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During group therapy, Shae reveals her idea of a happy home life — and it's not what you think

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March 26, 2017 at 11:00 PM EDT

When it comes to American Crime, no episode would ever go so far as to be considered a “breather,” though this one is the closest we’ll get following season 3’s relentlessly ferocious narrative thus far. And this is an episode that contains rape, a brutal ass-kicking, and an excruciating group-therapy confession. Still, a good portion of the hour felt like maybe not so much filler, but just a means to get to the next part of the story.

However, the slower pace allowed us to reconnect with Shae, who was pretty much left behind at a shelter by Kimara (and the plotline) last week. Thanks to tonight’s episode, though, the teenager has now supplanted the other characters as the heart of this season. “Episode Three” has made up for last week’s Shae shortage in spades, using her screen time to document how shelter life is far from the safe haven it’s supposed to represent. In a poignant scene where the onetime prostitute shares her story in group therapy, Ana Mulvoy Ten joins the ranks of cast members Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Richard Cabral, Lili Taylor, Timothy Hutton, and, most recently, Connor Jessup: Actors without whom American Crime would flounder.

Shae talks at length about how much happier she was with her pimp, Billy, whom she truly believes took better care of her than her family: “[Billy is] the only one who ever gave me anything. I miss that. I miss him,” she confesses. (The teen’s backstory also includes being forced to have an abortion by her father’s girlfriend when the woman claimed Shae got pregnant just to get attention.)

But that’s not the most disturbing part of Mulvoy Ten’s monologue: No, that comes when she admits she’s going to terminate her current pregnancy (remember, we’re in North Carolina, so that may not be as easy as she thinks) because she knows the baby isn’t Billy’s. She muses wistfully that if the baby was her pimp’s — and he wasn’t in jail — all three of them could live happily ever after like the family they were meant to be.

Shae’s fantasy is a twisted one, but considering the provided montage of her day-to-day existence at the shelter, it’s not as outlandish to her as it may seem to us. Who wouldn’t want to get out of a routine that includes mandatory drug tests, cleanup duties and preachy chapel sessions where the girls are slut-shamed into thinking their children will “curse them” if they don’t lay a strong foundation for their lives? Shae’s not the only one in that chapel session who looks utterly miserable.

The only friend Shae has at the moment is Kimara, who can see how the shelter’s rules are breaking the girl’s spirit. After Shae is caught with an illegal phone — which she’s been using just to take pictures of things that capture her eye — Kimara smuggles her another one, thus placing their relationship on a trustworthy track. But that’s the only silver lining in Kimara’s life this episode, as Reggie turns down her request to serve as her sperm donor. To add insult to injury, Reggie also holds up a mirror to Kimara’s reality by reminding her of how all-consuming her job is — so much so that he fears she won’t give the baby she wants 100 percent of her attention. And he should know: It was Kimara’s relentless devotion to her work that destroyed their relationship.

You can’t blame Reggie for his decision, but you also feel for Kimara, who cries over the very real possibility she’ll never know what a child’s love feels like. It’s too soon to know if this is the end of the road on her baby journey, but it’s no wonder she’s now even more determined to help Shae. Also a nice touch in the Kimara story? That moment where she slips a young girl her card after she witnesses her boyfriend (pimp?) roughing her up at a convenience store. But if Kimara does have a child, will she be able to stop herself from handing out that card to every troubled youth she comes across?

NEXT: Keeping ’em down on the farm

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