Switched At Birth: “And Life Begins Right Away”/The Fosters: “Someone’s Little Sister”
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Vanessa Marano, Katie Leclerc
Vanessa Marano, Katie Leclerc

Switched At Birth: “And Life Begins Right Away”/The Fosters: “Someone’s Little Sister”

Emotional resonance and melodrama clash in these summer finales

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Switched At Birth

"And Life Begins Right Away"

Season 3, Episode 21

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The Fosters

"Someone's Little Sister"

Season 2, Episode 10

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Switched At Birth: “And Life Begins Right Away”

For 95 percent of its running time, “And Life Begins Right Away” is a wonderfully touching, emotionally resonant episode of Switched At Birth, full of character growth and well-realized, grounded family moments. It takes Daphne’s sometimes troubling story arc and puts it into perspective, addressing it with grace and complexity. It touches upon every teen character’s story as they prepare to enter the next phase of their lives and gives each a moment to shine. It even takes the time to give Carlton a proper tribute as an institution, and as the episode neared the end, I was ready to declare it one of the best the show has ever done.

If only it wasn’t for that pesky twist ending.

Perhaps the biggest struggle I have with Switched At Birth—and the biggest struggle it has with itself at times—is the show’s desire to mix realistic, emotionally resonant character stories with over-the-top plot points that can feel tonally inconsistent with those character stories. Daphne’s downward spiral is a prime example of this type of story, as she descended into rebellion, drug use, and felony vandalism while grieving Angelo’s death. These were extreme, hard-to-swallow actions, but there was always the hint of a plan in the plotting that kept it from spiraling too far into parody. Grief is a messy, unpredictable thing, and it was a compelling gamble to take a lead character that far into the darkness.

What made the darkness bearable, though, was the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel. As horrible as Daphne acted after Angelo’s death, her core character has been built up enough throughout the previous seasons to know she was going to be able to turn it all around. That’s exactly what happens here, when she is arrested and charged with vandalizing the East Riverside project and faces real jail time for what she’s done. While her parents are obsessed with doing everything they can to get her off the hook for her actions, Daphne makes an impressively mature decision: She’s going to take a plea deal for six months in jail, leaving her with two strikes and a permanent felony on her record. It is the kind of strong character moment that can retroactively validate an entire storyline (if you feel that is necessary—I enjoyed the storyline on its own merits as it was happening) and subsequently launch a hundred new storylines for the future. How will Daphne adapt to jail? What will she do now that she has a felony record and her dream of being a doctor might be in jeopardy? It’s a brave and rare narrative decision to take a character’s dreams and completely squash them because of something they brought upon themselves, and I was applauding the show for really sticking to its guns.

Except then it didn’t. In a twist of what I can only attribute to sheer insanity on Bay’s part, Bay decides to take the blame for the vandalism, letting Daphne off the hook for everything she has done. The galling part isn’t really that Bay did this—kids do crazy things, Bay has no direction, Bay wants to help her sister, etc.—it’s that Daphne let her do this. Daphne, who fully participated in the actions that brought her here, allowed Bay to take the blame so she could salvage her own future. In one swift move, it takes all of the incredible character growth Daphne achieved over the course of this episode and tosses it in the garbage.

The struggle here for the show is that for story purposes, Bay’s decision is going to give the writers a gushing fountain of stories to tell. Bay and Daphne’s parents are going to be livid, Daphne is going to be guilty, Bay is probably going to be regretful; it’s the kind of big twist that quickly and easily gives shape to the upcoming season. The trick is to not sacrifice what came before in service of what’s to come, which I am not sure the show pulled off here. I was extremely patient with the writers in the Daphne arc because they’ve instilled a lot of trust in their abilities to tell long-term stories, but it’s hard to shake that this feels like it’s undoing a lot of the good it did for her in this episode.

It’s frustrating to write so much about something that takes so little of the actual episode, especially because the rest of the episode was so great. This is the type of episode Switched At Birth does so well, focused on emotional connections between its core characters, and every character moment up until the end is pretty much hit out of the park. It’s relentlessly emotional in a way that manages not to feel sickly sweet or insincere. It is, in summary, nice, in the best definition of the word. Television needs the kind of nice Switched At Birth was for most of this finale. It’s in times like this ending it feels as if the show (or maybe the network) doesn’t trust that nice will be enough.

Stray observations:

  • Carrie Wikis Some Art: And Life Begins Right Away, Robert Filliou, 1974, pastel on cardboard box and glued paper label.
  • So Bay comes up with a really smart plan, sets up her whole life, and then throws it away? I know I wasn’t thrilled with Bay following her boyfriend across the country, but this is worse. So much worse.
  • “Following your boyfriend across the country like a puppy dog is not an adult move.” John, speaking the truth.
  • Daphne’s commencement address was so lovely, especially in how it acted as a tribute to Emmett, Bay, her parents, and Carlton all in one speech.
  • Also lovely: The Daphne and Bay sister moment right before graduation.
  • Travis’ moment with his mother was nice but felt a bit rushed. Did I miss a scene in the past where she didn’t outwardly hate her son?

