Switched At Birth Takes A Stand
Why this unusual episode ranks among the show's best.
In the looooong wait before this abbreviated final season of Switched at Birth began, I was in a very ardent "no new friends!" kind of mindset. I wanted all key themes and key characters -- no "let's explore this" or "what if we did that?" When the teasers for this season prominently featured the controversy over Mingo's Lil Wayne costume, I got the same aching dread as when we all realized the last few episodes of Mad Men were going to devote a lot of time to that weird waitress.
I still hope for strong resolutions for all the key players, of course. But I am so pleasantly surprised by the much larger storyline that grew out of the Mingo incident. It went against my wishes for an insular final season by taking the show in a different direction, but it paid off -- especially this week. Here are five reasons the latest Switched ends up on my favorite episodes list.
- One story takes center stage
In what I think is a first for Switched, the entire episode has a singular focus: the push by Iris and other activists to get the guys who cotton-balled the Black Student Union lawn expelled. (If I'm remembering right, "Uprising," a.k.a. the "Occupy Carlton" episode, threw in some romance stuff along with the protesting.) The group successfully (thanks to Sharee) petitions to get their demands before the dean. Sharee also tries to enlist Chris, the hotshot pitcher, in the cause, but he says he has too much to risk. After a campus blogger reveals that Iris's dad is white and she's from a wealthy family, she clashes with Keeshawn (the guy who called Daphne "Katy Perry.")
When the dean brushes off their demands, Iris is devastated and so physically weak she passes out, but she continues her strike. Keeshawn steps into the leadership of the group. Sharee, meanwhile, has a brainstorm: Seeing how much money is riding on the broadcast rights of the upcoming baseball game, Sharee encourages Chris to threaten to stop the game to get administrators to listen to the protesters. Again, he turns her down. Later, campus police force Chris to the ground, and possibly injure his pitching arm, when they think he's stealing a bike that's actually his own. Realizing he isn't immune even as a star athlete from the issues Sharee and the other activists are protesting, Chris decides to follow Sharee's plan after all. He refuses to play, and the team joins him. Dean Peterson still won't budge, though, and the baseball team forfeits a game that could have taken them to the College World Series. But the other UMKC athletic teams follow baseball's lead. At last, the university president calls Iris to tell her the cotton-ballers are expelled.
- There's a clear point of view...
Before this season, the big "campus issue" plot on Switched was the Bay/Tank imbroglio. The goal, I guess, was to explore all sides. And even just a couple of weeks ago, Bay said she knows Tank is still a good guy even though she was frightened, repulsed, and furious when she discovered he was dating Mary Beth. I think there was admirable intent behind this approach, but it made for an unsatisfying story. Honestly, it gives me a headache just thinking about it now.
This week, characters do have their differences. Chris's hesitance to join the protest rings true to who he is and is understandable. Iris, Keeshawn, and some of the other activists squabble about priorities and tactics, and Iris and Keeshawn have a more serious clash when he argues that her background makes her uncredible.
But there's no serious argument that "well, maybe the cotton-ball guys ARE just mischievous provocateurs…" Everyone but Dean Peterson can see they should be expelled.
- …but there's also subtlety
In an amazing scene about midway through the episode, Keeshawn breaks away from the group's late-night vandalism of the Sherman Building when he spots Professor Marillo in a nearby parking lot and rushes over to talk to her. Anybody in Marillo's shoes here would be startled, but she's trembling and just keeps getting more agitated as Keeshawn asks her to listen to him. The show doesn't hammer this point, but it's easy to believe that she's more scared of him than she would have been of, say, Mingo in a similar circumstance.
- Everyone (almost) is part of the victory
Daphne is most closely connected to the protest, but most of the other regular characters do their part. Regina gives a discouraged Sharee a pep talk about telling her story that inspires her to stay up all night getting signatures for the petition. Bay and Travis interrupt Chris's arrest, and Travis is the first to join Chris in boycotting the game. After initially encouraging Chris to go ahead and play and deal with the police incident later, John supports his team, even when Kathryn's scary boss (who now has a semi-fasci haircut) yells at him. Presumably, Emmett is too busy taking important, artistic photos of his tattoo to show up this week. And I'm also going to assume that Kathryn makes Iris a big pan of lasagna to eat after her hunger strike.
- Iris, Sharee, and Chris shine
Another first: This is the only Switched episode we don't experience through the eyes of someone named Kennish or Vasquez. Switched, like lots of other shows, has explored topics through guest players before, of course. But part of why this episode works is that we already have some history with Iris and Sharee. It's a joy to get to know them better, both through what they reveal about their past and current experiences and through the actresses' performances.
Bianca Bethune has some great moments as Sharee, like the little glance she gives Marillo and Peterson after they warn her to stay out of trouble, and when Sharee and Keeshawn are so frustrated by their situation they can barely speak after the parking lot incident with Marillo. Sharon Pierre-Louis illuminates Iris's struggle as a "good girl" who realizes she needs to break some rules. The character always feels real and vulnerable, not saintly and indestructible.
Making Chris the third character at the heart of the episode is maybe a little riskier. After all, he's much newer to us than Iris and Daphne are. And he has to go from being the cocky guy taunting Travis last week to someone who takes a stand at great cost this week. But actor Sam Adegoke charismatically navigates it all. I hope all three characters don't vanish in the second half of the season.
It's easy to imagine Switched would have done more adventurous episodes like this one if they had a couple more seasons ahead of them. But I'm glad they got this one in while they could.