) for her son’s homosexuality, perpetuating the grotesque lie to her other son, Peter (Ty Doran), that his father molested Eric. Lilah is going to take Peter away with her, sell most of her property, and hit the road. When Curt discovers Peter is gone, he can’t even file a missing-persons report for her custodial interference.
Leslie is a mess. When her boyfriend calls, she’s walking around her house like a ghost. She decides to go back to work just to feel like she’s doing something. Her façade has crumbled. Not only was she targeted by an armed student, but she surely must be blaming herself for what happened, wondering if she could have done something differently. When she gets to work, she decides to cancel finals and suggests that they start contacting colleges. They’ll need to know that some Leyland seniors will need trauma counseling when they get there.
It probably won’t be enough. In the real world, no matter the case she made for herself, Leslie would likely be forced to resign. It appears that’s the way her arc is headed, especially after Dan makes his feelings known. He now understands how much responsibility she bears; he sees that her leadership is gone. “Leslie should have settled this thing a long time ago,” he says, clearly looking for someone to blame. When the unthinkable happens, so many of us do the same.
After Curt learns about his lack of options to get Peter back, he confronts his remaining son. He notes the bloody lip that Eric got last week. He knows that Eric goes on sites and uses apps for random hookups. Eric is defensive, again, but his dad says exactly what he needs to hear: “If you want something else, I’m here. Same as always. I’m here.” When people are struggling and feeling alone, they sometimes just need to be reminded that someone who loves them is there. This seems to register with Eric, and I suspect the later scene in which he confronts Kevin might not have happened without Curt’s fatherly support.
Leslie finds out that Dan is against her, then tries to win him back to her side. It’s not going to work. He accuses her of only protecting herself through the whole rape accusation process. (“You tried to handle this like it was a math problem.”) Leslie’s voice cracks as she asks him what he would have done in her shoes. It’s a good question. Where exactly did Leslie go wrong? Huffman is great here, believably conveying a character who did precisely what she thought she should do for the school she loved. But Dan wants someone to take responsibility, and that desire will come back to haunt him.
Before that, Terri Lacroix (Regina King) goes to speak with the woman she fired rather coldly earlier this season. She’s atoning a bit. She didn’t handle the situation well. When the former employee, Debra (Charissa Allen), tries to call her out, Regina King turns in her most powerful moment of the season to date. Her son’s name was on a list. Her child was wanted dead. She had to attend the wake of another child. It’s hard to even imagine what that feels like. As she says, “That reality gets put in front of you — you find something.”
While principal Chris Dixon (Elvis Nolasco) continues to face heat over the protests at Thurgood Marshall, Sebastian (Richard Cabral), the mercenary social-justice warrior, arrives in Indianapolis to look for Anne. Before he finds her, we get yet another powerful scene: Becca Sullivan (Sky Azure Van Vliet) confesses to her father that she sold drugs to Taylor before he went to the school. The man who just preached responsibility makes a quick about-face. He breaks her phone, destroying the SIM card to hide the texts from Taylor. He goes into immediate damage control, telling Becca not to say anything to anybody, then destroys Steph’s (Hope Davis) weed stash. When Steph comes home, she wants to go to the police to admit Becca’s role. Dan knows that would be the end of his career; the positions he’s taken against Leslie would come back to end him. What would you do in his situation? Going to the police wouldn’t change Taylor’s sentence. Dan would lose his job. Becca would almost certainly get kicked out of Leyland. Would you make that sacrifice?
Speaking of responsibility, Eric is about to throw some at Kevin. They meet on a basketball court and Eric tells Kevin about the beatdown that Taylor took from Wes and other teammates before the shooting. Kevin claims not to know about it — is he lying? — then denies all responsibility for what happened. Eric says, “You’re the captain! You lead! But you always work it so you never have to take the blame.”
Finally, Sebastian gets to Anne. He tells her about the tech attack she’s already facing because of the leaked photos and medical records. “If you do something online, there’s got to be consequences,” he adds. Coming shortly after the Becca/Kevin scenes, one has to assume that Sebastian will discover the the young Ms. Sullivan’s drug dealing. Perhaps he’ll even find more details about the party and Taylor’s beating. So, why is he doing all of this? I’ll let him answer with his own words: “If you’re going to stand up for what’s right, sometimes you got to stand apart.”
- I’ve written before about how American Crime often highlights a different character or actor each week, but this episode is the season’s most well-rounded ensemble performance. Huffman, Hutton, King, the younger cast members — everyone had a moment or two and they all nailed them.
- What do you think Sebastian will uncover? Becca’s side job seems inevitable, given how Steph notes that it won’t help to destroy the SIM card. He’ll probably figure out who leaked the medical records, too. Will that be it?
- Of the returning cast members, who do you think has been better this season than last?
- And overall, do you think this season is better or worse than the first?