The Fosters: “Someone’s Little Sister”

The Fosters shares more than just a timeslot pairing with Switched At Birth—it also shares its timeslot partner’s propensity to mix heartfelt emotion with big, sometimes off-putting melodramatic moments. Both Switched At Birth and The Fosters mine an incredible amount of genuine emotion in their summer finales, and both end on moments that threaten to undo a lot of that emotion. But where Switched At Birth goes all the way to the edge and then jumps off, The Fosters manages to wobble a bit before ultimately pulling back, making theirs the more satisfying finale. Still, there are concerns.

The biggest concern is the big moment that closes the episode when Callie, frustrated because she feels like she’s about to lose everything she’s worked for throughout the season, leans over and kisses Brandon. It’s concerning because it felt like the show decided it wanted to move on from this bit of lazy drama, only to lean into its warm embrace instead (my notes actually say “And...it ends on Brandon and Callie kissing ABORT ABORT”). It’s also concerning because after the big, dramatic “epic” love story of last season, it felt like the show recognized that this relationship had moved on to something more familial, right up until it didn’t. Essentially, it feels designed to end on a shocking cliffhanger for a cliffhanger’s sake, instead of for the good of the story.

But Brandon and Callie’s kiss is a small moment in what was, overall, a very strong summer finale for The Fosters. Throughout the season its felt a bit like the show was struggling to integrate all of its story threads, dropping some for a few weeks before awkwardly picking them up again, but all that juggling comes to a fairly good head here as everything that’s been up in the air is addressed in a satisfying manner. My favorite ended up being Mariana’s slow arc toward self-acceptance, which started at the beginning of the season with her dyeing her hair blond and questioning how she fits in and comes full circle in the finale, when she goes back to being a brunette after a fabulous talk with Lena about her familial identity. Ana’s story was probably the most awkward throughout the season, starting as a dramatic runner where Stef suspected Mike of murdering her and ending up as a sad, stark reminder of the horrors the Foster kids went through before they found a home. This never quite lined up with Mariana’s struggle with her identity (especially the portion involving the dance team) until this finale, when it becomes clear that Mariana’s biggest struggle is coming to terms with the fact that biology doesn’t trump love. One of my favorite things about The Fosters is that it gives the kids stories that directly intertwine with a specific parent, and the combination of Lena and Mariana in this one is perfect. Just as Mariana struggled with being adopted, Lena struggled with losing her own biological child; in essence, both had to learn the same lesson in the opposite direction.

The biggest story of the episode belongs to Callie, as she is finally free to be adopted by Lena and Stef after Robert signs the abandonment papers, right until everything goes wrong. This is a story that has the potential to go off the rails, but the writers smartly keep it just inside the realm of believability. All season long, Callie’s sister Sophia has been shown as just a little bit too attached to Callie. All season long, nothing much has come of it other than a few crazy-eyed stares and a bit of awkward clinginess. But that was obviously building to something, and that something was Sophia ripping up the abandonment papers before they could be filed, just in time for Robert to decide he can’t sign them again. It’s hard to fault Callie when she listlessly complains about everything going wrong for her. Everything does go wrong for her, at every turn. Just when she is about to get adopted the first time, she learns about Robert. Just when she is about to be adopted the second time, she feels comfortable enough in her situation to open herself up to potentially having a relationship with Robert, too, and he essentially throws it right back in her face. Callie’s life is a mess not of her own making, but the writers and Maia Mitchell’s extremely sympathetic performance make it feel like a lived-in mess. The moments work because the emotions behind the actions feel real, even if at every moment it makes you want to scream in frustration.

This frustration is why although Callie falling into Brandon’s arms at the end feels like a bit of a cheap cliffhanger made for tumblr consumption, it’s not a cliffhanger the show didn’t earn to some degree. Callie has been working so hard to make everything right, and every time she does this it just falls apart again. Callie continually tells the world she’s trying, and the world always responds with “Why try?” It’s enough to make any girl want to kiss her almost-brother.

Stray observations:

  • So Jesus’ story arc this season has been about him taking care of Hayley, and that being a reflection of a cycle he always fell into with his mother. This is a noble story ambition that was completely botched in its execution.
  • Jude’s story is very intriguing. What did he do with Connor on the camping trip, and what does that mean for their friendship going forward?
  • As much as I understood Lena going a bit overboard in defending Jude, I definitely didn’t understand her quitting her job so rashly. You have five children to support! That can’t be easy on one police salary, Lena.
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