CONVICTION Review: “A Simple Man”


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In this week’s CONVICTION, Wallace asks Hayes and her team to take on the case of Leo Scarlata. He’s a man with diminished mental capacities who is 15 years into a life sentence he got for burning down his family’s restaurant. One person – a homeless man sleeping in their basement – died, and another man was badly injured. Since Leo’s IQ is 73, he’s exactly the kind of person that generally gets railroaded by the system. Or so Hayes says. Wallace agrees.

On the whole, this week’s case is actually pretty boring. Arson, as a general rule, is not a very exciting crime. And for all that “A Simple Man” features several characters yelling about the fact that people with intellectual disabilities are disproportionately convicted of crimes because they don’t have the ability to protect themselves, this episode doesn’t really have much to say on the matter. Everyone involved clearly likes and sympathizes with Leo, but other than that, this installment really lacks a defined point of view. (Contrast this with, for example, last week’s “#StayWoke”, an episode which often made its point in an extremely ham-fisted way, but at the very least, had something to say.)

The most interesting bits yet again, are the segments in which Conviction’s secondary characters are given the spotlight. To be honest, I’m much more interested in finding out more about Tess’ family or Maxine’s time as a cop or Frankie’s relationship with Ray, than I am about yet another red herring in a case-of-the-week plot. And thanks to a kind of bizarre bit of framing in this episode, we get a few new tidbits about everyone.

It turns out that Leo’s case was brought to Wallace’s attention because of Paul Slatkin, a documentary filmmaker who’s trying to make a film about his case. (If you think that this idea seems awfully similar to Making a Murderer, it is.) As a result, Paul and his nameless crew will be filming the whole investigation and interviewing Hayes’ team. Their goal is to put everything in their movie. Hayes is immediately put off by all the cameras and doesn’t want anything to do with this. But Wallace says she has no choice, it’s the only way she’ll get the case.

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Hayes meets Leo’s brother Vince and his wife Rita. They all go to interview Leo, and discuss the case with him, as well as the relationship between the Vince, Leo and their third brother Anthony. (Apparently all three were super close.) Leo swears he’s innocent. Meanwhile, Maxine and Frankie meet up with Anthony at the family restaurant and use its similar layout to try and recreate how the fire got started. (This is much less exciting than our normal weekly segment where Frankie tries to reimagine a crime.) They successfully determine that the fire definitely began in a different place than the original investigation assumed. (Given how easy it is for Frankie and Friends to disprove original working police and prosecutorial theories in their cases every week, I think we have to start wondering about the quality of the police work going on in this city.)

The whole CIU team is having a difficult time adjusting to the camera crew’s presence. Everyone’s hyperaware of them and they all get super awkward whenever it seems as though they’re being filmed. Hayes is especially aggressive about it, purposefully ruining shots, shining lights into the camera, even blowing an air horn at one point. It’s predictably juvenile behavior for her character, but what’s interesting is that literally everyone gives her a pass on it, because she’s a former First Daughter. They all make sympathetic noises about how difficult it must have been for her growing up in the public eye with cameras in her face all the time.

Conviction has been particularly cagey when discussing Hayes’ past. We all knew she’s a President’s daughter, and that she didn’t handle the pressures of fame well. Her party girl ways, flippant demeanor and obsession with pushing boundaries all appear to be a direct result of her time in the White House. But this is the first time we’ve gotten even the tiniest bit of info about her time there. And it’s not much – we learn that she apparently spent a lot of time giving her Secret Service detail the slip. So much so that they changed her code name to “Houdini”. And Hayes was only 16 at the time. Conviction relies a lot on the idea that Hayes was somehow so scarred by her First Daughter status that it’s capable of explaining why she acts the way she does. But it’s never bothered to talk about how Hayes ended up the way she is – after all, she’s an adult now, and she was a teen when her father was President. Obviously, such an experience would take an emotional toll on anyone – but how much time is supposed to have passed between then and now? And why is Hayes not, on some level, expected to have moved past her White House upbringing, at least a little? We could really do with a backstory episode that fleshes this out a bit more, rather than just makes cheeky references to her wild ways.

