The following contains spoilers for American Vandal Season 2.
Partway through the first episode of American Vandal Season 2, the St. Bernadine high school administration believes they’ve nabbed the mysterious “Turd Burglar.” Junior student Kevin McClain has a mountain of evidence working against him in the case of a series of poop-related crimes, kicked off by an incident in which the cafeteria’s lemonade supply was spiked with laxatives.
For starters, Kevin made a point to “accidentally” bump into Brother Buckley, spilling his lemonade and then opting to replace it with horchata. Clearly Kevin must have known what the lemonade contained and tried to spare the elderly and infirm Brother Buckley from serious harm. Then there’s the matter that Kevin’s friend Tanner Basset observed him buying mysterious items from Dawsey’s convenience store. What could Kevin have been purchasing? Laxatives, perhaps?
More important than any of the evidence, however is the motive and St. Bernadine believes Kevin has one: revenge for bullying. Officer J. Crowder and the high school staff points out that in elementary school, Kevin received the nickname “Shitstain McClain” after he stood up from the grass during a game of capture the flag and his blue gym shorts were covered in a substance that could have been either feces or mud. A week before the “Brown Out” in the cafeteria, student Nick Sondergoth made a #tbt Instagram post about it. Then there are the “fruit ninja” videos, in which Kevin’s classmates toss fruit in his direction and he chops them out of the way, adopting a kung fu pose.
“It’s clear as day. He’s bullied,” Officer Crowder says.
Problem is, Kevin doesn’t see it that way.
“Bullying requires an unwilling participant. Do I seem unwilling? Maybe one or two of the videos out of context might appear to be bullying but in general I love doing the fruit ninja videos,” he tells documentarians Pete Maldonado and Sam Ecklund during his interview.
The breakdown between Officer Crowder’s understanding of bullying and Kevin McClain’s understanding of his own potential bullying highlights a confusing ambiguity about modern adolescence that makes American Vandal Season 2 truly great.
It’s always been hard to be a high schooler. In some ways it seems like a cruel experiment we inflict upon our youth to quarantine them all in old brick buildings and force them to interact with one another during the most turbulent times of their physical and emotional development. For as long as we’ve had high school-aged children, we’ve also had art trying to capture the crashing hormonal waves of their developing brains. What is Romeo and Juliet, after all, if not a high school romance where mom and dad don’t understand and shit gets really, really out of hand?
As art about high school developed, one of the most prominent themes inevitably became that of bullying and one of the most frequently occurring character archetypes is that of the bully. Bullying has always been a part of the teenage social landscape. When that many kids are confined into the same location, it’s impossible for them not to subconsciously form some kind of social hierarchy. Bullying is the ugly, destructive glue that holds that hierarchy together. Consequently, in teenage-oriented movies, television, and literature bullying is everywhere.
The bullies are numerous: Johnny in The Karate Kid, Biff in Back to the Future, Regina George in Mean Girls, and their methods are consistent: verbal degradation, physical violence, swirlies, locker-shoving, wedgies, Remembrall stealing and so on and so forth. In American Vandal Season 2, however, there is no swaggering monstrous teenage bully, and there are no acts of intimidation, violence, or mischief (aside from fecal terrorism). The world of American Vandal Season 2 reflects the confusing world of high school now: bullying has got to be in there somewhere because how could it not be? But … where is it?
It’s telling that so many of the students, teachers, and administrators of St. Bernadine High School have differing interpretations of whether Kevin McClain is even bullied in the first place. Intuitively, based on decades of pop culture precent, it seems as though he should be. Kevin is one of American Vandal Season 2’s best creations. Just as season 1 perfected the archetype of aimless, yet lovable meathead in Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), season 2 perfects the concept of faux high school intellectual.
Kevin (as played by Travis Tope) is the kind of kid who wears fedoras unironically and makes sure he adopts the most Spanish-sounding pronunciation of “horchata” as possible. He is in love with his own intellect, disdainful of organized religion, and performs in an EDM group called “The Horsehead Collective.”
As one classmate puts it “Kevin is like one of those guys who is constantly doing an impression of a smart guy.”
This is a kid who in any movie or TV show from an earlier decade would be destined for a solid locker stuffing. He is classic bully bait. In the believably modern world of American Vandal Season 2, though, it’s not so simple.
The most telling “evidence” of Kevin’s bullying is the series of fruit ninja videos. Kevin is right: he is seemingly a willing participant in each of the videos. The first one was even his idea, launched with former friend and eventually-expelled classmate Grayson Wentz. As time goes on and Peter and Sam’s documentary shows more and more footage of Snapchatted fruit ninja videos, it’s clear that’s something’s a little off. Kevin still chops at the fruit dutifully but there’s weariness to it. It’s also clear that it’s not always Kevin’s closest friends tossing the fruit.
That’s because, as we come to find out, Kevin doesn’t really have any friends. As one classmate points out, Kevin went from a 35-person birthday party in the 5th grade to a three-person birthday party the following year. Why? The Shitstain McClain incident from elementary school didn’t help, but there has to be more to it than that. This is where American Vandal Season 2 goes full Catcher in the Rye and deftly puts an adolescent tragedy right in front of our eyes – the place where we shitty, unempathetic adults are all most likely to miss it.
