WHAT IT’S ABOUT A migrant worker, Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), crosses the U.S./Mexican border in search of his son, who has gone missing and was last seen working on a tomato farm in North Carolina. That farm, now run by Laurie Ann Hesby (Cherry Jones), is under intense financial pressure, which leads to cost-cutting, also abuses, and a horrific tragedy. Her daughter-in-law, Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman), wants to find out what happened. In other storylines: Kimara Walters (Regina King), a social worker, tries to help a 17-year-old prostitute, Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten); Nicolas Coates (Timothy Hutton), a furniture salesman, is having money trouble too; addict Coy Henson (Connor Jessup) also gets a job on the Hesby farm. This is the third season of John Ridley’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning anthology.
MY SAY Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) usually stays out of his stories and instead lets his characters — and those stories — do the talking for him. But he does make an exception at the end of the third episode, when an unseen man, addressing an audience, says, “The food on your table comes with a price that you can’t see, but somebody has to pay." He adds, “you can chose to ignore that, but what you can’t do is be ignorant.”
Knowledge may be the single most important word in the Ridley vocabulary, defined roughly as: The more you know, the more you understand. In Ridley’s fictional world — laid out the past two seasons and in this one as well — to understand is to empathize, to empathize is to feel, and to feel is to suddenly, miraculously, form a bond with your fellow human. Ignorance is also the corollary to injustice, and injustice is just another word for crime.
Without saying as much, this season invokes half a century of migrant worker documentaries — a series of indictments against a system that exploits those who pay “the price you can’t see,” from Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame,” to more recent films like “The Harvest,” “East of Salinas” and “Food Chains.” But “American Crime” also seems to invoke legendary documentary film producer Frederick Wiseman, who found truth in the banal — the workaday lives of average people whose daily rhythms laid bare their hearts.
The first couple of seasons of “Crime” managed exactly that, but there’s greater mastery in the third. Ridley’s storytelling is so organic, so natural and so unforced that soon enough you fall in step with these lives, and their sorrows, tragedies and self-delusions. Ridley always gets performers who are up to the challenge, but there is something particularly affective about Martinez’s performance. He’s the father searching for the prodigal son, or the lost sheep separated from the other 99. Each step brings him closer to either an answer, or closure. The performance is deeply moving, and effortlessly achieves that requisite Ridley touch — the human connection.
Each of the storylines parallel one another, and will eventually converge. Each of the characters do as well, and like Martinez’s Salazar, they are looking for something — an answer, or sobriety, or a family, or maybe just the truth. In a flashback scene, the prostitute Shae Reese as a young girl is peering into her cellphone, searching for words that tell her exactly how she feels at that moment. She finds one — “enouement” — which means “the sadness of arriving in the future and not being able to tell your past self all of the things you’ve discovered.”
Sadness, indeed, maybe even another key to the entire season.
BOTTOM LINE Another brilliant, powerful, moving season of one of TV’s best.