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As part of the making of the film, the documentary crew does one on one interviews with everyone on the CIU team. Sam goes first, and sounds like a wannabe politician, full of compliments for Hayes. He insists that any tension between them over her basically stealing his is ancient history. (Even though every time he says this, it usually feels less true.) But Sam does have plenty to say about Maxine, and the way she handled herself with George, the man who turned out to have been guilty of the case they investigated last week. He thinks she was too aggressive, and if she had been a better negotiator, he might not have killed himself.

A bit later, Sam realizes that this interview makes him look terrible, so he breaks into Paul’s office to erase the file from his computer. While he’s there, he also watches another video, an interview with Vince that implies Leo could be guilty. (He once burned down the Scarlata brothers’ childhood treehouse in a rage.) Hayes is furious that Paul’s suppressing information that contradicts the story he’s trying to tell. Paul claims he’s trying to help Leo and others like him, by sharing his story and highlighting the fact that people with intellectual disabilities are unfairly treated by the justice system. Hayes claims he’s trying to manipulate Leo and his family, all so he can sell his film and make money. She seems a little extra pointed with her criticism, so it makes me wonder if something similar happened in her past as well, perhaps with all those cameras that apparently followed the Morrison family around.

Frankie’s documentary interview focuses on how he came to work in forensics. Apparently, it’s all because of his cellmate/possible boyfriend Ray, who hooked him on Forensic Files while he was in prison. He talks about how much Ray means to him, and how meeting him saved his life. It’s very sweet, but a bit confusing when we think about how, just a couple of episodes ago, Frankie was questioning whether he even thought Ray was a good person. We so need to see more of this story.

Thanks to a tip from the Scarlata family lawyer, Hayes and the CIU learn that Leo’s brother Vince has a pretty bad gambling problem. He immediately becomes the back half of the episode’s red herring, as the team debates whether he burned his own restaurant down on purpose for the insurance money. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.) Thanks to another round of Recreating Crimes with Frankie, the team discovers that a slow burn combustible (kitty litter and oil) was the actual cause of the fire. One of Leo’s jobs was to change the cat litter for his cat every night, and put the trash in a specifically marked bin on his “chore list”. Everyone thinks Leo just made a mistake, so the fire was an accident, not arson.

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Tess’ one-on-one documentary interview is also kind of interesting. Sure, it rehashes the same backstory we’ve been over in the previous three episodes: Her misidentification of a suspect in her aunt’s murder. But it (finally) fleshes the incident out a bit: Prior to the DNA evidence exonerating the man she’d accused, Tess had been a summa cum laude law student, training to be a prosecutor. Afterward, she couldn’t even finish taking the bar, and immediately altered her path. She had wanted to “put bad guys away”, but now clearly doesn’t trust herself to do that. And, working to free those who have been wrongfully convicted, seems a bit on-the-nose when it comes to penance tropes. But then again, Conviction is not a subtle show.

Hayes and the CIU team try to get Leo to admit that he put the kitty litter in the wrong container on accident. He insists that he follows the rules, and wouldn’t make a mistake like that. Turns out, he’s right. The night of the fire, someone had changed up his nightly chore list, and given him an instruction to put the kitty litter in a different, and definitely fire-causing, bin. It was Vince’s wife Rita, who was sick of the stress the restaurant was causing her husband, and anxious about his gambling debts. Vince is devastated by her betrayal, Leo is released, and even estranged brother Anthony shows up. The three Scarlata brothers are finally reunited. They hug it out as the documentary crew films their happy(ish?) ending.

Wallace, as it turns out, also did a one-on-one interview with Paul’s film crew. In his bit, he talks about Hayes mostly, because Wallace is obsessed with Hayes. She’s stubborn and fearless and brilliant, Wallace says. Hayes is a wild card, a real force of nature – and exactly what the CIU needs. He goes on to praise her legal mind some more, before Paul manages to get a word in edgewise and ask about the Department of Justice investigation that’s currently looming over him. Wallace stiffens, but basically says everything’s fine; the DOJ won’t find anything. And as anyone who has ever watched TV before can probably tell you – whenever someone says something like that? It’s almost guaranteed to not be true.

Season 1, Episode 7 (S01E07)
Conviction airs Mondays at 10PM on ABC 

Read all of our reviews of Conviction here. 
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Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story.  Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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