Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Switched At Birth: “The Awakening Conscience”

Illustration for article titled Switched At Birth: “The Awakening Conscience”

At its core, Switched At Birth is about identity and how your upbringing shapes that identity. When Bay and Daphne learned they were raised by the wrong parents, everything they knew about themselves and what their lives were supposed to be was turned on its head, and the show spent a significant portion of the first season exploring these complicated issues. This examination took a backseat at the end of season one, pushed aside for more simplistic melodrama, but it’s back in this episode in all its thoughtful glory. It’s quite a welcome return.

One of the main ways Switched At Birth set up these ideas about identity was by having Bay and Daphne be raised by two culturally and socioeconomically distinct sets of parents. Daphne’s struggle with discovering she’s white and wealthy (having grown up Latina and lower class) weren’t always necessarily the focus of her journey with the Kennishes, seeing as her deafness always took center stage. These issues are coming to the forefront now, as Daphne dabbles with her taco truck and in the process remembers just how much better she has it now than the people do in the neighborhood where she grew up. It’s not the most elegant execution, but Daphne’s return to East Riverside and the less-than-warm welcome she receives from neighborhood resident Javi is like a slap in the face to Daphne. To her, she’s Daphne Vasquez, poor Latina girl from East Riverside. But to Javi, she’s just a rich white girl from the other side of town interfering with things she doesn’t understand.

If the story was just this, it would be interesting enough. But it goes a step further, with Daphne finally asking the question many people of wealthy circumstances rarely ask themselves: Why? Why do they have everything when some people have nothing? John maintains that he worked hard to get where he was but Daphne wisely calls his situation luck, assisted by his hard work. It’s tricky business, this, because every time Daphne says “luck” she’s really using it as a substitute for privilege. Privilege is a touchy beast, so using luck as a way to assert privilege here without having to use the hot-button word feels like the right choice. Quite honestly, the best part of a story about privilege is that it exists at all, so a little backtracking on the tricky language is completely understandable. Daphne seems determined to not take her newfound privilege for granted, and every bit of this is a concept I hope is explored fully in the future.

Also questioning her identity this week in interesting ways is Bay, who convinces her parents to let her go to Carlton as one of two new hearing students in a pilot program. Bay expects it to be a breeze because she picked up signing rather quickly, but once she’s immersed in the world learns she is a lot further behind than she realizes. She also learns fitting in with the students won’t be as seamless as she anticipated, with one girl in particular especially miffed by her presence. Instead of the nemesis being a typical mean girl, however, the show gives her some heft; she’s irrationally hateful towards Bay, yes, but it’s not because she hates her. It’s because Carlton is the one place she doesn’t have to make accommodations for anyone and can just be herself. With hearing kids there, there is no more truly “safe” space.

This revelation is a punch in the gut to Bay, who honestly never thought about it this way—because she’s never had to. Being hearing is, interestingly, a lot like being white, straight, and rich: Wherever you go, you assume you belong, because you’re what society has deemed “normative.” Bay’s never had to consider that simply by being herself, she might be an outcast. Sure, she didn’t feel comfortable at Buckner, but as the daughter of a wealthy businessman she objectively belonged there. At Carlton, things aren’t going to be that simple. Watching Bay digest and adapt to this really has potential to be a rewarding journey.

It was also nice to see Toby getting a storyline with some heft, even if it was a bit cliché. Toby is still dating bandmate Nikki and struggling with accepting her decision to wait to have sex until she’s married. When Emmett finds evidence that she wasn’t always so prim and proper (via a naked photo posted online, and kids, don’t do that) he immediately gets defensive. It’s completely unfair to Nikki and not an attractive moment for Toby at all, but what makes it great is Nikki’s levelheaded explanation of the situation—her father had just died and she was in a bad place—and her refusal to apologize for it or take any grief from Toby about it. In one tiny scene, Nikki completely sold me on her as a character, and later when Toby got advice from his mom and sweetly apologized to Nikki, sold me on their relationship. One of the reasons Switched At Birth is such a great family show is moments like this, when a teenage girl gets to emphatically own her actions and refuse to be shamed, even if it costs her a boyfriend. Unlike Bay and Daphne, it seems as if Nikki has already done her soul searching about her identity, and is quite happy with where she ended up.


The only low point of this very strong episode was Angelo’s story, which while still not terrible is easily the least interesting thing happening this season thus far. He has the decency to tell Regina about his situation, but while her strong negative reaction is understandable considering their past, it does seem a bit hyperbolic considering she hasn’t seemed all that interested in actually being in a relationship with him for some time. Angelo is still more of a serial obstacle than a character, which is something that needs to change. Otherwise, this was a very promising second episode.

Stray observations:

  • A big thank you to the show for announcing their upcoming all-ASL episode, therefore blowing everyone’s collective mind and ensuring coverage at least until that airs. To say I’m excited about an episode told entirely from the point of view of the deaf characters is an understatement. (It will air March 4.)
  • Carrie Wikis Some Art: The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt, 1853, oil on canvas. So who's conscience was awakening here? Daphne's for sure, but the surprise was John's revelation that he might want to give back since he has so much himself. Go John.
  • That title card moment was a little silly. The show usually goes for unnecessary melodrama here, but this was “most shocking rose ceremony ever”-level melodrama.
  • Bay calling Daphne her sister in their plea to let her go to Carlton was quite the “awwwww” moment. In fact, every Kennish family scene this week was really heartwarming and fun. They are developing a great chemistry.
  • “Goodnight, Hillary.” “Goodnight, Bill.”
  • Toby: “I’m in a Christian rock band with my mom. Rehearsal is not a euphemism.”