The third episode of what’s shaping up to be the best season of American Crime is a heartbreaking hour about people on the edge of existence. We hear a young man nearly brag about how many times he’s died from drug overdoses. We hear another teenager speak about almost being killed by a john. We watch a woman realize her husband has a different moral code when it comes to the value of human life. And we see a man get closer to the truth about his son’s likely death at the hands of a monster.
“Episode Three” opens with the startling scene of a woman being raped in the fields where she’s forced to work by her boss, Diego (Clayton Cardenas). We later learn that these fields are sometimes referred to as “The Green Motel” and that the women who struggle every day in these harsh conditions are basically treated as property by their employers. The episode subtly ties two story arcs together, bringing the conditions in the fields where Coy Henson (Connor Jessup) works into the narrative of Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), who is looking for his son. After those opening images, Coy spots the rapist zipping up his pants. He goes back to work.
So does Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), who’s essentially working for the shelter where she lives for room and board, scrubbing kitchens and taking drug tests. Shae is struggling to find herself this episode, but she realizes she has more of an ally in Kimara (Regina King) than she may have first expected. It starts with her opening up in group therapy, after listening to another former prostitute’s story of being beaten nearly to death. Her story isn’t the traditional TV confessional, though. She doesn’t have a breakthrough as much as free-flow talk about Billy, her pimp, who’s now in jail. She seems almost nostalgic for a life she can’t have with him, raising the child with whom she is now pregnant. It’s a beautifully character-driven moment of the kind we don’t often see on network TV.
It didn’t dawn on me until this episode what’s likely to happen next in the saga of Shae and Kimara. We cut from a scene of Shae talking about her pregnancy to one of Kimara learning she won’t be assisted in her search for a sperm donor. It seems likely that Kimara will end up adopting Shae’s child, or at least helping her through the pregnancy. I could be wrong, but Kimara desperately wants to be a mother and Shae does not. Later in the episode, Kimara discovers that Shae has stolen a phone, which she’s not allowed to have in the shelter. But Shae doesn’t want to contact someone — she wants to use the camera to capture the world around her. Kimara gives it back to her, strengthening their bond as she tells her to hide it well.
Parenthood is also a theme in Luis’s arc, as he’s fueled by the need to know what happened to his son. His investigation leads him to a man who remembers seeing him on another farm. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to not know where your son is or what happened to him and constantly meet people who saw him but don’t know why he’s disappeared? Luis has to know something is tragically wrong, but he needs answers. His journey will lead him to Coy, Diego, and Isaac (Richard Cabral) after he meets a young woman who tells him that Teo made her laugh in the fields. The bosses didn’t like that and one of them, who bears a resemblance to Diego, went to rape her. Teo stepped in and was dragged off, never to be seen again.
Before Luis and Coy’s arcs fully intersect, we see exactly how much violence and abuse trickles downhill in this world. Isaac seems like a genuine person, trying to encourage Coy to work harder in the fields. In one of the episode’s best scenes, Coy speaks about the first time he overdosed, and the fear that comes with dropping into a space in which you put yourself without being able to get out. Isaac’s response is interesting: He notes that his people (and other minorities) aren’t usually saved when they overdose. Even this far down the social ladder, racial politics come into play. No one was there to turn death into a future anecdote when drugs were tearing up minority communities.
In one of the episode’s final scenes, Coy learns just how close he is to the edge of existence. Diego has had enough — possibly because he saw Coy in the “Green Motel,” possibly just because he’s an abusive asshole and wants to teach both Coy and Isaac a lesson. He yells at Coy for his basket not being full, knocking it to the ground and kicking it over every time that Coy tries to fill it again. After Coy gets a backhand that knocks him to the ground, he turns his rage on Isaac, someone he considers a friend. He yells at him and marches off, but you don’t leave what is essentially slavery. Isaac drives after him, jumps out of his truck, and in a long shot from a distance, we see Isaac brutally beating Coy. In one particularly awful moment, he takes a running start before kicking him. Workers fill the fore of the frame, including Luis, who walks toward the camera, angrily, knowing that this is probably where his son died. This might even be how it happened.
While that horror goes down, Jeannette Hesby (Felicity Huffman) continues her quest for awareness. In last week’s episode, she learned more about the deaths of over a dozen people on her husband’s farm, and she’s increasingly frustrated by how little is being done about it. Carson (Dallas Roberts) seems just to want his wife to shut up, but she may have found a friend and ally in her brother-in-law J.D. (Tim DeKay), a man clearly rattled by years of cover-ups on Hesby Farms. The episode ends with the two of them at a meeting, and a crucial line for the entire series: “What you can’t do is be ignorant.”
• The performances this week may have been the most universally impressive in what’s been a ensemble-driven show since episode one. The minute you think you know who the MVP is this season, someone else steals an episode. Felicity Huffman, Benito Martinez, Connor Jessup, Regina King — they’re all so perfectly in-the-moment, building characters instead of just selling messages.
• Could these stories be happening on different timelines? We haven’t seen much interaction from the Coy-Isaac-Luis arc with the Jeanette-J.D.-Hesby arc. (We saw Luis witness the aftermath of an incident before learning about the fire, but that could have been a different incident.) Or even Kimara-Shae. What if these arcs aren’t simultaneous? Just a thought as to how that would play dramatically. We’ll see.
• Last week, I suggested that it would be nice if American Crime regulars like Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor were incorporated into this season. Good news: They will be appearing soon.