Molly Kunz, Kathryn Prescott

“Riptide” is the finest hour of Finding Carter’s second season because it deals with the violent clash between Carter’s past and her present, much as the show did in the most compelling episodes of season one. The first phase of Carter’s journey was the initial acclimation to her new life with the Wilsons as she struggled to reconcile her love for Lori, the woman who inflicted a scar on her birth family that will never totally heal. That part of the journey was mostly covered in season one, which is why so much of season two feels so rudderless. There’s a clearer through line in Carter’s resistance to her healthy new family and her attraction to her unhealthy old one than there is in Carter trying to pick up the pieces following her second kidnapping.

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The inner conflict that fueled the first season returns in “Riptide,” which is built around the return of an estranged friend from Carter’s old life. Madison (Molly Kunz) literally shows up on Carter’s doorstep hoping to reconcile despite dropping out of sight during the most crucial transition in Carter’s life. Madison’s appearance is initially unsettling because it seems to portend yet another hasty romantic pairing that everyone will soon agree was a terrible idea. The dread is compounded when Madison greets Max with a too-familiar kiss on the lips, much to Taylor’s horror, but as is often the case in Carter, the plot then pivots in an intriguing way. As it turns out, Madison is gay, and mostly sought out Carter because her parents reacted to the news by putting her out of their home.

Madison has as much trouble getting used to the Wilson house rules as did Carter because she’s used to Lori’s do-as-you-please parenting style. Considering the environment Madison came out of, Lori’s permissiveness looks incredibly attractive to her just as Carter is beginning to sour on her unorthodox experience now that her peers are starting to talk about a future she never prepared for. Madison keeps dropping hints that something may be amiss, specifically hints displaying an unusually high level of compassion for Lori under the circumstances. She wants to talk to Carter about how cool her kidnap mom is, and even offers to read Lori’s letters, the ones Carter hasn’t had the energy to read herself.

The truth comes out when Madison takes Carter to the apartment she’s scoped out as a potential bachelorette pad for the two of them. She wants Carter to move out of the Wilsons’ home and be her roommate, then winds up confessing that she’s been in contact with Lori without Carter’s knowledge. It’s the kind of moment Finding Carter excels at, a scene that reveals surprising emotional truths in a highly unusual situation. Carter is understandably upset with Madison for contacting Lori, but she also understands what it must be like for Madison to be rejected by her own parents and to have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Madison actually covets the life Carter lived, and still has affection for Lori, who always accepted her in a way her own parents did not.

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The rest of the action happens over at the Wilson house, where Carter’s bio-family is gearing up to celebrate Elizabeth’s birthday with a family dinner, David and Elizabeth’s marital woes be damned. Carter manages to sneak out to apartment hunt with Madison because there’s plenty going on at home to everyone distracted. David and Elizabeth collaborate on the meal, a shared activity that allows them to forget temporarily about the major issues plaguing their relationship. But then Hillary comes breezing in just in time to spoil their conciliatory vibe. Grant returns from Gammy’s house, where he’s been staying to avoid all the drama at home, but Gammy has a health care, forcing everyone to put their personal issues aside for the moment.

As usual, the most inscrutable behavior comes from Taylor, who finds yet another obnoxious reason to be angry with Max. Tay-Tay gets all in her feelings when Madison reveals Max’s horrible childhood trauma—he witnessed his mother’s violent attack—a story Max never relayed to her. Taylor has been all around bratty this season, which is mostly understandable because learning the truth of her parentage is the kind of bombshell that would leave anyone in a state of emotional disarray. That doesn’t make Max’s secret any of her business, and it’s pretty crazy that Taylor would feel so entitled to know the kind of secret people don’t tell so they can avoid reliving it themselves. But they landed softly, and Taylor was at least able to finally understand his decision to forgive Crash for the shooting.

“Riptide” concludes with yet another sweet family moment, one even more satisfying than Carter and Taylor’s dance party at the end of “Something To Talk About.” Elizabeth and David botch dinner, much as Taylor expected, and Grant saves the day with his cake. Carter finally gets her phone back after taking the rap for Taylor’s texting-and-driving accident, only to get a voicemail informing her that Lori has attempted suicide. How Lori is able to so freely contact Carter remains a mystery, but with an episode as strong as “Riptide,” it seems silly to quibble.

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Stray observations:

  • Madison on Max’s housing arrangement: “He lives with a bird?”
  • Kudos to props for using a cake that actually looks like a kid Grant’s age made it.
  • No Gabe this week, which…thank God. That plot is a total disaster.
  • Madison’s back next week for an episode called “I Knew You Were Trouble.” This oughta be fun.

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