The unsolved murder-rape of “perfect couple” Matt and Gwen Skokie in American Crime’s pilot episode detonated like an atomic bomb for an inter-related cross-section of characters: two pairs of grief-stricken parents and a trio of suspected murderers in police custody. But no less compellingly, the alleged killers’ loved ones are also undone by the trauma. And further unifying their disparate story lines in Episode 2, the crimes’ aftereffects ripple outward in concentric circles of heartache to encompass the five stages of grief and loss.
Anger: Refusing to stray from her self-imposed script of victim’s advocacy—that is, refusing to countenance the idea Matt was ever anything less than a dedicated husband and valorous veteran—Barb grows toxic with rage when Russ informs her that detectives have found drug dealer-sized quantities of crystal meth and marijuana at the crime scene. There’s an ugly sequence of “what the hell do you know about anything?” finger-pointing in a hospital parking lot. But soon after, Barb trains her barely-suppressed hostility at the female African-American police detective assigned to Matt’s case when she confirms the existence of a drug trove in his house.
“I know what you’re doing: blame the victim,” Barb seethes. “Make it his fault so you don’t look bad. These people shot my son and they raped my daughter in law. And if you keep spreading these lies, there is going to be a problem.”
It’s increasingly clear she has stifled all impulses toward grief with outpourings of white-hot anger. And that pointed reference to “these people” is not for nothing. By episode’s end, Barb unrepentantly admits her bias—corrosive feelings about people of color engendered by a few traumatic years living in Oakland, California public housing that erode all sympathy for the character as a grieving mom. “If you had three whites who went into a black’s home, murdered him, raped his wife, you’d have all these black leaders talking about how it’s a hate crime,” Barb says. “But it happens to my son and his wife. Who’s out there for them? Nobody. Because hate crimes can’t happen to white people.”
Denial and Isolation: Gwen’s parents Tom and Eve (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Ann Miller) emerge from the margins of American Crime’s pilot as principle characters in the second series installment: Tom, introduced pushing back against a local reporter, uttering “Respect our privacy” through gritted teeth, more as a threat than a request; Eve, a rock of dignified forbearance in the face of her daughter’s Intensive Care Unit suffering.
They get hit with the episode’s big reveal: that contrary to initial police speculation, Gwen’s rape kit reveals that she wasn’t sexually assaulted. “There was evidence she had intercourse with someone else,” a shaken Tom tells Eve. “There was a kind of consensual sex.” A kind of? “They think it may have been more than one man.”
Eve’s visceral “I am not trying to hear this” reaction—her insistence on pulling out Tom’s phone to show him photos of Gwen in happier, healthier moments, reminding him “that’s all you need to know”—speaks to a deep refusal by either character to view their daughter outside the narrow confines of her existence as a victim (Gwen’s comatose silence helps in that regard). Further, the couple begins to define themselves against the Skokies, who they view as “damaged” people. And a line in the sand between the two formerly unified families is drawn.
Bargaining: After Carter’s arraignment on murder and rape charges, his very special someone Aubry is released on probation—pointedly reminded on her way out by a jailer that junkie recidivism rates all but dictate that she’ll be behind bars again soon. A tapestry of tiny flesh wounds visible on her chest, a large bandage conspicuous on Aubry’s forehead and her eye blackened by a nightclub bathroom fist-fight, she appears lost and more than a little physically bereft, severed from her boyfriend (and the support system of their chemical romance). Matters aren’t helped when she gets evicted from the couple’s squalid motel room.
The character attempts to drown out reality, buying some unspecified designer drug at a local EDM club. From there unfolds a romantic dream sequence in which she’s reunited with Carter in an automotive graveyard with falling bodies parts shattering their hallucinated embrace. But all too soon, Aubry wakes up in a dirty alley with her jeans mysteriously pulled down around her knees.
The bargaining—if you want to categorize a recent sex crime victim abjectly pleading for money during a collect phone call “bargaining”—yields immediate results. A concerned, unnamed male character (her father?) wires Aubry $2,000. She promptly checks into a fancy hotel, showers away 18 or 20 layers of street grime and makes another phone call with only the briefest exchange of information: no hello, even, just location. It plays out as though some kind of unspoken transaction has been made although we never see what gets bought or sold.
Depression: If anyone has legitimate basis for feelings of despair, it’s Tony awaiting arraignment on a murder rap in juvenile hall where he’s informed he can expect to be tried as an adult for the severity of his crime. To make matters worse, the guileless teenager—an apparent victim of circumstance whose predicament was furthered by his father’s encouraging him to speak to police outside the presence of a lawyer—is brought to tears by fellow inmates who refer to him repeatedly as “bitch.”
But equally laid low by the post-murder turn of events is Tony’s father Alonso whose responsibility for his son’s incarceration and, moreover, whose overbearing parenting style, is taken to task by his daughter Jenny (Gleendilys Inoa). “You’re like a sellout,” she shouts at Alonso. “You’re just like them. You see someone grabbed with a hoodie, they’re a thug. You see someone with tattoos, they’re trouble. You wish you were white!”
“You wish you were white so they would like you better,” Jenny continues. “You hate yourself and you hate us for looking like you.” He is shown sitting dumbfounded at the kitchen table, mutely processing her critical indictment.
Acceptance: Given his self-admitted history of “problems”—a crippling gambling addiction, the abandonment of his family at a crucial moment in his sons’ upbringing—Russ Skokie seems like the only character on the show to truly digest his sadness and begin searching for answers. Although still wild-eyed with loss, he begins maneuvering like a private detective, interviewing people who knew his son about Matt’s alleged drug use and revisiting the crime scene (only to be forcibly ejected by a passing beat cop).
“Having some kind of relationship with him saved me,” Russ tells one of Matt’s drinking buddies. “And I mean it like I say it: It saved me.” And by implication, that sense of personal salvation all but requires him to get to the bottom of his son’s murder.