Tonight’s episode of American Crime is like an open wound, painful and deeply emotional from the first scene to the last. We may have seen a chapter of this season close, as the show presents us with conclusions for at least two of our major characters and introduces us to a pair of new ones. If this is the case — if showrunner John Ridley is daring enough this season to tell intertwining stories that don’t even span from first episode to finale as so much episodic TV does — then this will certainly be the most ambitious and impressive season of American Crime to date.
Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) is speaking to someone about his son. As a proud father, he speaks of how his boy liked to make people happy. But that’s not what the man he’s speaking to meant when he asked Luis about his son. He wanted to know if he had any distinguishing marks, like scars or tattoos, to help identify the body. It turns out that won’t be necessary. Luis turns through a notebook with blurry photos of battered faces of John Does. The camera focuses in the photo of a beaten face as Luis’s hand begins to shake and his breath catches. The body of Teo Salazar was pulled from a river. He’s been cremated. Luis will have to pay a fee just to get the ashes of his dead son. My God.
Another soul on the fringe of society is Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), who has to jump through ridiculous hoops this week just to get a legal abortion. She has been asked to help the legal system by testifying against her pimp, but the system keeps making it harder on her to do so. First, she is told she has to go in front of a judge to get a waiver or ask her parents for approval. Of course, she doesn’t want to do the latter, eventually telling a judge that she chose screwing guys in alleys for money over what she suffered at home. As Shae angrily points out, she shouldn’t have to ask to get an abortion from that kind of parent. The judge orders her to get an ultrasound, another device used in some states to discourage young women from going through with the procedure. Also in attendance, Kimara (Regina King) takes the ultrasound most emotionally, reminded of the fortune she’s going to spend to get further fertility treatments.
As we learn the dark details of Teo’s death, we also see another young man in a similar situation: Coy Henson (Connor Jessup). After his beating at the end of the last episode, he wants out. He’s told he owes $363 if he wants to leave — for room, food, and work supplies. Of course, he doesn’t have it, and he’s told to “work faster, earn more.” And yet, those charges will continue to accrue. This is the definition of indentured servitude — working for room and board. Coy calls his brother for help, but is given none.
This season has given us life in different social strata, focusing on the workers in the fields and the owners of those acres, primarily the Hesbys. Jeannette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), who married into this family, learned this week what being a non-blood member of the family means. After trying to get help for the struggling J.D. (Tim DeKay), she is rebuffed by the cold matriarch Laurie Ann (Cherry Jones), who even reveals that Jeanette’s husband Carson (Dallas Roberts) put a stop on the check she gave to the Workers Group after the fire deaths on Hesby land.
While Jeannette continues to realize how little human life, including possibly her own, matters to her family, we meet a new family of the socially elite, although this one appears on the verge of collapse. Through a series of scenes that primarily involve a new au pair from Haiti, we meet Claire (Lili Taylor) and Nicholas (Timothy Hutton). She’s a chipper, happy person. He is not. In his first scene, we see that Nicholas’s furniture business is struggling. The financial obligation to a Haitian au pair who speaks almost no English may be the breaking point for this relationship. How will their arc intersect with the Hesbys or Luis Salazar or Shae? Only time will tell, but it’s so great to have Taylor and Hutton in the ensemble again.
As they enter stage right, another pair of actors prepares to leave stage left. First, Luis calls home, but he’s unable to tell his wife Anna what he’s learned about their son. He does mention all the nice things he heard about him, how people liked him. It’s a heartbreaking subplot that gets more emotional and painful by the minute. Luis has noticed how Isaac (Richard Cabral) has treated Coy, who is even further in debt after being treated by doctors for the injuries inflicted by his boss and having to now work off the $35 doctor’s visit and associated painkillers.
Luis tells Coy to text Isaac and tell him to come there. He then orders Coy to leave. Luis is going to confront his son’s killer. We see Coy under a streetlamp as Isaac arrives to see Luis, who orders him, “Tell me about Teo.” As Coy downs a bottle of pills under the light, Luis shows Isaac he has a gun. Isaac seems to be remembering Teo, and we see flashbacks proving his guilt, and that Teo was the body in the river in the opening shot of the season. Isaac says, “I didn’t do nothing. Your son did it to himself.” Luis shoots him. When he falls, he shoots him two more times. We cut to Isaac’s dead eyes, and then cut to a parallel shot of Coy’s dead eyes, overdosed on pills in the same position. They’re both, in a sense, casualties of a broken, deadly system. Although, as Isaac almost predicted in their conversation about how overdosing is treated differently depending on race, Coy is saved. He asks to call his family.
Vengeance achieved, Luis heads home. We see him toss the gun in the river, and tell his wife he’ll be home soon. He boards a bus and heads south.
• Could Luis’s arc be over? I’ll miss Richard Cabral, such a strong and underrated actor, but I’m fascinated by the structure of this season, with one arc potentially ending four episodes in and a brand-new one starting with Taylor and Hutton. I wonder if they’ll keep this up.
• This season has been the most emotionally haunting yet. The closure of the Luis arc could help that a bit, but I have a feeling there’s still a lot of heartache to come.
• If this is the end for Luis, much praise to Benito Martinez, a fantastic actor since his days on The Shield.