Carter isn't seen, but his presence is felt by everyone.
Credit: Van Redin/ABC

It is an absence so glaring as to become a kind of presence in its own right. In Episode Six, Carter Nix is a no-show: the guy everybody’s talking about and scheming against; the person whose perceived criminality is blanketing the local airwaves and inspiring renewed prosecutorial vigor inside Modesto’s corridors of power. The eye of the American Crime hurricane of dysfunction and misery, he’s someone who does not appear onscreen for even a minute.

Carter is the spectral presence that greets Gwen just days out of her three-month coma. Over the initial protests of Eve and Tom, a police detective insists upon interrogating Gwen as the only eyewitness to Matt’s murder. But when the cop lays out a cluster of perp photos for her to choose from—including Carter’s—and asks what she can recall of the Sunday morning her home ran red with blood, the assault victim draws a blank. “Do you know Carter Nix?” the detective demands. “Can you remember what happened?”

Gwen: child-like, fragile as bone china, borderline amnesiac, propped up on a hospital bed in or somewhere near the Intensive Care Unit. She’s definitely not the person you’d want to make any kind of positive ID—and won’t. “I don’t know people named Carter,” Gwen says, a question masquerading as an assertion.

In another quadrant of the city’s medical universe, Aubry is tied down with physical restraints to her hospital bed, convulsing and puking and sweating toxins from every pore while going through acute withdrawal. “Told ya you’d be back,” says the jailer from Episode Two. Having miraculously survived her heroin overdose, the character must now confront her increasingly limited options. She can continue to cling to the belief that love will conquer all—that Carter’s oft-professed innocence will be established simply because she believes it to be so. Or she can do what Daddy advises: testify against Carter to avoid an all but inevitable prison sentence for “helping” him escape.

Aubry’s “help,” of course, is what brought on most of his late-inning run of horrible luck. She’s the one who sawed off Carter’s ankle monitoring device while he slept, concocted (in a fit of junkie pique) a scheme for them to flee 1,000 miles to the Canadian border and viciously attacked their drug dealer with a straight razor to the face. Of course, cops and prosecutors trying to make sense of the crime spree’s aftermath don’t see Carter as a victim of circumstance. They only see a bread crumb trail leading to confirmation of his guilt.

More surprisingly, so does Russ. Although Timothy Hutton’s character has reached the 11-episode show’s half-way mark with his composure intact—his grief over Matt’s brutal slaughter never bubbling over into irrational finger pointing à la Barb—and has until now continued to press forward with a wounded but gallant sense of purpose, the news of Carter’s attempted bail jump and re-arrest effectively darkens Russ’ worldview. “I have to say it: Your mom was right,” he tells Mark. It’s a small sentence marking a pretty serious about-face for someone who sued his ex in order to bury their son.

For her part, Aaliyah has retreated from an earlier position, too. Over the course of watching Carter’s apartment being ransacked by cops with a search warrant and discovering the $100,000 bail she fundraised at her mosque will be forfeited thanks to her brother’s attempted escape, Aaliyah comes to a realization about how she has been treating Carter. That is, more as a symbol—a walking test case for her faith and political consciousness—than a blood relation, let alone the last person to still call her Doreen, the name she repudiated eight years earlier after her conversion to Islam.

It’s one of American Crime‘s rare instances of a character seeing things as they really are. More to the point, Aaliyah reconsiders her earlier choice to deny Carter the barbecue ribs he so poignantly asked for upon getting out on parole. “All I had to do was be family for him,” she says. “And I couldn’t even acknowledge that.”

NEXT: Barb takes her story to primetime

For Hector, Carter represents a different kind of symbol. “He cuts a dude, ODs his girlfriend, but I’m the one still stuck in here?” Hector seethes to his lawyer.

But even through his anger—at having been shot, at certain systemic advantages he feels blacks have over Mexican-Americans—the former gang member is shrewd enough to realize the prosecution’s inability to make Carter’s murder rap stick provides him an out. So when the DA offers to prolong Hector’s deportation back to Mexico “as long as possible,” the incarcerated man demands much more: immunity, enrollment in the witness protection program, a chance at a clean start, and the promise to “drop all that extradition crap” in exchange for his testimony against Carter.

“All that nonsense Carter pulled on you, you look like bitches,” Hector hisses (does he talk to lawyers in any other way?). “Straight up stupid bitches!”

Barb, meanwhile, brings the conversation about Carter’s alleged criminal trespasses to the widest possible audience by appearing on a TV news show. Here, she stays on topic about Matt as a husband, veteran and all-around honorable person—“A man taken from his family in a horrible, unnecessary way”—and denies playing the race card, seemingly determined to come across as more sympathetic than shrill.

Barb, however, can’t resist driving home her favorite talking point, the kind of thinking you imagine gets her through the night that also makes veins throb in her forehead. “You read about a black person who is a criminal who is shot by police. People lose their minds!” Barb says on camera. “A good white kid gets murdered in his home?”—she pauses to emit a bitter laugh—“That’s okay because he maybe smoked a joint on the weekend.”

Given the Scarface-sized quantities of hard drugs found in Matt’s house after the murder, the viewer understands that here is a woman who would rather impugn the entire criminal justice system than take a cold, hard look in the mirror. Her prejudice and rage are manifestations of deep existential despair. Barb is arguably the show’s most tortured soul and her talk show debut stands as a testament to the character’s pathology.

But American Crime isn’t through with its “Get Carter” narrative arc yet. The drug dealer he roughed up in Episode One—the same one with whom Carter again scuffled on the night of Aubry’s face-slashing/heroin ODing frenzy—winds up in police custody talking about his least favorite junkie. And reluctantly, the dealer’s muttered recollection of Carter calling him “white bitch” (while viciously pistol-whipping him) provides a kind of smoking gun for the prosecution.

In his brief time on parole, Carter’s actions have been thoroughly parsed and even more thoroughly misunderstood. And in that span, an evolution has taken place. Matt’s killing has been upgraded from a standard-issue American Crime to an official hate crime.

Episode Recaps

American Crime
2015 abc series
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