The season may be closed, but the stories remain open ended

By Sarene Leeds
April 30, 2017 at 11:00 PM EDT
Eric McCandless/ABC
S3 E8
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Anyone who watched last season of American Crime likely got a sense of déjà vu when the screen cut to black at the start of a courtroom case in tonight’s finale.

However, unlike season 2, which ended on a frustratingly ambiguous note, I have to credit showrunner John Ridley and his crew for not taking that route this time around. True, we don’t get to see the resolution of each of the three court cases in question, but despite the final words from the judge (Emily Bergl, who had a small role in season 2) about making sure “justice is done,” it’s not what happens to Dustin, Raelyn, and Clair that matters at this point. You know who’s still not getting justice? The three dead people standing in the back of the room: Isaac, Shae, and Teo.

What’s the most difficult to accept about this season — and the entire series — is that there shouldn’t be a grand resolution for all of these stories. That would completely negate the message Ridley is trying to express with American Crime, so as sad as it was to see those three individuals reappear as a reminder of what wasn’t accomplished, I’d argue that was exactly Ridley’s point.

Sure, it would have been nice to find out how each of the three court cases concluded, but they were ultimately secondary to the story lines that made the most impact this season. Whatever sentence the judge bestows upon Raelyn for her parole violation, it’s irrelevant given Jeanette and Carson’s decision to pursue permanent legal guardianship of her two daughters. Clair’s trial for physically assaulting Gabrielle is also a formality: What is more important is (a) that Gabrielle is finally rescued from her American nightmare and (b) how Clair insists on going before a judge instead of letting Nicholas settle out of court. She knows she’s done wrong, and she is willing to accept the punishment. Plus, this decision forces Nicholas to not only acknowledge Nicky as his son, but to take care of him for as long as Clair is in prison.

The third case concerns Dustin, who ends up arrested as an accessory to Shae’s murder, with Kimara serving as his courtroom advocate. Although it’s infuriating to see the teen’s decision to finally tell the truth about what happened in the webcam house result in potential jail time, we just haven’t spent enough time with Dustin this season to care as deeply about him as we do for the other characters. It’s really the conclusion of Kimara’s narrative that will linger in our subconscious: By the end of this season, she’s abandoned her principles in order to look out for No. 1 — herself.

Now that the season is over, it’s time to take a hard look at what the real “American crime” was here. It’s always been human exploitation, but tonight’s finale makes you realize that while this issue is rampant — from the agricultural industry to sex work to domestic employees — there’s another layer to it. As I discussed last week, many of the characters sold their souls for what they thought was a better life. What we’re left to do after this finale is question whether or not it was worth it.

Kimara

The tireless advocate for exploited teens comes to the conclusion in tonight’s finale that there’s no escaping her life’s work. It sounds noble enough, but she also realizes that she deserves at least a little happiness, and in order to do that, she’s gotta game the system, even if it leaves a bad taste in our mouths. After all, as Reggie said last week, “The days of being appropriate are over.”

After Dustin’s SOS pulls her back in to her old job one more time, Kimara learns once and for all what became of Shae. (And if you thought her death scene was graphic, try comparing that to the overhead shot of the teenager’s rotted corpse dredged from the river.) Compound that with Dustin’s post-confession arrest, and suddenly Kimara is sitting opposite a table from Abby Tanaka in a wine bar, armed with an extortion proposal that makes that little logbook fraud look like child’s play: Kimara accepts Abby’s offer to come work for her (I was incorrect in last week’s recap — Kimara initially quit her nonprofit job with the intention of leaving social work behind), at double the salary increase her colleague initially proposed.

The dialogue is veiled, but you get the sense (at least I did) that if Abby doesn’t meet her demands, Kimara will blow the whistle on her questionable practices. And Abby somehow makes it happen, because the next scene is of Kimara back at her fertility doctor’s office, suddenly free of the monetary constraints that once plagued her.

It’s hard to be happy for Kimara though (which may be Ridley’s intention), because that heart of gold Abby once praised her for appears to have been crushed along this path to financial independence and motherhood. We know how badly she wants a child, but hearing her tell Abby that she doesn’t “really care about anybody else’s intentions anymore. I just want to be sure that they serve my purpose,” is an upsetting (but understandable, given what she’s been through) viewpoint to be left with.

