For a show with a premise steeped in the idea of identity, Switched At Birth has used a surprisingly light hand with the subject up until now. One of the most interesting aspects of the baby switch and their families’ subsequent blending has always been the inherent race and class issues involved. Aside from a few shallow swipes at the subject in the first few episodes, however, race has resoundingly been pushed aside in the discussion in favor of the less touchy class politics of it all. The arrival of Kathryn’s outspoken mother finally gives the show a perfect opportunity to address Bay and Daphne’s growing need to understand their own shifting identities, resulting in a very thoughtful episode full of great character moments.
It’s practically a television mandate that when a never-before-seen parent comes for a visit, the parent must strike fear in their child for some reason or another. Kathryn’s situation is no different, with her particular issue with mother Bonnie (played by the inimitable Meredith Baxter) rooted in Bonnie’s tendency to be outspoken and judgmental about other people’s business. While this leads the Kennishes to worry she will be less than accepting of Daphne’s deafness, in actuality it manifests as a new, unexpected coolness in her relationship with Bay. For Bonnie, who heard the news of the switch through the filter of distance and technology, it is easy to use the logic of genetics and rationalize all of the differences Bay has displayed over the years, putting them in easily defined boxes like “Puerto Rican” and “artistic.” For Kathryn, immersed in the reality of the situation, the lines between nature and nurture are far more blurred.
For Bay, who is judged for the first time because of her cultural background, it feels like the reality of what the switch really means finally slaps her in the face. Bay hasn’t necessarily been blind to the change in her circumstance, but she certainly hasn’t been overly curious about her heritage, either. She and Regina have the least defined relationship of any of the parent/child combinations, something that’s been a consistent disappointment for me as the show went on. Her grandmother’s easy dismissal wakes something up inside her, though; something that leads her right to Regina’s door. Their conversation and Regina’s subsequent assistance with Bay’s destroyed mural is a lovely moment, one they’ve been building to for quite a while but nicely decide to play very low key. Race and identity isn’t something that’s easily explored, especially in the way Switched At Birth is attempting, so I am hopeful this newfound bond between Bay and Regina blossoms in the coming weeks instead of being something to address and move on from.
Not everything about this exploration of identity was as successful, though, and Daphne’s struggle to be a non-Puerto Rican Puerto Rican was decidedly less well developed. The biggest offense was the sudden magical appearance of Daphne’s friend from back in East Riverside, who was less a character than a clunky and obvious way to give her identity issues equal weight with Bay’s. While the idea of Daphne wondering how to fit into both her old and new world at the same time is a good one, and people from her old neighborhood would definitely react by taunting her new “rich girl” status, bringing a never-before-seen character onto the scene (one we’re unlikely to ever see again) to demonstrate this in the most stereotypical way possible feels far less organic than the natural way Bay’s issues were introduced.
Still, despite the awkward introduction of the themes, Daphne’s emotional beats felt spot on. Despite her alien “otherness” alluded to at the beginning of the series, Daphne has fairly easily adapted to almost everything in her new world. Only by returning to her old life can she truly understand the seismic shift she’s undergone, so the return was necessary. Her reaction to the return—best exemplified by her conversation with Adriana about owning the “Vasquez” in her—is what they managed to get right. What I’m hoping for in the future is that the show finds a way to connect Bay and Daphne to each other by using these precise differences as a catalyst. Because while the promise of a growing relationship between Bay and Regina is exciting, the only two people who can truly understand everything about each other are the two people going through the exact same thing. Daphne and Bay feel like the true kindred spirits, here.
Despite a few minor quibbles about the execution of Daphne’s story, this truly was a fine example of the types of things Switched At Birth does better than almost any other drama on television. In a way, the convoluted and clichéd premise is the show’s greatest strength, because it allows such organic and thoughtful explorations of questions we all have, even if we weren’t the victims of some grand hospital mix-up. Everyone wonders what made them who they were; if we were born into different circumstances, would we be the same people? Slowly, thoughtfully, and gratifyingly, the characters of Switched At Birth are exploring these questions. It’s nice we get to go along for the ride.
- Carrie Wikis Some Art: Las Dos Fridas, Frida Kahlo, 1939. They actually showed the painting and paralleled its theme of duality, which I believe is a first.
- Emmett was completely absent this week. Is this the first time he hasn’t been in an episode at all?
- Simone and Toby are a total bore so far. I think a lot of this has to do with the actress playing Simone, who simply isn’t up to the caliber as the rest of the cast.
- Another concern: does no more Guitar Face mean less Wilke?
- Bay doesn’t need Matt Caufield to deface her mural. She can do that all on her own!
- Adriana being back in the old neighborhood disappoints me. Is she only going to show up now periodically to advance major plot points, like she did with Angelo?