Being judged on your appearance rather than the content of your character isn’t exactly remarkable territory for a series centered largely around race relations in the United States. Yet American Crime finds a way to dig into this material in a significant and unique way, simply by taking all of its various iterations and layering them into a single episode. Of course, the show has addressed the topic since the start, particularly with Alonzo and his latent intolerance of illegal immigrants, a point of view he has to deal with the fallout of again in “Episode Four” thanks to graffiti on his repair shop.
But in “Episode Four” the value of appearance is a thread that pops up over and over for nearly every character. We see it first with Aubry, in the wake of her NA meeting, after which her father informs her that they can’t put off her mother and brother any longer and that she’ll need new clothes and a haircut before she can see them, lest they suspect how truly fucked up she is. Barb is back at the salon we saw her visit last episode, determined to get her hair “fixed” after the previous stylist ruined it with her nefarious curling. She fixates on the small details because it’s clear she feels out of control with the larger details. Once her hair is fixed, Mark, who finally arrives this episode, remarks to her that it looks nice, that it makes her look younger.
Barb struggles with the idea of keeping up appearances throughout the episode, discussing a strategy for the bail hearing, in which Nancy advises her on what to wear. A dress, a skirt, good lines, neutral colors, things that seem inconsequential, to the point where Barb throws Nancy’s own daughters trial back in her face, leaving her to detail how she came into possession of this wardrobe wisdom. Nancy’s daughter was murdered by an uneducated, violent, shiftless man, who donned a suit and glasses in court and whose lawyer crafted a narrative about a lack of opportunities, while the media created an image of Nancy as a cold mother, who brought her daughter’s murder upon herself, all thanks to a blue dress she wore that she purchased in the hopes that it would make her feel strong for her daughter.
Carter, too, is tasked with cleaning up his appearance for the bail hearing, as directed by his sister, told to shave, look presentable, resist the image of the threatening black man the prosecution will paint him as. Similarly, Tony’s new friend in juvie gives him explicit instructions on how to get released, telling him what to say, how to behave, all in exchange for the comfort of being understood, having a community he can depend on inside and out, and ultimately, getting involved in drugs.
The thing that American Crime understands better than most any show on television is the fact that the facades we wear every day are the things that harm us most, while simultaneously being the things that set us free. Gwen’s parents are still struggling with the revelations about her sexuality, but what is preferable in her situation? Would Tom really rather have known who his daughter truly was all along or was the façade Gwen created for him of a plain, vanilla, loving daughter painstakingly crafted to try and shelter him from the hurt he would inevitably feel at learning the truth? Tony uses his façade to finally be free to return home, but doing so leaves him beholden to a lifestyle his father worked his entire life to keep him from. Nancy wants the victims’ families to look the part of good people with strong family values, regardless of its accuracy and regardless of the nebulousness of the entire concept of “good people with strong family values” might look like. Aubry is going through the motions of rehab and change, while still using. Carter has to decide whether to give up Aubry in order to be free. The distance between who we are and what people see us as is so wide and it’s never clear whether it’s more damaging to adopt the façade or not.
But perhaps the most interesting inversion of judging a book by its cover comes in the show’s use of Aliyah. A woman of tremendous faith, we see Aliyah in worship services, both delivering a message and receiving it, and the words we hear accompanying these scenes are powerful missives about doing good in the world and being grateful for what we are given, shunning materialism and embracing the truth. The tenor of the services, the way they are filmed, the messages, all sync with traditional depictions of Christianity.
But Aliyah is not a Christian. She is a Muslim. While Tom and Eve have been shown worshiping, American Crime chooses to spend the bulk of its time within a religion deeply misunderstood in America, shining a light on the fact that most organized religions are largely interchangeable and that interactions with people of faith, be the interactions good or bad, depend on the people, not the faith.
We see Aliyah meticulously affix her hijab and as an audience we have preconceptions on what that means, what kind of woman she is, what kind of person she is, and maybe most importantly, what she believes in. But what American Crime reminds us, what it never lets us forget, is that we have no idea who someone is, particularly not based on what they choose for us to see.
- I’m very excited about the prospect of Gwen waking up. She feels like an addition the show desperately needs at this point.
- Eve again makes reference to having far more information about the truth than anyone else, when she goes after Barb and suggests that if they want to point fingers and dig up skeletons that they should start with her.
- Mark’s arrival also portents a change for the show as he A. sure seems like he may have secret feelings for Gwen and B. immediately starts telling Barb’s secrets to anyone who will listen.
- Which is to say that Barb made Matt enlist after 9/11 because he was using and dealing drugs even then and she had no idea how to handle him.
- Good for Carter for finally being eligible for bail, now let’s see if he’s smart enough to take his sister up on her offer.
- Hector is still stranded in his own show, which is a shame. This week saw him paying the price for trying to get out of the game, just another way the system is rigged so that everyone loses.
- With Gwen potentially waking up, I’ll be fascinated to see how the show handles her sexual proclivities. Hopefully they don’t indulge in typical shaming behavior that often surrounds individuals who aren’t interested in monogamy. (We don’t know that Matt disapproved of her dalliances. It’s entirely possible they had an arrangement. Please don’t leave 100 comments speculating and name-calling.)
- “Sellable is a reach, your honor.” “What would you call it? A lifetime supply?” Come on, Barb. That was a little funny.