Saturday, February 7, 2015

Episode of the Week: Switched at Birth - "At the First Clear Word"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 4, Episode 5

I've had this blog for almost two years now, and in that time I've found that there are just some shows that are easy to write about.  I've written numerous times about series I love like Mad Men, Parenthood, and Bunheads, but even a show like The Walking Dead, which I mostly didn't care for until recently, inspires easily articulated thoughts.  Then there are shows that I enjoy quite a bit, like SundanceTV's Rectify, that I don't often cover because they're so hard to write about.  Two other shows that fall into that category -- The Fosters and Switched at Birth -- are ones that I've challenged myself to write a piece on in 2015.  Both shows are on ABC Family, and frequently achieve a greatness that's deserving of notice from people who generally don't look on that end of the dial for quality television, but I've just never been able to find an angle.  Luckily, The Fosters made it easy for me a few weeks ago with "Over/Under," and now Switched at Birth has its standout episode of 2015 with "At the First Clear Word."

Last week's "We Were So Close That Nothing Used to Stand Between Us" ended on quite the cliffhanger, as a hungover Bay woke up to find herself naked in Tank's bed with no memory of what occured the previous night.  I groaned when it happened in that episode, because it felt like a silly, melodramatic twist with the sole purpose of breaking up everybody's favorite ship.  But thankfully, "At the First Clear Word," digs its heels into the issue and makes the story more than just being about Bay cheating on Emmett.  In the wake of this shocking event, Bay looks to others for guidance, first considering Kathryn before deciding against it, then finally confiding in Tess.  But it isn't until she brings it up to Regina (by saying the story is about a friend) that the word "rape" gets mentioned, which really gets the ball rolling on this episode.  Once the idea is out there, it can't be forgotten, and Bay's perspective on the previous night is thrown into a greater cyclone of confusion.

With the help of others, flashes of the previous night come back to her, but she still can't remember what went down with Tank.  When she brings this up to him, and her uncertainty about whether their hookup was consensual, they each give their recollections of the night.  The ways in which they differ are tiny, but crucial in figuring out who was in the right.  Unfortunately, we don't know whose version is correct, or if neither is.

"At the First Clear Word" avoids feeling like A Very Special Episode because it's a debate, not a lecture.  It feels as if the show is genuinely trying to have a conversation with itself about the gray areas of consent.  Bay and Tank's argument gets to the heart of the matter at one point, when Tank assures Bay (and, in a way, himself) that "If you had said no at any point, then I would've stopped."  To which Bay says, "Did I say yes?"  "That's ridiculous.  What was I supposed to do, stop at every point and ask 'Do you want this?,' 'Do you want that?'  No, nobody does that," Tank retorts.  If a guy is sober and has sex with a completely drunk girl, that's not okay.  If a guy is a little tipsy and has sex with a girl who's blackout drunk, that's not cool either.  But where do we draw the line?  At what point do both parties become drunk enough that neither is culpable?  This is sticky, messy territory, and the episode fearlessly wades in it for answers that may never come.

Ultimately, I think Switched at Birth is taking Bay's side.  In fact, the episode starts to stack the deck against Tank, a little unfairly if you ask me.  (I'm very worried that this is a dumb male opinion to have.  Don't hurt me!)  Everybody takes Bay's side and is skeptical of Tank, which makes the audience skeptical of him too.  All of the "something doesn't feel right" and "trust your instinct" talk doesn't help his case too.  (Plus, how can we deny the power of the promotional hashtag, which flashes "#BaysInstinct" on the screen near the end?)  And the scene where Regina and Eric hook up near the end almost feels like the show is saying "See?  This is what true consent is, Tank!"  But it's clear from both his and Bay's flashbacks that the two of them were equally inebriated.

So it's probably going to end up that something fishy happened -- I don't know if the promos for next week spoil it, since I don't watch those.  And really, any answer will feel slightly unsatisfying, especially when the ambiguity created such compelling drama in this episode.  For now, though, we're left with that superb scene between Daphne and Bay, where Daphne encourages Bay to trust her gut, but Bay still can't shake her uncertainty.  It shouldn't be a surprise that a show that delves so deeply into deaf culture, while also touching on class and race, would skillfully tackle campus rape and matters of consent, but "At the First Clear Word" feels bold nonetheless.  I had been doubting this show's current quality, which was starting to get lapped by its former programming pair The Fosters, but this week proved that Switched at Birth still has a knockout episode or two up its sleeve.

No comments:

Post a Comment