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

Switched At Birth: “Human/Need/Desire”

Illustration for article titled Switched At Birth: “Human/Need/Desire”
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

One of my favorite things about television (and movies, and books) is the ability to experience cultures completely different from my own. If a show highlights a world completely foreign to me, it’s immediately a more compelling, richer viewing experience; a way to peek into a world I’d likely never see. This is why Switched At Birth’s commitment to portraying all aspects of the deaf experience is its greatest asset, and this asset was on great display tonight, as several characters wrestled with both the triumphs and tragedies that go along with being deaf in a hearing society.

The catalyst for this analysis is Daphne’s state of mind in the aftermath of the food truck robbery. Daphne has internalized the attack as an attack on her as a person, an attack that preyed on all the vulnerabilities she isn’t ready to admit she must always face by being deaf. Instead, she's turned the whole thing into something shameful, something she must keep secret lest it define her as a person. It’s only after Melody leads a great discussion at school about the positive things being deaf gives the characters—mainly community, identity, and perspective, and how deaf isn’t something that’s taken away despite what the language of “hearing loss” implies—and she unsuccessfully attempts to take the truck out again that she admits what happened and goes to the police to file a report.

But the great thing about the story is that it doesn’t magically get better from here. Daphne’s deafness isn’t something that can be tied up in a neat little bow and “solved” to get a happy ending; this is a lifelong story for her, a story about acceptance—both from her and from the people around her. That’s why when the police officer immediately puts the blame on her for being out there without a hearing person, her vitriolic rant in sign language is both appropriate and tragic. That’s why when Kathryn immediately asks her to check in more often (more often than she requests of Bay and Toby, surely), it stings that much more. Daphne doesn’t end the episode any surer about her feelings than when she began, and it’s just right.

Perhaps more heartbreaking than Daphne’s struggles with random police officers not understanding her side are the huge decisions about her life being made completely without her input by her parents. One of the things I hoped would happen more this season was an exploration of how this “co-parenting” situation was working, and tonight showed that, well, it really isn’t. There’s still so much inherent distrust between Regina, John, and Kathryn that they can barely put aside their preconceived notions to work together for what is best for Daphne, first with Regina not informing the Kennishes of the robbery and then John selling the food truck without consulting anyone. There are a lot of autonomous decisions happening in the name of being the “real” parent, but very few of them seem to be happening with any sort of insight into what Daphne wants. The episode ends with them all finally coming to an agreement to sell the truck, but is it really even theirs to sell? What will Daphne’s reaction be when she sees yet another decision is made for her, based on her being deaf?

Daphne isn’t the only one exploring their feelings about being deaf this week, as new kid Noah gets some increased screentime revolving around his own rapidly deteriorating hearing. Up to this point Noah has been portrayed as a fairly easygoing guy, but the realization he suddenly can’t hear anything turns Bay’s Anti-Valentine’s Day party from a fun (if too loud) party to an insane brawl between Noah and Travis, when Noah picks a fight because he’s feeling sorry for himself. What I liked most about this exchange is the show let Noah be as awful as he possibly could be, mocking Travis’ speech and referring to the deaf as “you people.” That’s a hard road to come back from, but it’s an honest road, and the show doesn’t shy away from these tough moments. In the end, Noah gets a chance to recognize his transgressions, sincerely apologize, and still come out as a decent, if flawed, exceptionally human character. His kiss with Bay is sure to be controversial given its immediate proximity to that display of terrible behavior, but it felt right in the moment and for where those two are with their relationship.

It’s so strange to think that just a few months ago I was mentally writing this show off, almost unable to even picture a way for the writers to drag it out of the depths of all the horrible stories from the last stretch of season one. The delight that has been season two of Switched At Birth so far is why I stick with television shows I love even when they disappoint me: because sometimes they come roaring back to the quality that hooked you in the first place. This is the beauty of episodic television, and why I love it more than any other storytelling medium. TV, you’re all right with me.


Stray observations:

  • Carrie Wikis Some Art: Human/Need/Desire, Bruce Nauman, 1983, Neon tubing and wire with glass tubing suspension frames. This one has video!
  • Class struggles have been simmering in the background this season, so it was nice to get some acknowledgement that there are still some resentment issues between Regina and the Kennishes due to these issues.
  • Great, small moment: Daphne sharing her concern about Travis’ anger issues with Emmett. Not sure where that is leading, but it is a compelling background thread so far this season.
  • Poor Toby gets a decent storyline only to get dumped for Jesus. The unexpected “I love you” is seriously the kiss of death for any teen relationship on television.
  • Angelo and Lana’s story continues to make me vaguely uncomfortable. Let her give the baby up for adoption if she wants to, show!
  • Is Natalie the first gay character on the show? I like that she’s getting some shading and her budding friendship with Bay is actually quite good.
  • Toby: “So you and Zara never….”