American Crime Episode 2 spotlighted even more of what impressed me so much in the first episode — the unique, by television standards, filming style of John Ridley. Reading some responses to American Crime on Twitter when it debuted last week, I found some folks were not necessarily as intrigued and seemed somewhat confused at times. To be fair, it does take some adjustment.
The quietness, especially in some of the extended scenes, is among the things that threw people off, if not outright bothered them, the most. There is little music to accentuate how you are supposed to be feeling; instead; we hear the relative quietness of everyday life, punctuated by things like birdsong, doors closing, and other things that we probably take so much for granted that we hardly notice them. And the quietness is occasionally disturbed by rapid, violent action or verbal attacks and arguments, which then ease away into more of the quietness. As I alluded to in my previous recap, this style also lends itself to the sense of being in a dream, or the feeling of almost sleepwalking through certain circumstances, as any person who has been through trauma may feel like. And the characters in this series certainly are put through an emotional wringer, so it makes sense that they are seen as worn down physically, mentally and emotionally, sometimes to the point where they simply zone out and are not hearing things going on around them (as in a scene in Episode 2 when Hector, and we as the viewers observing his scene, are unable to hear whomever is speaking to him at the police station; it’s a drone not unlike what we hear from Charlie Brown’s teacher in the old cartoons).
The question of this filming style was brought up to Ridley at a press conference earlier this year, and his answer says a lot about the style of the show. “More than anything else I really wanted to do a show that was observant,” he said, and that is exactly what American Crime feels like. We are flies on the wall, sometimes almost feeling awkward, as if spying on deeply personal conversations.
“I wanted to be able to create a space that was observant,” Ridley continued, before talking about not needing music to underscore emotions. “I think oftentimes in life, the sound of the camera clicking, the sound of the microphone, that’s the soundtrack.”
Episode 2 of American Crime uses all of these techniques to effectively convey the emotional and physical isolation among most of our main characters. Early on, during Carter’s arraignment, we see Russ and Barb (Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman) sitting separately, literally on different sides of an aisle, not even able to come together momentarily in the wake of their son’s murder.
Between her resentment of her ex-husband, her bigotry toward “those people,” her mistrust of police handling of the case and a general icy personality, Barb isolates herself during a time when she needs help the most. Her character in general seems to be one of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” types who can never accept, and certainly would never ask for, a hand, never realizing there is no shame in doing so.
This is particularly evident in a couple of scenes from Episode 2. In one scene, Russ and Barb are meeting with Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve (W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller). Gwen’s parents hold out hope that their daughter will recover, and they believe that Matt should be buried in Oakland, so his wife can be near him. Barb seems cool to this idea, and even begins passively aggressively lecturing the Carlins on how they should have been at Carter’s arraignment (they were instead at a church service, praying for Gwen). While they think being at the relatively quick arraignment was not necessarily important, Barb thinks it says something about the victims if they don’t all stand together. Tom barely conceals his anger as he gets up and takes his wife away with him. He later tells Russ to do everything he can to fight Barb on the burial issue, and resents how Barb seems to look down on the Carlins’ religious beliefs. During the conversation between Russ and Tom, it’s also implied that Matt and Gwen’s marriage may not have been as blissful as it seemed.
In a quiet parking garage following Carter’s arraignment, walking to their separate cars, Russ tries to engage Barb about the details of Matt’s burial. Barb is not open at all to burying Matt in Oakland. Russ also tries to bring up what the police suggested regarding Matt possibly dealing drugs. Barb, of course, will hear none of such slander against her son. A viewer gets the feeling that Barb’s overprotectiveness of her son’s reputation goes beyond a mother standing up for her son, and may stem for her desire to want to protect her own reputation. She was the one who primarily raised her boys when Russ abandoned them. If her son ended up doing questionable things, how would that reflect on her?
Earlier, Russ had visited a friend of Matt’s to try to determine if there may be some truth to the drug-dealing suggestion. The friend admits to Russ that Matt smoked weed on occasion, but beyond that seems reticent to discuss more. It’s hard to tell if the friend genuinely doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to tell.
Even after Russ’ talk with the friend, Barb won’t hear any of it. She goes to her old standby of impugning Russ’ fatherhood, decrying the fact that he thinks he knows something just because he dug up a number of Matt’s friend. She leaves the parking lot, and Russ wanders quietly out, alone only with the occasional flashbacks of Matt we see from his perspective (we see Russ remembering Matt Skyping from Iraq in this episode).
Even when dealing with the police, Barb ends up isolating herself. Visiting the police station, Barb is visibly stunned to discover that Det. Chris Thompson (Marlyne Barrett), who is also working on her son’s case, is an African American woman (she’s the one who asked Russ about Matt’s potential drug-dealing last week). After just a few minutes, Barb gets up and leaves the meeting, demanding to see Det. Palmer, again going into one of her sadly familiar “you people” rants before departing.
Carter (Elvis Nolasco) is, of course, physically isolated from Aubry (Caitlin Gerard), at his arraignment, where he is denied bail. As he sits in court, we see his daydream of being back with Aubry, in a field, far away from their current circumstances, before he (and us) are snapped back to the reality of slamming cell doors and buzzers. Carter and Aubry catch glimpses of each other in the hearing, with Carter barely listening to what the judge is telling him, as he tries to mouth words to Aubry before being taken back to jail.
