The final shot of what could be American Crime’s final episode perfectly captures what this show has been about for three years. What other TV show about crime ends with the start of the trial? There are plenty of crime shows in which the bad guy gets sent to jail, sending us into the credits feeling comfortable, but John Ridley’s program is about way more than that. It’s not called American Justice, after all. That’s why it feels appropriate to end the season with shots of victims: Teo (Andrew Steven Hernandez), Shae (Ana Mulvoy Ten), and Isaac (Richard Cabral), three people destroyed by a broken system.
We open with a fourth victim: Gabrielle Durand (Mickaëlle X. Bizet), still in the hospital after getting arrested at the end of last week’s episode for kidnapping Nicky Coates. She’s drugged up, but we’ll soon learn the source of her pain and fear. It turns out that Gabrielle was never self-harming; she was being abused by Clair (Lili Taylor), who was herself mentally abused by her awful husband, Nicholas (Timothy Hutton). This was a primary theme this season: the trickle-down impact of abuse, whether it’s in the power structure on a farm run by immigrant labor or behind closed doors in a family home. Clair was emotionally and mentally abused by Nicholas, and she lashed out by physically abusing Gabrielle. One of the season’s most haunting scenes has to be Clair describing how she burned Gabrielle with hot water and enjoyed it.
This revelation is balanced by the tragic saga of Dustin (Kurt Krause), who decides to confess to Kimara (Regina King) what he knows about Shae’s murder. The scene in which Kimara realizes that Shae was the girl who was stabbed in the webcam house — followed by the scenes of Kimara essentially giving up on her idealism — are a heartbreaking conclusion to the season’s most complete arc. We’ve been following Kimara since the beginning, watching as she faced hurdle after hurdle in her efforts to save young people from the street. The realization that Shae and her unborn child were murdered has finally broken Kimara. In the end, she asks for more money — funds that she knows will be diverted from resources — and decides to use the income to help with another round of IVF. Who can blame her? The only child she may be able to save is her own. The system, which arrests Dustin for trying to help, is just too broken.
The third arc in this finale belongs to Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), who is forced back into the relationship and business she fled because of her sister Raelyn’s (Janel Moloney) drug use. Raelyn will be sent to jail for at least 18 months, so Jeanette is going to have to raise her nieces. She can’t do it alone, so she returns to Carson (Dallas Roberts), looking for both money and stability. He’s upset that this is how he’s getting his wife back, but he relents, agreeing to make things work.
The body language in these scenes is a master class in acting. In the first one between Jeanette and Carson, she’s clutching her purse and his arms are crossed, both characters standing as if they’re too uncomfortable to sit. Later, when they go to see Lori Ann (Cherry Jones), Jeanette is hunched over with her hands in her lap, almost like a child about to be punished by a parent. My favorite moment of the season may be the look on Jeanette’s face when Carson stands up for her, finally defending his wife and asking Lori Ann for support. The camera holds on Jeanette as Carson speaks, her eyes carefully scanning his face as if she’s never seen this person before.
The final montage of the season is a crucial one: Dustin, Raelyn, and Clair all going to their hearings, as the season’s other characters fill the courtroom and we see the real victims standing in the back. It’s important to note the impact on the children in these scenes. What will happen to Raelyn’s kids? Nicholas is told he’ll have to take care of his son while Clair goes to jail. And Dustin is still a child. They’re also victims. Even Gabrielle’s son, Yves, is portrayed as a victim, castigating his mother for taking care of other people’s children instead of him. This is a notable issue in America — women who leave their own families to take care of others — but it felt like a late thematic addition to an already-crowded season, and one of the few scenes that doesn’t really work in the finale.
If we have so many victims, who are the villains? Dustin is caught for being an accessory, but not the woman who killed Shae nor the man who covered it up. Clair will do time, but her husband won’t. Luis killed Isaac, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Consider those three victims standing in the back; none of their killers are on trial. This has been the most complex season of American Crime in that regard, challenging the way we process and identify crime, portraying it as a product of a system and social hierarchy more than individual actions.
American Crime has proven that rich, detailed storytelling is still possible on network TV. Years ago, shows like this jumped to cable and streaming services, leaving little more than reality TV and mystery-of-the-week procedurals to dominate the networks. But the ratings have never quite been there for this critically acclaimed show, despite Emmy wins in both of its first two seasons and an almost certain nomination for this one. Will the critical accolades and awards be enough for ABC to renew American Crime? I truly hope so. Not a lot of people watch it, but those who do are loyal, and it certainly helps a network to have a critically beloved show in its lineup. Here’s my unsolicited advice: Get American Crime away from overcrowded Sunday nights, premiere it at a time when it won’t compete with dozens of other shows for attention, and trust that people will find it in the long run. A show this good is bound to find its audience eventually.
• The last couple of episodes felt a little rushed, and I wonder if this season wouldn’t have been richer at ten episodes instead of eight.
• The season’s MVP is Regina King once again, and she’s probably a front-runner for her third consecutive Emmy. Still, Felicity Huffman had her best season yet. And don’t forget Benito Martinez, who was phenomenal in only four episodes. Who was your MVP?
• If this is the last episode of American Crime, I want to take a second to thank you all for reading. It’s been a pleasure to discuss and dissect it every week. Here’s hoping there’ll be more to come next year.