Jeanette

With no money and no prospects, Jeanette winds up doing what I hesitantly predicted would happen in last week’s recap: She begs Carson to take her back so that Raelyn’s daughters can have a financially stable, family-centered upbringing. It’s devastating to watch this woman who, like Kimara, has seen her idealism destroyed by life’s realities. What’s the most sickening about this decision — which, given how few options she had, still makes the most sense — is how Jeanette needs to ask not only Carson to let her come home, but friggin’ Laurie Ann. It’s not entirely surprising, because, as Carson says, this is more of a business decision than anything else; he knows Jeanette never would have returned if she didn’t need financial help. So in a Godfather-esque scene, the Hesby matriarch gives Jeanette a severe dressing-down for all the trouble she caused the family and the business before warning her that if this is what she really wants, then she, like everyone else, will have to “earn [her] keep.”

Remember how last week JD chastised Jeanette for not wanting to “pay what little it costs to live” her “good life”? Well, her nieces’ well-being has given her no other choice but to make that payment — and it’s not so “little.” As expected, Laurie Ann’s idea of her sister-in-law “earning her keep” is putting a shaken Jeanette in front of a group of farm workers and feeding them scripted assurances of how the Hesby family only has the best intentions for all of them. The way Felicity Huffman has her character choke on the words, “I have never been so proud to be a part of this family” caps off a phenomenal season-long performance as a woman who tried so hard to make a difference in both her own life and the lives of others, but ended up right back where she started, defeated.

Immediately following the workers’ rally scene, Jeanette goes to see Raelyn, and already we can see she’s turned into a bitter person almost overnight, with good reason: She’s angry that circumstances have forced her to be the smiling face of Hesby Farms. The thing is, even if Raelyn hadn’t failed that drug test, how long was Jeanette really going to be able to continue “finding herself” before she had to take one of those minimum-wage jobs? For all the resentment she heaps on Raelyn here, it seemed inevitable that she was going to have to plead with the Hesbys to take her back anyway. Guess we’ll never know if she would’ve found it within herself to pull herself up by her bootstraps and raise those girls on their own. That’s the most tragic part of Jeanette’s story.

Gabrielle/Clair/Nicholas

Miraculously, the only character who walks away with anything close to happy ending this season is Gabrielle (thank heaven). I hoped that letter she mailed to her estranged son a couple of episodes ago would be the key to her rescue, and that’s exactly what happens: Yves Durand arrives stateside with his mother’s correspondence in hand. The letters describes in explicit detail the physical abuse Gabrielle is enduring at the hands of, as I suspected, Clair. (American Crime also mercifully does away with the inexplicable “nobody knows French” problem of last episode, providing Gabrielle with a francophone nurse — though it is upsetting to see her keep the Haitian native doped up at the beginning — and having the letters translated for the police.)

It doesn’t take long for Clair’s claims that Gabrielle has been hurting herself to be nullified during interrogation, because it’s pretty difficult for back injuries to be self-inflicted.

But as satisfying as it is to see both Clair and Nicholas knocked down from their gilded pedestal as police tear apart their home, recovering Gabrielle’s passport from the safe in the process, the story still feels unfinished. Namely, what happens now to Gabrielle? Will she stay in the U.S.? Will she go home? How can she help prevent other immigrants from experiencing this kind of abuse? What will become of her relationship with Yves? We do get one all-too-brief reconciliation scene between mother and son, though both characters deserve much more screen time. Gabrielle intends to make a statement at Clair’s trial (“they don’t get to make us go away,” she tells Yves), but who’s to say she won’t become yet another invisible person whose story is swept under the rug, like Isaac, Shae, and Teo?

Again, perhaps that was the whole point. The story focuses more on wealthy white woman Clair and her repentance. To her credit, she is redeemed somewhat by her rejection of an out-of-court settlement and a genuinely contrite demeanor. But still, we didn’t need yet another scene where Clair tells Nicholas that it was his extreme verbal abuse that drove her to pour scalding water onto Gabrielle’s arm. I believe that to be true, but we already knew that from previous episodes. I said it then, and I’ll say it again now: It may explain, but it doesn’t excuse her behavior.

Of course, the real issue here is what is to become of the Coates’ son, Nicky. Clair’s decision to have the book thrown at her means that Nicholas, who has been punishing Nicky his whole life for not being his biological child, must now swallow his pride and take care of the boy. The episode concludes with Nicholas at least attempting to forge a relationship with this kid, which ends the Coates’ story on the only hopeful note it deserves.

Ultimately, it does not matter if “justice is done” in the cases of Raelyn, Clair, and Dustin, because as Isaac, Shae, and Teo reappear for one last time, they serve as a harsh reminder that human exploitation is still alive and well in the United States. American Crime has never been about the resolution of fictional stories, but shedding light on real-life problems like modern-day slavery. If viewers are incited to get involved with these issues after watching this season, then American Crime has done its job.

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