[This story contains spoilers for Season 2 and the season finale of American Crime]
“I want to report a rape.”
So began the discomfiting sophomore season of ABC's anthology series American Crime, which examines how an Indianapolis community responds to an accusation of sexual assault by a high-school boy aimed at a male classmate. The speaker is single mother Ann (Lili Taylor), whose pained desperation and parental obligation lead her to call the police after it becomes clear that her victimized son’s headmistress (Felicity Huffman) doesn’t believe her — or has made up her mind not to. Living in a world where only a third of rapes are reported to authorities — and those of male victims far, far less — Ann is determined to seek justice for her child by speaking out about what happened to him.
But Ann’s high-minded candor constitutes another violation for Taylor (Connor Jessup), for whom the truth is better left unsaid, at least in the immediate aftermath of the crime. Already an outcast at his prep school for being the scholarship kid (his classmates call him "white trash"), Taylor is humiliated further when his mother outs him as a victim of sexual assault. As "right" as Ann is for reporting the rape, Taylor is right, too, for wanting to figure out his own way of privately dealing with his trauma. When he steals a gun, walks into the woods, and a shot rings out, the show makes it clear, even though Taylor doesn’t go through with his intended suicide: Silence can kill, but it might have also saved. Not everybody heals the same way or at the same rate. Victims and survivors should be allowed to take the time they need before they say anything, if they decide to speak about it at all.
American Crime lends the attitudes of both mother and son validity; this isn’t a series interested in definitive answers or simple resolutions. In a formally supple season that included beat-poetry performances, extended dance sequences, and testimonies from teachers at Columbine High, the anthology drama was arguably most powerful this year as an exploration of the dangers and slipperiness of truth where rape is concerned — while never failing to empathize with survivors. That exploration made for an intellectually rigorous thought experiment — if also a relentlessly grim experience — that was bracingly honest about the complications of sex and life.
Among the major curveballs creator John Ridley and his writers threw at the audience in this second season is the possibility that the accused rapist, basketball co-captain Eric (Joey Pollari), truly believes his encounter with Taylor to be rough but consensual sex with a near-virgin still figuring out his sexuality. Eric's the opposite of a GLAAD poster boy — "I’m gay, but I’m not a faggot," he insists — but the homophobia he’s internalized from his churchgoing parents and his doomed attempts at connecting with his disinterested hook-up partners reveal him to be a lonely teen worthy of sympathy himself.
Given the paucity of mainstream entertainment that takes male-on-male rape seriously, the show takes care to disprove an array of myths and misconceptions about such acts. "Boys don’t get raped … boys fight back," declares the forbidding mother (Regina King) of one of Eric’s teammates. Eric's own unbalanced mother implies that homosexuality can be transmitted through pedophilia. In contrast, a school-board member defines rape for the audience as college freshmen across the country are now taught it: It’s assault if consent is withdrawn at any time during sex. Ann has to correct the cops when they immediately assume Taylor is a girl. Taylor is harshly disciplined by his school for being under the influence on the night in question, even though he says he was drugged without his knowledge. For some, his masochistic fantasies, laid bare in his text messages to his alleged attacker, suggest he was "asking for it."
Today’s progressive orthodoxy demands that all sexual-assault victims be believed. That’s an important reversal on the previous status quo, wherein survivors’ accounts were subject to a battery of questions and repudiations — when they were taken seriously at all. But American Crime is most interested in the places ideological stances fail to reach, and so shines a light on the corners where rape can yield multiple narratives, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved.
That’s partly why this season is told (rather newfangledly) sans the first and last chapters of the story: We never do learn what really happened at the captains’ party where the incident took place or where Taylor and Eric end up, because the truth is sometimes too hard to pin down. What matters is how one acts in the face of uncertainty -- and as the school staff, the parents, and the bystanders demonstrate, plenty do so dishonorably.
That’s also why the purposefully messy season finale belongs to Taylor, who, awaiting trial for murder, finally gets the chance to assert his truths. He "stopped feeling like a victim," he admits to his defense lawyer, when he put a bullet in one of the basketball players who brutally beat him in retaliation for his mother speaking out. Testimony from Eric about his teammates’ organized pummeling could garner Taylor a lighter sentence, but the survivor doesn’t want his "future to depend on the guy who raped [him]." And so he’s willing to obscure a smaller fact to shine a light on a bigger one: He’s more than just a victim. Sometimes a lie's more revealing than the truth.