It’s a bit early to say for sure, but American Crime is starting to feel reminiscent of HBO’s masterful The Wire in the way it dissects the infrastructure of city living. In this episode, John Ridley and his team draw parallels between the sex trade and the immigrant labor force, pointing out how ill-equipped society seems to be to address either issue, while also defining what will clearly be a major theme of the season: the systems and structures that exploit people in need.
“Episode 2” picks up right where we left off, with social worker Kimara (Regina King) speaking to Shae (Ana Mulvoy Ten) after her arrest for prostitution. Shae isn’t facing any charges, but they want her to testify against her pimp: Because Shae is only 17, he can be charged with trafficking a minor, a Class D felony. But they need her testimony. She’s reluctant, but Kimara can be persuasive. You get the impression she’s had this conversation dozens of times. While Kimara clearly means well, Ridley is quick to indemnify the system here, as Shae notes that the trial won’t arrive for at least nine months. How is she supposed to live in the meantime? Kimara offers to put her in a jobs program and a shelter, but the slow pace of justice is one of the reasons why cases like Shae’s fall apart.
As Shae trades one system for another, Luis (Benito Martinez) sees the true threat to America’s immigrant workforce: When undocumented workers get hurt or even die, it goes unreported, meaning unsafe conditions rarely change and workplace injuries become commonplace. Luis is there at night when word of workers getting hurt on the Hesby Farms lot goes through the crew. We later learn that 15 people died in a fire, news that Carson Hesby (Dallas Roberts) gets while he’s shopping for expensive furniture with his wife, Jeanette (Felicity Huffman). It’s not a coincidence that the first two Hesby scenes this week are framed by opulence: shopping and partying.
While Jeanette Hesby’s world is about to collapse, we witness what is essentially the abuse of a young man overworked on a tomato farm, made dependent on his handler. The man is Coy (Connor Jessup), who we first see passing out from the conditions in the fields. The man who got him the job, Isaac (Richard Cabral), yells at him to get back to work, pushing him back into the heat.
Coy’s situation is visually paralleled with Shae’s in the following scenes, as she’s told she has to take mandatory GED classes to stay in the shelter where she now resides. While the danger levels are much different, as are the legalities, the fact is that she’s going from one restrictive system to another. Shae makes that comparison herself by noting that she only had to sleep five girls to a room when she was with her pimp, instead of the seven in her present situation. Kimara notices the futility of it all, too, telling a friend and colleague, Abby Tanaka (Sandra Oh), that she feels like she’s “on this lifeboat that only holds ten people.” She used to try to get 100 people on it anyway, but now accepts that ten is all she can get. She’s burning out, and who can blame her?
We finally learn why Luis is in North Carolina: He’s trying to find his son, Teo (Andrew Steven Hernandez), who was working on the same farm and sending back money — until the cash stopped coming. With no way to get ahold of him, Luis came north to find out what happened. His investigation leads him to a man named Da’uud, who he pays $20 for what he knows: Teo told a lot of stories, and his big mouth got him in trouble with the bosses. After a fight one day, he left, probably to work on another farm, and likely under even worse conditions. Luis strikes out to find his son, but only after yelling at the boss who tries to stop him. Luis is not only going to find Teo — he’s likely to cause some trouble for this corrupt, deadly system along the way.
Luis is almost certain to cross paths with Isaac, who’s basically being told that he’s not hard enough on his employees. There’s a distinct cycle of abuse and dependence in this world, and Luis passes it down when he wakes up Coy — first to give him a pep talk about working harder, then to give him drugs to keep him addicted. They’re going work this young man to shreds, using him until he’s no good to them anymore. Might Coy’s body be the one floating in the water in the opening shots of the season? He’s the obvious choice, but I worry about his fate, even if he doesn’t wind up dead. Jessup is brilliant at conveying his character’s vulnerability.
Speaking of vulnerability, Kimara shows an awful lot of it to her brother-in-law, Reggie (Sean Blakemore). She visits him and the two reminisce about the relationship they almost had. Then Kimara tells him about how she’s trying and failing to get pregnant. She’s tired of the clinical nature of fertility treatments — another system that can reduce humanity to an unemotional process — and she asks him to be the sperm donor for the child she so desperately wants.
The final act of “Episode 2” is devoted to the social enlightenment of Jeanette Hesby. First, she notices that her brother-in-law J.D. (Tim DeKay) is drinking too much and fighting with his mother, Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones). He’s angry and/or guilty about the fire, but Carson and Laurie Ann aren’t letting Jeanette in to help. Laurie Ann blows her off with a nonsense answer about “prayers” and Carson is a total dick the next morning, telling Jeanette that she needs to go talk to her sister. He’s dodging his wife’s concerns about 15 unreported deaths by accusing her of having family issues. Ugh. Jeanette doesn’t go to her sister’s; instead, she goes to the lot where the workers lived and died. She sees the conditions, including the chicken wire on the windows that trapped them inside as the fire raged. It’s a horrific revelation, the kind that opens a person’s eyes to the terrors of the world. Jeanette won’t be the same.
• It’s going to be a tough Emmy year in the miniseries category, given the big-name actors in Feud and Big Little Lies, but Regina King has likely already locked up a nomination. She’s just that good. The scene in which Kimara discusses her struggles with fertility is phenomenal.
• American Crime has taken flack in the past for overemphasizing its themes, but this season feels more mature and nuanced than ever. Let’s hope Ridley keeps that up.
• I love the new faces, but I hope a few of the old ones return as the season progresses. I’d love to see small roles for Lili Taylor and Timothy Hutton, in particular. Three-year vet Richard Cabral didn’t appear in season two until more than halfway through, so it’s certainly possible.