By Darren Franich
September 15, 2018 at 08:00 AM EDT
Credit: Scott Patrick Green / Netflix
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WARNING: The following article contains every spoiler imaginable for the entirety of American Vandal‘s new season. Read at your own risk!

The second iteration of American Vandal has one obvious problem and one brilliant twist. The problem nearly breaks the season, leaves you worrying this really was a brilliant miniseries anthologized into craven franchisery. But then the twist reveals how American Vandal could become the essential ongoing tragedy for anyone born this millennium, an annual downbeat investigation into everything that will ruin the YouTube generation.

Season 2’s problem is the TV Continuation Paradox. Last year, Vandal took a hilarious school prank — spraypaint, faculty parking lot, telltale ball hairs — and architected a spiraling story of high school lies. Wannabe Serializers Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) told the story, and then suddenly they were the story.

The moment of the season, for me, came in the finale. After the mystery is solved, popular Sara Pearson (Saxon Sharbino) pulls Peter aside at a party. In season 1’s great mystery, Sara had been an essential plot point, subject of fanbait theorizing and comically specific data crunching. But here — suddenly, finally — she becomes a person, angry and hurt at seeing her personal life narrativized by a couple dudes she barely knows.

“You put people on blast, and for what?” she asks.

Peter, a nerd right in the middle of his first drinking game, stammers: “I had to find the truth.”

“What did my hookup list have to do with the truth?” she asks. “It didn’t prove anything.”

True. But what a story, what a detail, a hookup list, how lurid, how delightful! In season 2, there’s no personal connection to the crime, no feeling that the filmmakers’ are Uncertainty Principle-ing their own mystery, burying truth beneath facts. Alvarez and Gluck are very fun performers, but Vandal season 2 reduces Peter and Sam to their bare essentials, “serious” and “not serious.” They’re famous now, kinda: Their little documentary platform-skipped from Vimeo to Netflix.

That meta-origin story is never quite convincing. (God knows what the real-world Netflix lawyers would say about publicizing the sex lives of minors.) And it feels like an easy way to proceduralize Vandal, providing a bare logical explanation for why Peter and Sam (and Ming Zhang!) get to fly north to Washington. They used to be regular high schoolers, and now they’re a crack team investigating dirty-joke holistic mysteries.

What’s strange is that there are obvious points where a strong connection could have been made, aligning Peter and Sam with the crime they’re solving. Midway through the season, they begin to suspect DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), a basketball all-star who rules the city. But that path also leads them to Lou Carter (DeRon Horton), DeMarcus’ best friend and all-purpose other-three-guys-from-Entourage handler.

“DeMarcus kinda lives under Lou’s microscope,” says Sam. “DeMarcus is Lou’s business.” Of course Sam would point this out. If you buy season 2’s backstory, you understand how Sam might know something about transactional friendship. Their show is a team effort — they share a “Shot and Produced By” credit — but Peter’s unquestionably the talent, the “Directed and Edited By” mastermind whose freakish dedication to the project drove away Sam midway through season 1. I guess you could argue that Sam is an essential collaborator — the funny one, though that means he’s the Ringo. It’s no great leap to say Sam’s the Lou to Peter’s DeMarcus, the guy riding his talented pal’s gravy train to Daily Show appearances and a Netflix deal.

The correlation never occurs to anyone. Ultimately, you’re left feeling like anyone could’ve “filmed” this season of Vandal. Maybe the creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda felt like adding a personal story for Peter and Sam would’ve been repetitive. Maybe they’re struggling with the anthology format just like everybody else.

But then there’s the big reveal in the season finale. Peter and Sam spend season 2 trying to solve the mystery of the Turd Burglar, a malcontent tormenting fancy Catholic prep school St. Bernardine with ongoing fecal terrorism. The Brownout, the Poop Piñata, the S—t Launcher, the Crap Calendar: The Burglar’s reign of terror comes branded with ready hashtags, his assaults eventized into social media moments.

