Luis's backstory is brought to light, while Jeanette makes an appalling discovery

By Sarene Leeds
March 19, 2017 at 11:00 PM EDT
Nicole Wilder/ABC
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American Crime buried the lede several times in tonight’s episode, but what better way to drive its point home?

Fifteen undocumented farm workers died in a savage trailer fire, though between riveting scenes that sought to develop some of this season’s characters beyond their press-site bios, even the viewer can’t entirely be blamed for getting distracted. But the Hesby family? There’s no excuse.

The second episode of the new season is structured so beautifully that by the time Jeanette is brought face to face with a burned-out trailer shell in the final minutes, we realize that we’ve treated this story the same way the local news outlets and the Hesbys have — with blatant disregard. In the beginning of the episode, Luis overhears some fellow laborers talking about how a lot of people got hurt, and Carson Hesby’s furniture shopping is interrupted by a call about a fire and some people getting killed. But the subject is almost entirely swept under the rug as we get caught up in Kimara’s increasing weariness for both her job and her pregnancy odyssey, as well as Luis’ backstory.

While Kimara’s and Luis’ narratives do weave seamlessly into the season’s overarching theme — and are worthy of analysis in this recap — the levels of mistreatment at the hands of ruling-class-like families such as the Hesbys are brought to the forefront tonight, leaving a revolting taste in our mouths. During a lavish party hosted by acting matriarch Laurie Ann Hesby (Cherry Jones), Jeanette pumps her drunk and depressed brother-in-law, JD (Tim DeKay), for information on what really happened to those laborers. (Side note: The contrast between the black and Hispanic North Carolina farm workers living in shacks and the white Hesbys sparing no expense for their soiree is frighteningly reminiscent of the antebellum days — and I’m sure that was on purpose.) JD spills on the extent of the tragedy, but the facts aren’t nearly as appalling as the reaction Jeanette gets from Laurie Ann when she asks if she can help in any way.

See, Laurie Ann apparently attended the school of governmental hypocrisy and blows off her sister-in-law with a boilerplate, “These folks have our prayers.” The next morning, after a search of news sites and an indifferent reaction from Carson results in a big pile of nothing, Jeanette goes all Erin Brockovich on the matter and heads off to investigate the scene of the fire. In the trailer park, she learns that the laborers, who live more than 15 people to a trailer, died because they were literally trapped inside as the flames engulfed them. Jeanette, in an expertly executed reaction by Felicity Huffman, is stunned into silence as she realizes the extent of her husband and his siblings’ apathy — as well as her own level of ignorance.

It’s heavy stuff, especially given everything else the episode tossed our way in the buildup to Jeanette’s epiphany. The rest of the hour deals primarily with the concept of what it means to be a parent and how it encapsulates your entire being, specifically in the cases of Kimara and Luis. You know, lighthearted fare.

The truth about why Luis is really in North Carolina has come to light, which is that he’s searching for his teenage son, Teo. After he crossed the border to find work, Teo has vanished into thin air (the money he was sending back home stopped arriving). So now, with no resources or family in the United States, Luis is relying on a single photograph of his son and a word-of-mouth system to trace Teo. Fortunately/unfortunately, Teo left a bit of a trail, because he wasn’t exactly what the farm bosses would call a model worker. Meaning, he wasn’t one to shut up and keep his head down. Given the fact that we’ve already seen images of a dead body floating in a river, which we can now pair with the knowledge that he refused back down when the bosses got in his face — particularly when we find out they didn’t pay him what he was owed when he was told to move on — it’s unlikely this story is going to have a happy ending.

NEXT: Kimara’s personal heartache

We may know the conclusion of this story before Luis does, but if there’s any silver lining to his experience, it’s that he is now the first person on this season of American Crime to exhibit a form of resistance to the despicable conditions he and his fellow immigrants face. As he deserts the farm to continue his search for Teo, Luis is tracked down by his boss, who attempts to strong-arm him into remaining until his debt is paid off. That’s when Luis shows his true colors: He’s hip to how these corrupt field bosses work, oh, and he’s bilingual, too. The Spanish-only act was so he could slip into these farms without drawing attention to himself. Luis calls the boss on his BS — in perfect English — knowing full well he can’t arrest him because that would mean alerting the cops to the fact that the farm thrives on the labor of undocumented migrants who live “20 people to a box.” Adios, sucker. (Note: This is how I interpreted the scene. It is possible the switch to English was made solely as a creative choice.)

As we further delve into Kimara’s story line this episode, her relationship with underage prostitute Shae is for the most part put on the back burner. But considering how Kimara’s journey toward parenthood is such an integral part of her character, the bombshell that Shae is pregnant (and that it ain’t her first time) will inevitably intertwine these two as the season progresses. The juxtaposition between Kimara and Shae is a stark one: Here is a woman desperate for a child, while at the same time she is desperately trying to help a pregnant teenager who is in no position to support a baby.

Since she was taken into police custody, Shae has been put into a shelter and, not surprisingly, is resistant to testifying against her pimp, Billy. In her eyes, life as a working girl was a helluva lot better than where she is now; at least with Billy it was only six, as opposed to eight, people to a room, she had a cell phone, and she wasn’t forced to attend daily chapel.

For the third season in a row, Regina King is putting in an award-worthy performance as the discouraged Kimara, who is starting to question why she even does what she does anymore, because it seems no one wants her help. We’ve known since last week that she’s become jaded, but hearing her open up to her colleague, Abby (Sandra Oh), about how hopeless she feels (forget about the kids she’s trying to save) really drives home her level of despair: “I feel like I’m on this lifeboat that only holds 10 people,” she tells Abby, “and there was a time that I didn’t care that it only held 10 people. I tried to get 100 people on that boat, but now I just accept 10 is all I can get — maybe 10.”

Exploring Kimara’s cynicism makes her character multifaceted enough, but as we learned briefly in the season premiere, American Crime is also giving Kimara an added layer that may be more thought provoking than her advocacy travails. Her desire for a family consumes her soul so much that this week, she goes to the home of her married ex-boyfriend, Reggie, and proposes that he father her child. “It shouldn’t be this lonely trying to have a family,” she confides in him. And she’s right, because having a baby shouldn’t be such a clinical experience. But if Reggie says yes (he requests some time to discuss it with his wife), will Kimara’s happiness come at the expense of his own family harmony?

In an episode that contrasts Kimara’s struggle with infertility with Luis’ search for his son and even Jeanette’s constant shunning by her in-laws, the differences between these disparate characters are palpable. But it’s the sense of loneliness that is the underlying thread here, and it makes the exploitation backdrop all the more powerful — and painful.

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