When a full hour of television is devoted to the theme of feeling trapped, a dead-of-night rescue of a frightened teenage prostitute can feel like the most liberating moment of the entire season so far.
But that’s American Crime for you, so we’ll take whatever so-called “happy ending” (at least for now) this show can give us, because it’s not like we’re getting any sort of breathers otherwise. As mentioned last week, the conclusion of the Luis/Isaac/Coy story line has opened up space in the narrative for an equally harrowing subplot featuring a Haitian nanny whose seemingly idyllic new gig belies dark truths about her employers, Nicholas and Clair Coates, played by Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor.
However, American Crime is making sure to not ignore the farm workers’ subplot — because the whole point of this season is to keep the forgotten ones in the spotlight. The standoff between Luis and Isaac from last week has now reached the attention of the district attorney’s office: In the pre-credits opening scene, Diego Castillo is questioned about what happened with Isaac (who is confirmed dead, in case anyone thought there was a possibility he survived after having a gun emptied into him) and Luis’ son, Teo. While Diego is careful not to incriminate himself, he opens up about how terribly he and his fellow workers are treated by the Hesbys, admitting that rapes and deaths run rampant: “People die all the time on that farm,” he tells an investigator. “Nobody cares.” Yet he has no remorse over what he has done, or what his brother did to Teo: “We put a lot of bodies in that river,” he says matter of factly. He has been so destroyed by the inhumane culture of farm life that he has no empathy left.
Diego, like the other characters, is trapped in a vicious cycle: He hates how he’s treated, yet he is no better than those who exploit him, because his misery turned him into a bully and a rapist as a means to survive. Shae has now become a textbook example of exploitation recidivism: The teen has slipped back into prostitution by becoming an online sex worker, because to her, it’s the only way she can feel free. Jeanette is trapped in a gilded cage, only to find that when she tries to escape, she has zero resources available to her. Nicholas and Clair are trapped in a marriage fraught with tension, and they in turn are trapping Gabrielle, the immigrant nanny, in what is building to be a potentially dangerous situation. Only Kimara gets any sort of glory tonight, though even she is trapped in a thankless job, rescuing that girl to whom she slipped her card at a convenience store.
Maybe it’s just because we’re already used to seeing the other characters in traumatic situations by now, but the newest story of the season made for the most disturbing moments this episode.
On the outside, Nicholas and Clair Coates have the perfect existence: Nicholas is the wealthy scion of a furniture business, while Clair is the typical Southern stay-at-home wife and mother who thinks nothing of handing over a $5,000 donation to Kimara’s non-profit so she can feel like she’s contributing to the greater good. But in reality, Nicholas’ business is failing, which has forced him to work 24/7 and subsequently turn into an absentee father. Clair’s decision to stop working in order to raise their “miracle baby,” Nicky, has put a further strain on the marriage — though that’s mainly because Nicholas hasn’t been keeping his wife abreast of their financial struggles. Perhaps if Clair knew that they weren’t as well off as she thought, she wouldn’t have flown in a live-in nanny from another country. Needless to say, Nicholas is infuriated by Gabrielle’s presence because she is a constant reminder that money they don’t have is being flushed down the toilet.
Nicholas and Clair’s troubles are typical of many marriages, but their loathsome natures come to a head during a snazzy, expensive fundraiser for, surprise, surprise, Kimara’s non-profit, which, as we know, specializes in human exploitation. Nicholas just uses the event to get drunk and to complain about how his wife no longer contributes financially to their existence. But this is when we really get to see Clair’s true colors: As she listens intently to the event’s guest speaker — yep, it’s Kimara — Clair remains completely clueless to the fact that she is (or is about to be) guilty of the “modern-day slavery” Regina King’s character is talking about. This fundraiser sequence is a microcosm of the entire episode — and of this season’s theme. All of the ignorant rich, white people are there to pay their guilt bill with a hefty charity check while still looking down their noses at the exploited people they’re supposedly trying to help.
