Caitlin Gerard
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“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”—The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

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When I read The Bell Jar for the first time, the proceeding passage jumped out at me. As a young girl who’d struggled with depression all her life, it felt edifying to know that my paralytic anxiety about making incorrect decisions was not unique and that I now had within my grasp a vivid description of what I had feared for so long. What I didn’t understand at the time and what it took me far too long into my adulthood to grasp is that that scenario, that fear of choosing wrong and spurning all of your golden opportunities, comes from a place of insane privilege.

It was a realization that I was reminded of yet again while watching “Episode Seven” of American Crime, as character after character was left in a position that had no feasible exit strategy, their trees completely out of figs. But ultimately, it’s not the fact that the characters are out of figs that’s the problem. We all run out eventually. It’s the fact that not all fig trees are created equally.

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We want to believe that every person that inhabits the United States operates on a level playing field, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are innumerable ways the balance gets shifted and with each shift, more half-ripe figs fall from the tree. In a truly gripping moment of transparency, Carter tells his sister what it really was that drove him to the life he leads. He tells her about the depression that haunted him day to day, despite his good job and stand-up life. Trapped, until Aubry, literally, saved him. Carter pursued the ripe fig that was offered to him and it left him miserable. What happens, then, when your entire future is nothing but spoiled fruit?

What makes this episode stand out—particularly from “Episode Six”—is the evenhandedness with which it operates. Things aren’t necessarily going off the rails across the board, but something even more insidious is happening: Their foundations are cracking. Barb meets with Mark’s fiancée and learns that he was telling stories of her racist leanings long before Matt was killed. Russ is fired from his job for lying about not being a felon on his application. Aliyah is trapped by the the guilt she feels for not being there for her brother when he needed her and the fact that there seems little to do for him and his circumstances. Eve looks for spiritual guidance, wondering how they can move on from an atrocity her daughter can’t remember and if keeping the truth from her means that they’re back to living a lie. Aubry tells the truth about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her foster brother and his friends in a power play that affords her a message to Carter. Alonzo is at loose ends when Tony ends up back in custody for his participation in last week’s beating and doesn’t have Jenny to turn to.

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The unifying quality that begins to emerge across all classes and races on American Crime is that everyone involved is trapped in unwinnable situations, from which there appears to be no escape. Even if Carter is convicted, Barb and her family will never have Matt back, nor will she stop being a virulent racist. Russ will always be a felon and struggle to get work because of it. Mark and his fiancée will always have to deal with his family. Carter likely won’t survive this stint in prison and if he does, what life will remain for him on the outside? Aliyah has no choice but to fight for her brother, come hell or high-water and so on and so forth.

American Crime is at its best when it finds a way to return to that unsettling unification that served as the hallmark of its early episodes, and in “Episode Seven” it managed to do so in the most disturbing way possible. Because what the show understands that most of us don’t want to comprehend is that the only time the playing field in the United States gets anywhere near level is when all hope is lost.

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Stray observations:

  • Hector seems at home in his new digs and anxious to start living up to his end of the bargain testifying against Carter. He also makes a mystery phone call during the episode that suggests he’s not as isolated as he might seem. Only time will tell if that ends up complicating his situation.
  • Aubry’s description of her time growing up was absolutely gut-wrenching. Caitlin Gerard handles such difficult material amazingly.
  • The same can be said of Elvis Nolasco (and, always, Regina King) during Carter and Aliyah’s heart to heart this week.
  • It turns out that Matt belonged to some anti-government movements and the city isn’t investigating any of Gwen’s ex-lovers. The city also wants nothing to do with investigating how the trial is being handled, so Carter’s not going to find any help on that front.
  • Jenny going to live with her aunt and uncle seems like the kind of stability she needs right now.
  • We finally find out what Hector’s deal down in Mexico is, as apparently he killed someone in the process of defending someone else, though now the person he was defending is going to testify against him. It sounds like a mess and likely is, considering he’d rather opt into the American criminal justice system.
  • This was a strong episode. I’m hopeful for the final four.

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