And the freakiest thing about this reign of terror is its intangible lack of purpose. The cops think it’s a crime of vengeance, a bullied student lashing out. Peter and Sam wonder if it’s just a prank, a goofy gone nuclear in an era when every wannabe Paul brother turns society into their own private Jackass sketch.

Turns out the cops had it right — but they were thinking too small. Early in the season, Peter and Sam speak to Grayson Wentz (Jeremy Culhane), a former St. Bernadine student expelled for social media antics. “I made a joke and they kicked me out of the f—ing school,” Grayson explains. This action looks unfair on first look, compared to the tremendous license St. Bernadine gives its prank-happy star athletes. (In fact, for much of its run, American Vandal season 2 seems to be about the twisty strands of privilege and class underpinning the private school education experience.)

But then it turns out Grayson is the Turd Burglar, turning his victimized feeling of unfair oppression into a meticulous thousand-step revenge plot. His villainy involves basically everything that frightens anyone about data technology. He steals photos and videos off a woman’s phone, and uses them to construct a catfishing Instagram account. Then he approaches seemingly everyone at St. Bernadine on social media, building relationships as blackmail material. Not hard to find lonely people, in high school or anywhere. A few students — and one teacher — send Grayson nude selfies. At which point Grayson turns the tables, using his own victims as unwilling collaborators.

There’s an Agatha Christie-ish cleverness in this twist, a scope that makes American Vandal season 2 a better mystery than a comedy. The “suspect” was actually multiple people, blackmailed dupes working for a shadowman. And then the Turd Burglar unleashes his final act: “The Dump,” an unloading of compromising photos and videos, a high school-sized variation of hacking scandals that torment anyone famous or publicly anti-totalitarian.

Grayson’s a distant presence in Vandal, but Culhane cuts a fascinating figure in a few memorable scenes. Grayson could be pretty much any angry young white dude, hiding behind the internet to torture the people around him. Like everything in the echo chamber of social media, Grayson’s vengeance is cosmically extreme and hyperbolic, focused on literally everyone in school. “You’re all full of s—t,” the Turd Burglar says in an early post. It’s total nihilism, and the savviest thing about Vandal is how it takes the time to suggest Grayson’s cynicism is also an act of self-loathing. In his communications with Kevin (Travis Tope), the eventual prime suspect, there’s a ghost of a genuine friendship, a feeling of two outcasts bonding. But Grayson is beyond connection. “You’re full of s—t, just like me” is the last message he ever sends Kevin: hatred turned outward and inward.

Heavy stuff, for a show with several hundred poop jokes! But with this final reveal, Vandal season 2 finally finds that second gear that made season 1 so special. The finale contrasts Grayson, “an individual completely lacking any form of empathy,” with the trickier perspectives represented by his victims. Campus weirdo Kevin thrilled to the possibility of finding someone who truly understood him (“We bonded over the same critiques of Rick & Morty“) and wound up a true co-conspirator in the Brownout. (The fact that Grayson was a childhood friend of Kevin’s adds another level to their catfishing interaction: Grayson weaponizes Kevin’s history as an act of subtle brainwashing.)

But it’s DeMarcus who delivers the most somber, humane perspective. The king of the school had no one who really understood him, was a basketball star in a system designed to surround future millionaires with yes men and professional parent figures. Melvin Gregg’s the breakout star of this season, shading DeMarcus’ raucous charm with a tense power. The scene where he explains how he got fooled by Grayson could be American Vandal‘s whole mission statement. “It’s hard to know what’s real,” DeMarcus says, “When nobody’s real with you.”

This lamentation sums up this season’s tricky power. All these misunderstood lonely people seek a real connection, and that’s their first mistake. The problem deepens the more you mull over Vandal‘s meta side, the awareness that you’re watching a documentary getting made. DeMarcus isn’t offering this conclusive statement to a friend or loved one. He’s telling it to some kids he just met — and to their camera, always on. Grayson used DeMarcus for vengeance. What’s Peter using him for?

American Vandal

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