Switched At Birth is at its best when it’s telling small, intimate stories. The end of last season wrapped up with the show immersed in a few decidedly “bigger” threads, and while they were told well, it always felt a bit like an awkward fit; like the show could have been doing more simply by doing less. Three episodes into the third season and everything feels as if it’s in balance again, with smaller character stories again taking center stage.
These smaller stories are working especially well right now because they all feel emotionally connected. Kathryn’s struggle with feeling lost as her children grow up is accentuated in her strongly negative reaction to Toby’s decision to move out and make his own decisions. John’s struggle to understand his wife’s difficulties color how he is reacting to Daphne’s indiscretions. Daphne’s struggles with Sharee make her much less patient when confronted with John’s continued refusal to forgive her. Everything happening to the Kennish family feels like it is of one organism, living and breathing and contracting and expanding together, reacting to connected internal and external forces. This is my favorite flavor of family drama, and for the most part it plays out splendidly in this episode.
The biggest and most emotionally affecting story of the episode revolves around Daphne and her desperation to regain John’s approval. It manifests itself with her frantically trying to make something of the field hockey team’s first game in order to impress him with their progress and show just how much she’s turned her life around. This involves picking up Sharee at school and generally playing very, very nice with her, trying her hardest to get the best player on her her side before the big day. Everything goes to hell when the tire-slashing escalates to window-smashing, and Carlton takes action by doing locker searches to find the culprit, finding a box cutter in Sharee’s locker in the process and expelling her.
The locker search scene was an interesting one, because of how deliberately racially charged it was. From the framing, it looked like the only people’s lockers being searched were the new hearing kids, and the school went through the search process by lining them all up against the wall like they were in a police lineup. It was infuriating, but that was the point: Matthew was slashing tires and smashing windows specifically to cause scenes like this, to place doubt in the minds of the administration about what these new kids were doing to Carlton, and it worked. It was a deliberately uncomfortable sight. We know the truth of what’s going on, but other than the handful of Carlton kids in on Matthew’s deeds—at this point, just Emmett and Travis—this plays like an awful scenario that likely (and unfortunately) happens far more often than it should. Daphne helping Sharee get out of being falsely accused is great, but Sharee’s response is absolutely correct: Daphne is a good person, but she has ulterior motives here with John. To someone in Sharee’s position, having the only person at Carlton be on your side feel like they’re using you can’t feel like a very warm embrace.
While it feels like Daphne’s story with Sharee is just beginning, her story with John comes to a welcome ending—but not before it completely blows up. John’s having a pretty rough season so far, but as I mentioned previously, at least his anger here feels like a boiling over of so many things going on in his life beyond Daphne, with her on the unfortunate end of his very bad day. Listening to John say such horrible things to Daphne is downright hurtful, but her response seems to shake something loose in his brain and finally make him realize that Daphne is just a human—a human who makes mistakes and who he happens to love. Their reconciliation at the end of the episode is the type of scene Switched At Birth does so very well, and this one is no exception.
Toby also gets a significant story this week, as he decides to move out of his parents’ house so he can start a new, grown-up life on his own. This is the smallest of small stories, but I loved every second of it because Toby so rarely gets the chance to have story space like this. Last season his stories were all hyper-focused on his questionable marriage; now, the marriage done, Toby has to figure out how to be an adult, and that, to me, is far more interesting. Him deciding to strike out on his own without Kathryn’s help (in a neighborhood she doesn’t approve of) feels like exactly what he needs to do, and her reaction to it in light of everything happening in her own life is perfectly pitched. Also, Toby the field hockey coach is working like gangbusters for me. Everything’s coming up Toby!
But of all the things that happened in “Fountain,” perhaps my favorite was that Emmett had a significant story again. Emmett is a wonderful character whose screen time was greatly reduced last season, and well, I simply missed him. Watching him wrestle with the appropriate thing to do after learning Matthew was the one slashing tires at Carlton wasn’t an overly complex story (there was really no doubt Emmett would eventually do the right thing), but it did give the show the opportunity to explore the general feeling at Carlton from the deaf community about what Matthew did. Emmett is immediately conflicted, torn between wanting to stand by Matthew’s (likely wrongheaded) assertion that he’s doing it to defend deaf culture and knowing Matthew is doing much more harm than good, while Travis is much more accepting and even pressures Emmett not to turn on his own friend. The only disappointment in this story was not getting a scene between Emmett and Melody as he explains what is happening and asks for advice, but his scene with Daphne was a fine substitute.
Even though the mystery of the Carlton vandal has been solved, between Sharee’s reaction to Daphne and what we saw of the locker search lineup, it feels like the tensions between the hearing and deaf kids might just be beginning. Switched At Birth is telling a lot of small stories right now, but the Carlton story is big, much bigger than the show has even touched on yet, and this is one big story I am looking forward to seeing what happens next.
- Carrie Wikis Some Art: Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917. One of the most historically interesting works selected to be an episode title, and it also is special because the actual piece is referenced within the episode.
- I continue to enjoy Bay’s time with her art teacher and Tank, simply because of all of Bay’s extraneous stories this one feels the most germane to her character. Watching her explore what future life as an artist might be like informs her character while still remaining entertaining, in a nice, low-key way. Also, Tank is just a very pleasant presence on the show.
- How wonderful was it to see Emmett and Daphne as friends again? I do miss the days when they interacted in almost every episode.
- I have no idea what to think about Regina’s new insane boss. Working for someone who screams at you is highly overrated, Regina. Ask anyone who’s ever been an assistant in Hollywood. (Also, it feels like they’re going to make out? Regina, please make good choices.)