American Crime Review: “Episode Five”

(Episode 1.05)

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<i>American Crime</i> Review: &#8220;Episode Five&#8221;

We bury one body, we produce another. Whether it’s Aubrey or the drug dealer whose throat she cut with a cocaine razor, we’ll have to wait to find out. For this week, we begin on Russ’s face. He and Mark sit in his car. Mark’s face is out of focus, the camera tight on Russ’s. They’re at Matt’s house, and after momentary vertigo from all the blood and aftermath, Russ retrieves clothes from Matt’s closet. He leaves the clothes with the coroner. The coroner slides out Matt’s corpse, and we see the entry wound, covered up like a pimple. The cold open ends on a doozy: an overhead of the reconstruction work, the false eye socket, looking like melted butter shocked back down to solidifying temperature.

On its own, the shot is piercing. How often do we consider the dexterity of coronary makeup artists? This isn’t Hollywood. The coroner doesn’t beautify the human face into laws of nature all its own—laws we might call Stardom. The coroner turns life into a mask that death can wear, and wear convincingly, if onlookers are focusing elsewhere. On their grief. On their aimlessness. On their loneliness. On their mistakes. It is the art of masking and unmasking the unchangeable, and it is this art with which most everyone in “Episode Five” is grappling.

The natural place to dive into is Carter and Aubry. Carter secures bail. Aliyah and her church came through. He’s set up in an apartment, and with a job. His trial looms, and for at least a couple hours, he wears an ankle bracelet, but at least he isn’t corroding in jail. It lasts for however long it took him to get Aubrey his address. She knocks, he answers, and they embrace, caress, doze off, and basically do as they did, before any of this. It’s almost sweet, until Carter wakes from his nap to an ankle free of police surveillance. Aubry’s cut him loose so they can make a break for Vietnam, by way of Canada. She’s done all the research. Carter objects immediately. He calls her insane. And then they leave for the border.

When Carter first opens the hotel door to Aubry, a sun flare hangs above her, like some guardian angel, and the glow fools us into thinking her soul is intact. Then she and Carter set out for the long drive, and all she can think about is scoring drugs. Carter senses the mounting absurdity. The chemistry between Elvis Nolasco and Caitlin Gerard isn’t lost on you, but neither is the rot each actor imbeds in his and her character. Carter wants a companion in his. He needs warmth—that angelic glow. But Aubry’s dependence isn’t co-. Hanelle Culpepper, who directed the episode, plays the familiar, jumbled cutting off Nolasco’s performance. His confusion borders dismay. He strings together double-takes that are, in fact, a succession of surprises, one on top of the next. Culpepper arranges their getaway sequence with a boxer’s rhythm: Aubry unhinges in jabs; Carter hangs back, until he finally turns the car around, gets Aubry some drugs, witnesses her kill a drug dealer and then herself, accidentally, with the dealer’s drugs. That last bit is Culpepper’s haymaker. Aubry had no—and was no—guardian angel. She takes advantage of her foster brother’s generosity and Culpepper covers this strung out Bonnie from the cheeks down with her brother’s shoulder, like an old bandana robber. She’s a bandit. She made off with her brother’s money, and, put her murder-suspect boyfriend at the scene of another murder. Of course, it’s not rage with which Carter shouts over Aubry’s overdosed eyes. It’s sorrow, regret, sobriety.

Culpepper might not be filming Carter through prison bars—not yet—but she has stuck him in orange. Jailed isn’t so much a physical setting at this point for him; it’s his daily circumstance. He’s either living out his sentence or fleeing. He should’ve listened to his sister, because she’s been explaining this to him, in simple declaratives: No Aubry. Yet, he can’t help it. Dependency fastens Carter to Aubry. It’s not an addiction the way security and reality have abandoned her in equal measure. He asks Aliyah to be family to him right now, not a social advocate. He feels trapped, but not by the politics his sister calls him to carry, and not even by the law. He’s emotionally isolated; the only human he had left is now less human than chemical disarray.

“Episode Five” squared more than Aubry and Carter with demons. Mark lays bare for Barb all of her shortcomings—her lies, her rationalizations. The show resorts to contrivance for this: Mark is marrying a woman of color, Rachelle. She’s a fellow serviceperson. They’ve been dating for a year. Barb is taken aback by just now finding out, and Mark explains with a brief recap of Barbisms that speaks for her conduct: the thems, the blacks, and so on. She’s so reflexive with it, her initial defense is reiteration: “They killed your brother.” Mark hardly lets her speak. Huffman hardly looks anywhere but nowhere. She’s on the verge of shattering this character. A fraction too much eye contact, and Barb would unspool. Barb does the closest thing to atoning that Barb probably can do, with a defeated and trembling reminder to Mark of how hard they had it. “Close” is so relative. Give Huffman another round of applause: For the moment, you’re almost as quick to forget Random Rachelle as you are Barb’s persistent ignorance. The woman hurts. Hard.

Some other ancillary stuff is a bit fatter in “Episode Five.” The Gutierrezes join Hector in weightlessness, despite a boy punching Jenny after she punches him. Alonzo gets the car back, but the church excommunicates him [from the Sunday service]. Tony pouts about the car anyway. Each Gutierrez has a breadcrumb of a scene. Tony meets up with his juvie contact. Alonzo impersonates Barb. Jenny loses that fight against a male classmate. Given Tony’s development, the classmate will likely regret that. But the only real payoff in all of these scenes, including Hector’s I’m-your-wild-card pitch to the prosecution, is Culpepper’s work as Jenny tries to erase her black eye with makeup. The frames are tight on the powder, the mirror. Jenny pats and winces. There isn’t anywhere else for us to look on screen, other than at the discoloration. The bruised eye is Jenny’s left. You don’t need to rewind your DVRs to remember which side of Matt’s face was doctored.

Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.