The third episode of the third season of American Crime is the best episode of this show that’s been broadcast to date and by extension one of the greatest episodes of television ever to air. For this installment of the column I’m not going to talk about what it was so much as what it did. Let me begin with a story.
When I was in rehab I shared a floor with a kid my age from Hunter’s Point, the worst neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the most neglected areas of the entire United States. He was as sweet and warm as could be once the drugs were out of his system; he exercised compulsively and would always try to show me new workouts I could do, given my bad back and lack of physical dexterity at the time I was getting clean. He was also a stickup kid who used to make his living robbing the neighborhood dope boys; he never said so explicitly, but I could tell there were bodies to his name in the San Francisco Bay.
One night in the cafeteria he told me about a night he spent in a shooting gallery in East Oakland. The evening began with one junkie overdosing almost immediately; three more would die before the sun came up. With each fiend that punched their ticket, the price of the dope went up by 100%. They called it “d-dope”—shit that was so potent it’d kill you dead—and it was in such high demand that the dealers were concerned about running out. Addicts were not only willingly but enthusiastically paying a premium for material that might kill them, because it might kill them.
It’s difficult to put this story in plainer language, yet reading it over I worry that the reality is not coming across. Read that paragraph as many times as you want; it’s not ever going to make sense. Not without the proper decoder.
When things go down this far it’s tempting to moralize or construct a narrative that makes sense of this darkness. We think that there must be something besides a naked want that makes people behave this way, and that we would never feel a want this fearsome or that we would know how to best it, should it ever deign to look us in the eye and bare its fangs. Sometimes someone wants something, to the point where they think they must have it; and this want intersects with those who share an equal voracity of desire, those who are convinced of the same need; and while not all of them suffer equally, all are squeezed by the rope of the same net. This net is not a comfortable vessel, but it holds one in place. And what does it release one into when it breaks? Terror.
Mark Isham’s score is a beautiful thing that gets less credit than it deserves for making this program what it is. There is a moment of confession when the music creeps in so slowly and quietly that one has to convince themselves it’s playing before one knows for certain that it’s there. This is, in fact, how all things are discovered.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). He has also been published in The Establishment. Write to him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.