who is the turd burglar?

Let’s Talk About the End of American Vandal Season 2

Photo: Netflix

This is about the American Vandal finale! Don’t read this if you don’t want to be spoiled!

In American Vandal’s second-season finale, the show’s teen documentarians Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund wind up a long investigation with a grand summarizing speech about the role of social media for teens today. “We’re the first generation that gets to live twice,” Peter says, over a montage of tweets and silhouettes of teens staring at their buzzing mobile phones. “Our existences are simultaneously experienced and curated — presented, packaged, polished, for our own protection.” The speech is meant as a capstone. It’s a final reflection on the themes American Vandal’s second season weaves throughout its complicated, perpetually twisting story about secret identities and catfishing and teen social ostracization. It’s also, sadly, the weakest moment of the whole season.

Part of the genius of American Vandal’s first season was its refusal to land on an easy, reductive message. Toward the end, its primary interest was in dismantling the exploitative elements of true crime as a genre, but rather than a pure “this is bad” or “this is great” conclusion, Peter and Sam ended the season on a distinctly uncomfortable, ambiguous note. There were no pat answers, and nothing about it felt pedantic or simple.

Peter’s final speech in season two gestures in the same direction. Social media’s not just evil, he says. He calls it a mask, something teenagers use as a way to protect themselves against “a constant state of feedback and judgement.” It’s not only a way of lying about who you are; it’s a way to try on different identities. Social media is “a place to grow, discover, reinvent.” It has a purpose. But any suggestion that this might be opening out into a discussion of its true, messy complexity is then quickly eliminated by Peter’s follow-up point. Social media’s only useful if you can ignore it, he tells us. If your social-media identity is “a mask,” then the idea Peter lands on is the importance of “having people who know you without the mask, and being happy with who you are beneath it.”

Just in case there’s any doubt, the scene immediately preceding Peter’s big wrap-up speech is an even more succinct presentation of the same idea. It’s the last one-on-one interview with American Vandal’s season two protagonist, Kevin McClain, and he’s explaining his feelings about the entire school year. He, like several others at the school, was catfished by the real Turd Burglar — lured into an online-only romantic relationship with someone he thought was a young woman, but who was actually a vengeful expelled student named Grayson Wentz. Goaded into action by Grayson’s catfish ploy and feeling isolated from his other friends, Kevin performs the first, most serious act poop crime: He poisons the school’s lemonade. He thinks he’s doing it for love, but his digital relationship is actually with Grayson, who stole a young woman’s identity so he could use her as a bait to seek revenge for his expulsion. It was a terrible and dark experience, Kevin says in the final episode, and he’s completely embarrassed that he was taken in.

But Kevin is also glad he met Peter and Sam, and he tells them so. “You know, Peter, Sam, I really mean this,” he says. “I hope that we keep in touch. On social, you know. Or … in real life.” If you haven’t seen it, or if the pause in that last part doesn’t translate in prose, feel assured that it’s a highly meaningful pause, one that comes fully packaged with Kevin’s puppy-dog longing for real connection and real friendship. They could keep in touch on social, he tells them, but real life would obviously be the only way for them to truly connect.

It’s not that any of Peter’s argument here is untrue, and nothing that appears in American Vandal’s negative portrait of social media is inaccurate. Catfishing is real, social shunning is real, curated self-portraits are absolutely real, and many, many women have been hounded on their social feeds by men who’ve harassed them while also claiming it was all a joke. Social media can, in fact, be bad! It can be very, very bad — far worse, in fact, than anything American Vandal’s second season ever depicts. (For instance: death threats and Nazis!)

But the final minutes of the show flatten something far more nuanced into a trite closing thesis statement, one that closes off any the ambiguity or humor or color the previous seven episodes aimed to illuminate. And even in its short hundred-or-so words, the monologue doesn’t quite hang together. Peter says that his generation isn’t “the worst generation,” it’s just “the most exposed,” thus, his line about “the constant state of feedback and judgement.” This is why social media needs to be a mask, he says. It’s a form of “protection.” But that idea is inherently contradictory. Is it a mask, or is it exposure? Is it protection, or is it vulnerability? Either the problem with social media is that everyone’s fake — the primary scourge American Vandal’s second season wants to rail against — or the problem is that it’s too revealing, too perpetually present, too invasive.

The issue for American Vandal, and for all of us, is that social media is both of those things. It can be a veil and an unveiling. In the effort to speed toward a grand, sweeping resolution, though, American Vandal doesn’t seriously probe that befuddling internal contradiction. Instead, it’s easier to insist on the benefit of chucking the whole thing and instead suggest that we all go back to a time when we sat together in person and talked.

In the moment when Kevin reveals how Grayson manipulated him, he tells Peter and Sam about how much that relationship meant to him, how important it was to feel seen by someone, and how much that online romance filled his need for emotional connection. For American Vandal, the lesson of that experience was that it was all a disastrous fake. Kevin’s love interest wasn’t real, and so the entire experience was both painful and criminal. What it does not include, though, in this or in any of the season’s catfishing subplots, is that if any of the interactions had been real, social media would be the savior in this story. It’d be the way these kids finally found someone who saw them for who they were. Instead of making room for the possibility of social media as a way to find rewarding, supportive friendships, there’s an impulse toward simple indictment.

Social media is bad, and you need only look further into Grayson Wentz’s crimes to see it. He uses these social platforms to exploit his former classmates because they’re so vulnerable online, but he’s also getting revenge for being expelled. His initial offense? Sending gross tweets from school computers. American Vandal does try to give this some nuance as well, curbing the righteousness of Grayson’s punishment with the injustice of the school’s response in comparison with its leniency toward the athletes. Even that attempt at complexity still boils down to a fist-shaking “young people these days!” kind of simplicity, though: Grayson’s tweets were gross, and bad digital behavior by the school athletes is also gross. For American Vandal, there is no echoing positivity anywhere on the social-media landscape.

Much of the joy of American Vandal’s first season came from the palpable truth of its teen characters. They were unimpeachably themselves, neither falsely nostalgic or oddly adult. And for so much of season two, that same precise representation of the giddy, silly gravity of teen life comes through once again. Kevin’s almost unbearable quirkiness is plausible to the point of feeling excruciating. DeMarcus Tillman, another of Grayson’s catfishing victims, is an impeccable creation: a tangle of teenage arrogance and insecurity that could be a mess, and yet makes him a completely coherent, multifaceted character. So it’s telling that the one moment Kevin feels like something other than a teen — the one moment he utters something that seems stupidly scripted — is in that painful closing one-on-one. That clunky last line, “I hope we keep in touch. On social, you know,” is something no teen would dare utter (“on social”?!). And the cheesy, stilted follow-up, “or … in real life” would make anyone cringe, no matter the age. There are so many glimmers of potential in season two, and so many moments when it approaches the greatness of the fantastic first eight episodes. It’s too bad the ending gets tied off with such a clean, reductive, frustratingly grown-up conclusion.

Let’s Talk About the End of American Vandal Season 2