Aubry is given probation, but even though released, is still isolated. Demanding to see Carter in jail, she is told that she is not allowed. At a restaurant, she wistfully smiles as she watches an elderly couple holding hands like a couple of kids. She then proceeds to steal the payment and tip they left for the waitress, then uses the cash to get a quick meth fix from a dealer at a club. During her high, she, too, has a dream of being back with Carter, before being snapped back into the harsh reality of her world, and instead of being in the wooded field of her dream, she is lying in an alley, the metallic sounds of a nearby factory in the background.
Trying to get back into her old place, Aubry has a brief, but loud confrontation with the landlord, who kicks her out for bringing the police to his place. At a gas station, Aubry calls someone, and a male voice answers. I’m presuming it’s her father, because she asks for money, and it’s clear this is not the first time she’s done so. The man asks where she is, and she tells him she’s in Modesto. Sounding surprised and disappointed, the man still agrees to give her the money she needs (“a lot,” she tells him, when he asks how much). But he tells her to promise to call and let him know where she settles in if he sends her the money, and she does.
The man wires $2,000 to the gas station. Aubry takes it and leaves, checking into a pretty nice hotel (odd that a hotel like that would accept cash). After cleaning up and getting into bed, Aubry quickly calls the man back and tells him what hotel she is at, then hangs up.
Also isolated in this episode are Tony Gutiérrez (Johnny Ortiz), his father, Alonzo (Benito Martinez) and sister Jenny (Gleendilys Inoa). Tony, of course, is physically isolated, having been arrested for murder after admitting to renting his father’s car to Hector, the car ultimately implicated as being used during Matt’s murder and Gwen’s assault. Talking to a lawyer, Alonzo is frustrated when told what a serious situation his son is in. If indicted on murder, Tony could be facing a long time behind bars, and could be tried as an adult. If indicated on lesser charges, he could be tried as a juvenile and possibly be paroled.
As he was during the original police questioning with his son, Alonzo is stunned that doing things “the right way” have turned into such a nightmare. His lawyer asks Alonzo what I’m sure viewers were wondering at the time: Why didn’t he and Tony wait for a lawyer before answering questions. “The second he asks for a lawyer, everything stops,” the lawyer tells Alonzo. “I didn’t know,” Alonzo mutters regretfully, with Jenny looking at her father in astonishment and disappointment.
Meanwhile, Tony is thrust into jail life, and even though he is in the juvenile area, things are rough from the outset. Other kids taunt him, calling him “bitch,” insulting his mother and making him move from cot to cot. Tony maintains relative cool, but you can see underneath he is simultaneously seething and afraid.
At home, things are blowing up between Alonzo and his daughter. Jenny has blown off her father’s phone calls, and the tension comes to a head when she calls him out for not standing up for Tony more at the police questioning. Alonzo does not like his daughter’s impertinence, but he is especially floored when she levels the accusation at him that he hates not being white. Even worse, she accuses her father of hating his kids for looking like him. Jenny leaves, and Alonzo can not even get a word out before that, he is so taken aback. He sits down, breathless, looking both stunned and guilty, as if Jenny as in fact hit a mark that he has not even realized was there.
We hear something similar from Tony as he meets with a parole information officer. At one point, Tony rails against his father constantly telling him that white people will only ever view him as “just a Mexican” if he gets in trouble, joins gangs, has tattoos, etc. The officer explains that it’s a father’s job to have those concerns, but Tony flat out states that he is kind of happy that, for once, he did something to piss off his father.
During the episode, we see a little bit of what is happening to Hector (Richard Cabral). Still unable to walk due to his gunshot wound, he is wheeled into jail in a bed, his questions about if he will be seeing a doctor ignored. At one point when he is first brought in, he is left next to Carter, probably in hopes that their conversation will lead to some admission. Carter asks Hector why he ratted him out, but Hector explains he only said what he needed to. Later, in meeting with a lawyer, Hector learns that there is a warrant for murder out on him from Mexico, and that he will be extradited.
Near the end of the episode, Tom and Eve find themselves having to face tough questions about their daughter, much as Russ and Barb have had to about their son. Tom tells Eve that the police told him the rape kit on Gwen came back negative — the man who shot her does not appear to have been the one who raped her. In fact, the test indicates more than one man had intercourse with Gwen, and police are viewing it as consensual. Much like Barb found it hard to believe anything negative about her son, so the Carlins can’t conceive of their daughter being involved with several men while married. Eve demands Tom give her his phone; when he eventually does, she brings up pictures of Gwen he has on there, looking at perfect photos of their beautiful daughter perhaps to to drown out any questionable thoughts that might arise from the police conclusions.
As the episode ends, Barb has finally found someone with whom she may connect in common cause, a victims’ rights advocate named Nancy (Lili Taylor). Barb opens up and lets loose her feelings and frustrations to the woman, nervously admitting “I shouldn’t be saying this” before going into another rant about reverse racism, sarcastically saying how “hate crimes can’t happen to white people.”
“There is nothing I won’t do for my child,” Barb firmly tells Nancy, and as the episode ends, Barb’s words are heard not only over her scene, but also over images of Tony’s dad, and the Carlins with their daughter in the hospital. Barb may not realize it, but the various characters, while mostly isolated from each other in various ways, are still interconnected in their deep grief and pain, and in the fact that they all would do anything for their children.
Photos: ABC/Felicia Graham