Switched At Birth is constantly juggling a ton of plot. In this season alone, the show has introduced five new recurring characters just to service the plot, giving most members of the main cast new avenues to explore and populating those worlds accordingly. This is a storytelling strategy the show has employed since very early on in its run, and for the most part it has worked. The writers almost always know where to find the grounded character moments within all of the swirling plot, giving the show’s stories a gravity that could be lacking otherwise. For the most part, it seemed as if this season was following that same path of balancing plot and character moments, until “The Scream” revealed a few glaring weaknesses.
It’s not that this episode featured plots or character moments that were bad, per se, but everything felt a bit underdeveloped in a way it hasn’t so far this season. Moments like Bay’s disappointment in Tank and John and Kathryn’s big blowout are things five episodes in the making, and should have brought the big emotional guns. Instead they felt a bit underdone—almost too low-key—and the overall impact of the episode suffered for it.
Let’s start with Bay and Tank, because their story took a few turns for the bizarre here. Although Bay let Tank down easy in the last episode, his kindness when she injured her hand has her seeing him in a different light. Except now, everything is awkward; she doesn’t know how to flip the switch from telling him she wanted to be friends to letting him she’s now in fact interested in a more-than-friends way. The awkwardness is wrapped around what turns into a somewhat strange story about a fraternity party Mary Beth gets invited to, a party Tank refuses to invite Bay to, no matter how many hints she drops. Suddenly, it’s not a story about Bay and Tank so much as it is a story about Tank and how his fraternity is having a “Dog Fight,” which is basically a party designed to make fun of women the fraternity brothers deem less than attractive. With Mary Beth as one of the potential targets, Tank finds a way to get the party canceled—but despite Bay’s insistence he depledge, he refuses to abandon his brothers.
This left turn for Tank’s story does a few interesting things for his character, in that it reinforces his status as a “good guy” for Bay while putting a few chinks in that good-guy armor so he doesn’t appear too perfect or boring. But something about the story feels a bit hollow; a plot designed for plot’s sake and masquerading as a plot designed for character’s sake. Admittedly, much of my reservation might be due to the fact that Bay and Tank as a potential couple is far less interesting to me than Bay and Tank as friends. But a lot of it is in the somewhat inelegant way their pairing was introduced in this episode, with Bay making such a quick and swift sea change from only wanting to be friends to luring Tank to her bedroom and planting a kiss on him. Bay and Tank certainly are lovely together, and Vanessa Marano and Max Adler have wonderful repartee, but it just feels like there are still a few missing pieces here that still need to be filled in for the story to fully work.
The biggest story this week, and the one I was most anticipating, is what happens with John and Kathryn after John’s kiss with Jennice last week. The moment John and Jennice agreed to keep the kiss a secret, it was obviously only a matter of time before Kathryn found out. What makes the story all the more complicated is Kathryn’s reluctance to tell John about the subject matter of her upcoming book. I wrote last week about John and Kathryn being out of sync, and their respective stories here were examples of that to the extreme; they’re now so out of sync that they can’t even talk to each other about the most important things in their lives, for fear their marriage is so fragile that these things will break them apart. John and Kathryn’s secrets surface at the most awkward time and in the most awkward way: right in the middle of a party Renzo is throwing in honor of Kathryn’s big book deal. It’s awkward and horrible, yes, but something about it also feels downright strange in a way I can’t quite put my finger on; like I was watching the show from afar through a fuzzy lens.
John and Kathryn’s inevitable blowout—where John tries to explain exactly what happens and Kathryn kicks him out of the house—simultaneously feels like a long time coming and like it wasn’t developed enough at all, which is a strange place for this story to sit. A lot of this has to do with Switched At Birth’s plot-heavy mentality: John and Kathryn have barely spent any time together this season (which yes, in itself is part of the point), but it doesn’t feel like they’ve spent significantly less time together than they have in the past. The quality of that time is different, sure, but in order to truly sell a story of this marriage going off the rails, it needs more. More time, more talks, more weight.
If any story is indicative of the imbalance of plot vs. character this season, it’s Daphne’s developing love triangle with Jorge and Campbell. When Daphne’s time at the clinic began, it seemed like this was truly going to be a story about Daphne and her regaining her trust in herself after her rollercoaster of a summer with Jace. Instead, though, it’s turned into a somewhat odd mixture of underdeveloped love triangle and public service announcement about extreme sports and brain injuries, and somewhere in there it feels as if Daphne got lost. The thing is, I respect Switched At Birth’s commitment to telling stories about issues like brain trauma. I respect that the show constantly strives to do things just slightly outside of the norm. But when it takes away from telling richer stories about the core cast, it’s automatically less interesting. What is Daphne’s story here? What does her relationship with Campbell or her relationship with Jorge do for her? That’s what is still difficult to see.
I suppose in the end what I’m missing this season, which didn’t stick out as too much of a problem until “The Scream,” is the family interaction. New characters and plots can be wonderful and rewarding, but at this moment it feels as if those are coming in expense of the Kennish/Vasquez moments and stories that are the backbone of the show. It could easily be that this episode is simply a transitional period in these stories, a necessary step in order to get to a richer, more character-driven place for the main characters. But that’s just one of the things that come along with analyzing television on an episodic basis; it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. And this episode was full of trees.
- Carrie Wikis Some Art: The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard.
- This whole “Bay can’t paint or sign” thing is not making me happy. Regina already can’t sign! Leave poor Bay alone!
- Who’s picking Mary Beth for a “Dog Fight” party, besides jerks? She’s gorgeous! (I guess I answered my own question with the whole “jerks” thing.)
- The murder mystery started out as a lot of fun (those accents!) but quickly felt like an afterthought, which was a shame. It felt like there was more to be mined there.
- The title of Kathryn’s book is Batter Up. Indeed, Kathryn.