There’s a fantastic scene between Clair and Kimara (which begins with Clair’s inability to even pronounce Kimara’s — read: a not-white — name correctly), where a tone-deaf Clair claims that the people being exploited always have a “choice.” Kimara immediately shuts her down, explaining there is no “choice” when it’s between starving and living. Clair’s obliviousness toward anyone not in her comfortable bubble continues as she shoots off her mouth about how Nicky was the result of nine IVF treatments — treatments that she obviously could afford. She makes Kimara feel like even more of a failure because she basically tells her, “I got to be a mommy and you didn’t, because I have the cash and you don’t.”
So by the time Gabrielle starts bearing the brunt of Clair’s contemptible behavior, it’s not a huge shock; now know that Clair is not the sweet and nice employer she presented herself to be last week. Also, since we’re aware of the extent of how deeply the Coates’ marriage is crumbling, it makes sense (though it doesn’t make it right) that Clair would take out her frustrations on someone as vulnerable as Gabrielle. It starts off subtly, like a stern reprimand for accidentally eating some fish from the refrigerator. But when Gabrielle admonishes little Nicky for hitting her (i.e. does her job), Clair reams the non-English speaking nanny both verbally and physically. While Clair apologizes for pushing Gabrielle away from her son, there is no question that the Haitian immigrant should be worried about what lies ahead for her. Another thing that doesn’t bode well for Gabrielle? Early on in the episode, after she almost loses her passport in the park, Clair offers to keep it locked in the family safe. If that maneuver doesn’t scream eventual entrapment, I don’t know what does. I am very scared for Gabrielle and can only hope her estranged son will somehow come looking for her, à la Luis.
It is not a good week for wealthy white housewives on American Crime. Jeanette is learning the hard way that 24 years of marriage to a rich man and a little volunteer outreach work have garnered her a big pile of nothing. After being shut out by her husband and in-laws for the zillionth time last week, Jeanette decides to leave Carson. But all she gets for trying to stand on her own two feet is finding out she has no grounds for financial support, and that she has no skills or collateral that will allow her to even rent a room somewhere.
Jeannette is basically told by everyone she meets with to “work it out” with her husband. And that’s not happening, because during a heated argument at a diner, Carson informs Jeanette that thanks to her meddling (i.e. trying to do the right thing by the farm workers), the farm is in serious trouble: There are police and “Spanish-speaking investigators” sniffing around. So unless she’s willing to go back to playing the part of the silent, acquiescent housewife, she can go scratch. Out of options, Jeanette goes to live with her sister, Raelyn, the one who allegedly stole from the Hesbys’ business and leads a decidedly less comfortable life than the one Jeanette is used to. It’s still better than staying with Carson and sitting by while the Hesbys continue their disreputable practices.
It doesn’t matter how much help Shae has received since being taken into custody, because ultimately, the only way she feels like she’s in control is in sex work. As Kimara explains to the gathered crowd at the fundraiser, once people are involved in exploitation, it is nearly impossible to get them out of the (there it is again) vicious cycle: Victims like Shae see being exploited as a “false sense of liberation.” Not only has Shae gotten herself involved with an online sex business, but she has also decided — due to the North Carolina laws that required her to get a sonogram and hear her baby’s heartbeat (the protesters outside the clinic were a likely influence, too) — to keep her baby. Despite Kimara’s incessant questions as to how exactly Shae is going to support this kid, the teen now spends her free moments lovingly and tearfully looking at her sonogram photo.
Since Shae has pretty much spat on any form of help Kimara has tried to give her at this point — even bailing on the shelter to move into the online sex house, leaving no forwarding contact information (poor Kimara; all she wanted to do was give the girl a parenting book) — it makes sense that the social worker now has a new wayward teen to help. The end of the episode has the young woman from the convenience store, Vanessa, calling Kimara in a panic. Kimara, who has done this countless times before, keeps Vanessa calm and heads out into the night to yet another seedy motel.
As she arrives in the parking lot, Kimara executes her Navy SEAL-like rescue procedure. Upon seeing the frightened Vanessa being chased by her pimp, Kimara gets in a few good squirts of pepper spray before loading the girl into the car and speeding away.
Now the question is: Was this maneuver also part of Kimara’s own vicious cycle? Will Vanessa also become a victim of recidivism, like Shae? Kimara would be the first one to say the odds aren’t good.