[Spoilers below for “American Crime” Season 2, through Episode 8.]
This week’s episode of “American Crime” — the eighth entry in John Ridley’s 10-part second season — opens with a teacher discussing how the sound of a gunshot “just doesn’t belong” in a school. “There’s such an incongruence of being in a school and hearing gunfire,” the unnamed man says. “That sound violates that space.” He goes on to compare what he went through during a school shooting to the birth of his children, in that both events touched “every aspect of my life.”
The man isn’t an actor. He’s not playing a part. He’s a former teacher who was at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when two students attacked their own classmates and faculty, killing 12 students and one teacher. Though his name, title and background are never actually shown on screen, viewers need not know the specifics of who he is or what he’s talking about to understand what he represents: one of many victims involved with the most harrowing, traumatizing and recurrent American crimes in history.
Throughout Episode 8, this man is joined by other teachers present at school shootings, as well as victims of LGBTQ bullying. Up until last week’s episode, only the latter issue really applied to the second season of ABC’s Emmy-winning anthology series. But that all changed last week, when a gay student was pushed too far by bullying, drugs and the system put in place to help him, and he made a heartbreaking choice. Now, “American Crime” is about more than it was when the season began, and it recognizes the gravity of its chosen topic in putting these real victims on screen.
But they don’t take over the entire episode; just brief sections within it. After a few excerpts from the interviews play out, the first voice we hear is Coach Dan Sullivan’s, played by Timothy Hutton, as he gives a heartfelt speech to the school body shortly following the death of one of their own; a basketball player getting his scholastic eulogy within the gymnasium in which he once played. Dan’s words are moving, and, briefly, represent exactly what they should: an opportunity for change. “If we don’t love each other, really love each other, then this is what happens. […] What happened here — hate, death, guns in school — people say, ‘This is the new normal.’ But is this the new normal we want? It’s up to us.”
Sullivan’s wife and daughter, a student at the school, look on as he speaks, and we watch the words sink into each of them just as they sink into us. It’s a truly a touching moment of restraint, poignancy and power — the latter of which “American Crime” has always done well (too well, even). And in this moment, combined with the narrative-breaking interviews, the dark TV narrative already 70 percent of the way through its story feels like it’s setting up for a dramatic shift; a change in both how its story is being told and where it’s going. It’s a beautiful, uplifting idea, but one that’s quickly dismissed in favor of more hate.
You see, the arc of the episode is largely Dan’s. After taking center stage and stepping in for headmaster Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman) during the school’s time of need, he becomes angry, bitter and resentful. He’s ready to blame someone, anyone for what’s happened and eager to point the finger at a leader he once trusted. Incensed by fear and hate, Dan goes after Graham’s job, first behind her back and then directly to her face, calling on her to be ousted. Why? Because she wasn’t there after the shooting. She was at home, trying to cope with the idea that the boy who killed her student first showed up to shoot her.
Dan doesn’t see (or care to see) any of this. He is blinded by the very thing he cautioned against in his speech. Worse yet, his behavior spreads to his home, threatening to become contagious for his impressionable daughter, Becca (Sky Azure Van Vliet). Turns out Becca sold prescription drugs to the shooter the day he killed another student, and she’s torn up about how to come clean. When she goes to her dad asking for help — help he promised her at any time for anything — he berates her, lashing out with words and actions that would terrify anyone, let alone a young high school student.
No one is disputing whether or not the events of “American Crime” are tragic. Ridley’s series has always been effective in depicting the darkest recesses of humanity, be it through individuals or the systems they build. What’s troubling is how when presented with the chance to change, with the chance to choose the better, with the chance to promote healing and understanding, Dan does the opposite — and so does the series.
If told like any other episode, viewers might dispute whether or not it was more valuable to depict things as they are — no gun reform, lots of hate and what feels like a new tragedy every week — perhaps even sympathizing with Dan as a scared, angry parent going through a hard time. Of course, the other side of the coin would be what we hope is happening with families nationwide, and showing what we’d like to believe is happening versus what has actually happened isn’t always productive.
But that argument is largely mooted by the very interviews “American Crime” uses to make its own story more resonate. Dan’s opening call to action is later paraphrased by the real-life teacher from the opening interview, now set up to close out the episode. The unnamed man says how his children “brought me back to center.” His relationships with his kids, his wife, his family and his community gave him the strength he needed to “put me back together.” In other words, love saved him when hate threatened to ruin everything.
“American Crime” presents people who are already consumed by hate. They have been, for various reasons, since the show’s inception. And while it’s wrong to invalidate a feeling many people may be sharing, it’s also wrong to assume the worst in all of us. Ultimately, what this unnamed man tells us straight to camera — when times are darkest, that’s when you have to find the light — that idea is so far removed from the reality created in “American Crime’s” actual narrative, it’s hard to believe the show’s writers heard anything these real people were telling them.
“American Crime” airs Wednesdays at 10pm on ABC.