Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, W. Earl Brown, Penelope Ann Miller

Parents pass a lot of things on to their children. They can be basic things like eye color or nose shape, height or complexion or they can be more burdensome things like genetic predisposition to disease or mental illness. But at times it seems like there’s really nothing a parent can pass on to their child that’s more harmful than their own baggage. It is perhaps the most pyrrhic of victories of nurture over nature, that the environment in which you bring up your child could do far more harm to them than most anything lurking in a genetic code.

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If it understands nothing else, American Crime understands the damage and hurt that is intrinsically linked to some familial relationships and “Episode Two” showcases that as much as anything. Throughout the episode, much like in the pilot, Russ is made to feel intense guilt over the way in which he abandoned his family when they needed him most. While his late son Matt seemed to come to a sort of peace with it, eventually giving over to weekly phone calls with his dad, it’s clear that such forgiveness does not extend to Russ’ ex-wife Barb. It’s fascinating to watch the point come up again and again, with a variety of people, be it Matt’s in-laws or friends, people who’ve never met Russ before know this simple fact about him: he left.

Which really makes for one of the most fascinating elements of the series so far. Death is most often a great tragedy, particularly when it strikes violently or unexpectedly. Under those circumstances alone, these would make for trying times for even the most well-adjusted of individuals, but mixing that grief with the outrage of what is thought (by the parents, at least) to be an unprovoked murder, all while constantly being reminded of your own sins, make a kind of deadly cocktail of bile and anger that only serves to corrode the remaining relationships.

Much of the episode is given over to different parents learning uncomfortable truths about the children they thought they knew so well. Barb is informed by Russ and then by the police investigators that a large amount of drugs, far beyond an amount considered reasonable for personal use, was found in Matt and Gwen’s home upon investigation. Barb is incensed, convinced that this is a way for the police department to weasel out of responsibility and attempting to blame the victim for the crime that took his life. Her vitriol reaches new levels in “Episode Two” as she essentially lumps the African-American woman investigation the crime in with one of her patented “you people” insults and reaches out to a victim advocate before regaling her with her despair that it’s not a hate crime if you’re white. Barb may not want to face the truth about her son and likely never will, as denial seems to be bred into her bones. She is convinced she did a good job as a mother, did the best she could, but fails to realize something that will certainly dawn on all the characters before series end: sometimes your best isn’t good enough.

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It’s a concept that Gwen’s parents Eve and Tom are struggling with at present as well, even though it may not be necessary. As Gwen remains unconscious and hospitalized, they learn that it appears that she was not raped as originally suspected. That rather, Gwen likely participated in consensual sex involving several participants. Eve and Tom are taken aback, being as they are good Christians, with Tom going so far as to question how he can ever look at his daughter the same way, knowing what he does. To her credit, Eve stops this line of thinking in its tracks, pulling up photos of the daughter they cherish and telling him to remember her like that.

It’s easy, as you age, to recall the first time you look at your parents and realize that they are not the people you always assumed them to be. That they had lives long before you arrived. That they did things you never imagined. For some people that is disappointing, a horrible betrayal of a covenant that never existed, and for others it’s enlightening, seeing their parents for the first time as humans they can relate to, as opposed to wardens keeping them in check. What fewer people live to experience, as the dynamic is not quite the same, is the moment when you realize that your child is not the person you always assumed them to be. But it’s damaging to look at another human being, even if they carry your DNA, and think that your influence on them was enough to dictate the entirety of their person.

But few storylines this week were as devastating as the one unfolding within the Gutiérrez family. With Tony entering the juvenile correction facility, his father Alonzo and sister Jenny seek out a lawyer to help figure out their options. It’s there that Jenny learns that it was her father who encouraged Tony to speak to the police without a lawyer present and led to his subsequent arrest. In the wake of this revelation, Jenny is furious, lashing out at her father for his mistake and telling him that he’s just like the police. He’s suspicious of brown people in hoodies, hates himself for not being white and hates his children for looking like him. Alonzo is rattled by her accusations but they weigh even heavier when Tony parrots similar sentiments to his probation intake officer, detailing how his father would talk about how he would always just be a Mexican to people if he didn’t strive to always be the best. Though Alonzo may never have been aware of his deep-seated self-loathing, it seems clear that his children picked up on the message loud and clear.

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The ties that bind parents and children are simultaneously precarious and tenacious. They are interwoven with doubt and expectations and misconceptions but they are difficult to break, even after death. There is a hope, in the love that binds parent and child, perhaps no better articulated in Aubry, hitting rock bottom, and calling for help from whom one can only assume is her father. He tells her he won’t do this again. That she has to tell him where she is. She has to stay connected, no matter how badly she wants to disconnect. And then he sends her the money she requests. She gathers it, heads to a hotel, checks in, showers, and luxuriates in the nicest place she’s been in God knows how long. Though it pains her, she eventually reaches out to the phone, places a call, mutters the hotel she’s staying at, and hangs up. Sometimes we can’t cut those ties, no matter how hard we try.

Stray observations:

  • Having so many characters on a show means that some often get short shrift, a regrettable reality that hopefully we can rectify in week’s to come.
  • Arraignment took place this episode, which mostly meant that Barb had an opportunity to harangue her in-laws about going to church to pray for their daughter instead of coming to the hearing. “You can pray anywhere,” she says. She’s such a peach.
  • There’s a lot of great visual work being done on this series. I’m a particular fan of using speech over alternate shots of the characters where they are lost in thought, as well as the flashes of memories that crop up as though they cannot be contained.
  • Though I completely get where the Carlins are coming from wanting to bury Matt in Oakland so that Gwen can be near him, it’s a tricky call. However, assuming Gwen wakes up in time, I assume that’s ultimately her decision to make, unless Matt has a completely out of date will. She’s his wife. Barb is out of control.
  • The use of “Holy, Holy, Holy” while intercutting the prayer service, arraignment, and prison was lovely.
  • Also, the dreamy nature of the fantasies/memories/dreams of Carter and Aubry are really special.
  • Also, I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared for Tony’s arc. He’s just a baby and he’s too soft for whatever’s coming for him.
  • Hector’s getting extradited to Mexico, which I assume is leading to the backdoor pilot for ABC’s new fall premiere, Mexican Crime.
  • That is not a thing.
  • See, it would be in MEXICO….
  • Finally, it’s awesome to have Lili Taylor show up because she is amazing even if she’s Barb’s new best friend.

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