It takes a village to raise a child, as that old nugget of Clintonian wisdom goes. But on American Crime, it takes a congregation to raise bail—$100,000 to be exact—scraped together by Aliyah and the followers at her mosque, securing a million-dollar bond for Carter’s release as the district attorney’s murder rap against him continues to disapparate like so many Harry Potter villains.
And in Episode 5, less than 24 hours from the moment Carter sheds his ridiculous red and white prison jumpsuit to return to a prescribed civilian life (no drugs, no “consorting with persons engaged in criminal activity,” and no barbecue pork ribs, thanks to his sister’s conditional rescue), pretty much every element of his meager existence shatters into a million shards of pain. But more on that in a minute.
The episode is bisected in distinct ways by three characters’ before and after reactions to incarceration: their respective ways of adjusting to life on outside jail or, in Hector’s case, his redoubled efforts to achieve some measure of justice with manacled hands.
We catch up to Hector back in the prison hospital ward, still on crutches, but recuperating from the horrible face-slashing he suffered thanks to his old gang Los Cuetes. Now sporting a gruesome scar rippling with metal staples down the left side of his face, he meets with a prosecutor who reminds the character he will be deported back to Sinaloa on prior murder charges. But, oh, would Hector mind providing more testimony about Matt Skokie’s murder before he goes?
Tattooed on his neck and arms, shot by cops and knifed by gangs, Hector wears a litany of uniquely American immigrant pain etched across the canvas of his body. But he knows well enough that cops have a weak case without him, so he starts trading horses. “It’s not deportation; it’s extradition,” Hector hisses at the prosecutor. “And if I’m facing charges here, you don’t have to send me anywhere. I’m not dumb. Don’t act like I am.”
With his butter soft features and smiling eyes, Tony continues his inexorable slide into good-boy-gone-bad-dom. Sprung from juvie on parole, he’s hardly immune to the side-eye glances he receives from Sunday parishioners at his church who suspect the worst of him. And when Alonzo suggests he and Tony fix up the old car down at the garage—the very same one in which Tony was arrested—the teenager explodes at his father in an uncharacteristic rage. “I don’t want to see that again!” Tony tells Alonzo, wild-eyed. “God, you’re so stupid!”
Later in the episode, when Tony calls Luis (Joseph Julian Soria), a smilingly thugged-out friend of his sole friend in juvenile hall, it’s hardly a surprise that the more worldly gangster character makes a strong impression that can literally and figuratively lead to no good. “You want a piece of my action?” Luis asks.
The viewer finally meets Matt—grey, unmoving, laid out on a morgue gurney, the impact wound from his slug to the temple visibly undiminished by two months passing since the murder. And we follow him to his final resting place: the dreaded Oakland cemetery Barb railed so valiantly against for the past three American Crime installments. There is a deeply awkward conversation between Mark and Barb in which he tells her—surprise!—he’s engaged to be married. Why hadn’t he told his mother earlier? “Mom, she’s a woman of color.”
Mark calls B.S. on the way Barb talks about “black and illegals, those people,” and reminds her, “You don’t know how that messed me and Matt up!”
Barb initially balks at the accusation—“You sound like you’re under the influence. Did your girlfriend give you a little study guide of what to say?”—before a certain motherly override kicks in: “Can I meet her?” It’s the first incremental dose of compassionate behavior Felicity Huffman’s character has demonstrated since the show began.
Which brings us to the neo-Shakespearean tragedy of Carter and Aubry’s reunion, an upside-down love story that hammers home the old saw about being careful what you wish for.
Outwardly sober, her skin noticeably brightened, with a shy, intermittent smile affixing her face, Aubry appears to be on the road to recovery. Even the gnarly scar on her forehead from Episode 1’s nightclub bathroom brawl seems to be fading into the past. So much so, her adoptive father agrees to rent her a car and volunteers (with a halting, paternal grin) to kick in pocket money.
We in the audience quickly register the road to hell is paved with good intentions, though. And it’s not long before she’s knocking on the door of Carter’s domicile where Aliyah has rather unwisely left him to his own devices for a couple of days to recuperate from prison.
NEXT: Carter and Aubry reunite
A wash of sunlight, a tender embrace, the two love birds sink into the fabulous abandon of one another’s kiss. They revel in the memory of their meet-cute in a bar, the embers of romance still burning supernova bright after two months apart. Carter and Aubry’s love has always been a kind of buzz. And now forbidden, it’s as galvanizing and elicit as a jolt of narcotics. Soon, however, Aubry’s chugging a Pabst Blue Ribbon, deriding Aliyah as “Princess Leia” and “the black Maleficent.”
Carter, meanwhile, makes clear his feelings about the sister he still calls by her birth name, Doreen: “Racist bitch—she doesn’t care about me. All she cares about is saving her brother from some evil white nah-nah. And any brother will do.”
But when Carter awakens from a short nap, he finds Aubry has sawed the court-ordered monitoring device from his ankle. And in the face of his rising panic, she lays out her exit strategy: make for the Canadian border, find a “coyote” somewhere in Vancouver’s docklands and skip the Western Hemisphere for Vietnam, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
“It’s insane!” Carter exclaims.
“You getting executed for something you didn’t do: that’s crazy,” Aubry says. “I’m going to do what I have to do to keep you alive.”
Steadily chugging beer in the car on the I-5 north from Modesto, Aubry clicks into full-on junkie mode. Never mind that Carter is sober after months behind bars. He tries to be reasonable. But that doesn’t stop her from flailing accusations such as “Why won’t you let me have a hit?” and “Why do you hate me?”
Realizing she has no drug hook ups in Vancouver, Aubry agitates to return to Modesto. Carter begins to argue—quite rationally—that he’s a wanted man now and can’t go home. But as she settles into acute withdrawal symptoms, he wheels the car around, crying silently to himself on the journey south.
Characters in movies and on TV who want too much, who strive too hard for things—be it love, drugs, or other diversions—are seldom rewarded for their fervor. And with that impending sense of doom, we follow the couple back into the drug den, a place full of dealer bonhomie and dim lighting where Aubry’s eyes flit evasively from surface to cluttered surface with manic cartoon energy. Carter passes up the chance to get high while a burly dealer good-naturedly warns Aubry to take it easy with the pile of heavy-duty heroin she’s chopping into lines with a razor blade on the coffee table.
Another dealer emerges from the bedroom: the guy Carter robbed and assaulted before getting arrested on murder charges so many episodes ago. As the two dealers set to beating Carter to a pulp, Aubry grabs the razor, leaps onto the back of the second man and begins slashing. There is a geyser of arterial spray from his neck as the lovers make their getaway. “Things just work out,” Aubry intones in a sleazy hotel room in the denouement of the incident. “They do. It was bananas getting here. But they’re fixed now.”
“You killed him,” Carter says.
“You can be where joy goes to die,” Aubry replies, chopping out drugs on the table. “Or you can join me.”
And that’s the last thing he hears her say before she ODs. She slips into open-eyed unconsciousness before the paramedics arrive, before Carter is placed back in handcuffs and put in the back of a squad car, uncertain whether the love of his life will live or is gone forever.