Thought it’s never explained why, Kevin lives with his grandmother and his sister. His parents are out of the picture and regardless of what the reasons of their absence are, that has to have paid a huge toll on Kevin’s psyche. One’s teenage years are an inopportune time to experience any significant familial or environmental disruption, yet its clear that Kevin has. So what happens to a kid who has experienced such a disruption that most of his peers wouldn’t be able to understand? Maybe he begins to behave a little differently. Maybe that makes him difficult to be around. Maybe his friends slowly start to spend less time with him. Maybe he starts to fancy himself an intellectual and gets way into silly minutiae like tea. Maybe he begins to convince himself that the increasing isolation was his idea the whole time because his peers aren’t nearly sophisticated enough to keep up with his high-minded interests.
That’s why no one can seem to nail down whether the fruit ninja videos are really bullying or not. Whether Kevin is being bullied in those videos depends on whether people are laughing with him or at him. And he’s too far removed from his peers for anyone to figure out who is doing the former and who is doing the latter.
It’s here that American Vandal reveals the real ugly truth about modern bullying: noticeable, truly “cinematic” bullying is on the down swing because kids have gotten too good at bullying themselves. Proliferation of media and communication technology has created a little social media police state of social checks and balances. And as a result one is more likely to be ignored than harassed. The tragedy at the center of American Vandal Season 2 isn’t bullying. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite: it’s isolation.
We gave you a spoiler warning at the beginning of the article but here is an even sterner one. The following contains SPOILERS for the ending of American Vandal Season 2.
Seriously, spoilers below!!!
Isolation is at the core of American Vandal Season 2. The adults (and some of the students) look at the awkward fruit ninja videos as evidence of Kevin’s bullying because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to think what is happening based on the rules of ‘80s teen movies. In reality what’s happening is even sadder: people find it easier to ignore Kevin.
Because of whatever unnamed tragedy or upheaval that befell Kevin’s home life, Kevin has become disagreeable, introverted, and well…weird. The kids, being decent, empathetic, and hopelessly wrapped up in their own lives are inclined to leave him alone rather than bully him.
Kevin claims that he doesn’t care about what his classmates think of him but just like everyone else who has ever said something similar, of course he cares. How could he not? American Vandal Season 2 then reveals that he’s not the only one who cares.
Kevin is the Turd Burglar…sort of. He is actually one of four people at the school manipulated by the real Turd Burglar to commit the poop crimes. Kevin’s old friend Grayson Wentz is the mastermind of the turd operation. He was expelled from school for committing the relatively minor crime of tweeting offensive things from the school’s computers. Stuck at home, not able to interact with his former classmates outside of their social media accounts, Grayson becomes disillusioned. He sees the masks that his peers where on social media and can only think of how full of shit they all are, so he concocts a scheme to show everyone all of that shit…literally.
Grayson hacks the phone of a pretty girl named Abby Samuels and then uses her videos and photos to catfish whoever he can at the school. Of the dozens of individuals he contacts, four interact with the catfish account, named Brooke, to provide compromising material of themselves. Grayson then either blackmails or manipulates them into pulling the “pranks.”
Grayson’s plan only works because there are plenty of people at the school experiencing isolation like Kevin. Kevin is obviously very lonely, something he admits to who he believes is the woman he’s falling in love with via text.
“I talk like this because I don’t like trying to be normal,” his texts to Grayson’s catfish read. “No one wants to be the fruit ninja. I’ve just never been good at fitting in so at some point I decided to do the opposite.”
Kevin connected with Brooke. He was smitten with her. They bonded over the same critiques of Rick and Morty. He was so starved for any real human interaction in his life that he willingly did “The Brownout” for her.
At first glance, Kevin’s classmate, DeMarcus Tillman, seems to be Kevin’s opposite in every possible way. DeMarcus is the school’s best basketball player destined to play hoops in college, and undoubtedly one of the most beloved and popular individuals in the school. Still, he falls victim to Grayson’s catfish because like Kevin, he feels a crushing loneliness. After his role in the Turd Burglar’s crimes are revealed (he was behind the “poop piñata”), DeMarcus tells Peter what it’s like to be a superstar black athlete in a mostly white school.
“That shit is alienating. No one is honest with you. I’m not from the same world as those St. Bernadine kids. They may act like they love me and sometimes I think that they do. It just doesn’t feel real. With Brooke it did.”
Jenna Hawthorne felt lonely too. She comes from the school’s richest family and throughout her life has had access to only the finest things. That doesn’t spare her from humiliation though, when she is caught cropping an Instagram photo to make it appear that she was friends with Khloe Kardashian when in reality it was a paid meet-and-greet. After that incident, Jenna experiences the same social isolation that Kevin and DeMarcus do. She falls in love with Brooke and sends her compromising photos of herself. Brooke/Grayson blackmails her into filling the confetti cannons at the pep rally with cat poop.
Bullying is undoubtedly still a big concern in schools. It’s doubtful that it will ever fully go away. Ultimately though, American Vandal’s early introduction of bullying as a potential motivator for a crime is a red herring. Bullying hurts but isolation can cut even deeper. The poop adorning St. Bernadine’s halls was never about revenge but all about ostracization stemming form social media-forced inauthenticity. Grayson is not wrong that all of his classmates are living lonely lives and wearing masks online. But as Peter points out in his closing narration, how could they not be?
“We’re not the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed. We’re living in a constant state of feedback and judgement. Maybe the masks provide a thin layer of protection – an opportunity to grow,” he says.
The kids are alright. They may be getting better even. We’ve just always asked a lot of them and now we’re asking even more. American Vandal Season 2 understands the plight of the modern American teenager on a deep level. It understands that the kids are no longer tormenting one another because they are too busy trying to figure out how to make themselves seen in a world of nothing but black mirrors.