While its titular premise is about as plotty as they come, at its best ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is a show that’s grounded in more relatable complexities. While the realization of the switch, very early in the series’ pilot, is the catalyst for the questions about identity, family, belonging, class, heritage and culture that pervade the show, it’s also the sort of plotiness that can feel dropped in from some other series. Switched at Birth is not without its arrests, affairs, teen engagements, lawsuits, teacherish-studentish relationships (from the network that brought you Pretty Little Liars!) and stolen babies, but it is also a show that can loop itself around the heart of a character’s deepest insecurity and tug it out into the open in a single scene.
Monday night’s episode, “Distorted House,” was the series’ forty-second episode, but it was the first episode to place Bay–raised by the well-meaning (if prone to foot-in-mouth disease), wealthy Kennishes–100% within her birth family, after she moves into her biological father Angelo’s apartment with Regina, her biological mother.
The series has often focused on the relationship between Daphne–raised by Regina in a working-class neighborhood, deaf since age two and without a father after Angelo abandoned the family–and the Kennishes; Daphne and Regina moved into the Kennish guest house at the end of the pilot and they were transported into the Kennish family orbit. As the show addressed everything from deaf v. hearing culture and John and Kathryn Kennish’s desire to provide for the daughter they see as their own, often against the will of the mother that raised her, stories about the bond between Regina and Bay, less obviously fertile ground for the power struggle between Regina and the Kennishes, have largely been pushed to the side.
By removing Bay and Regina from the Kennish property and moving Daphne into the Kennish house proper, Switched at Birth has realigned its families, isolating blood with blood for the first time. While Daphne is now largely used to the life she’d have had without the switch, spending her summer learning to play tennis at the club and cooking dinner with Kathryn in the airy family kitchen, Bay is just learning what life would have been like if she’d been raised Daphne Vasquez, at least as far as the pleasures of a cold pizza and black coffee breakfast menu.
Bay is the character that has most been plagued by questions of identity. It was her science project that first tugged on the stray thread of the switch, her quest for answers that unraveled it. She was the one who went exploring in Daphne’s neighborhood, looking for her almost life, and she was the one seeking out her biological father, even when no one wanted to give her any answers about who he was or where he’d gone. But what she’s learned about who she might have been and the shape her life might have taken has not come from Regina. She’s gotten some answers from Angelo, some by getting to know Daphne’s friends, but it wasn’t until the final scene in “Distorted House” that Bay, and the audience, got a good look at Regina, Angelo and Bay as a family.
The scene is a lovely morsel of wish-fulfillment, Bay watching her birth parents dance Bachata around the living room before getting pulled in to dance with them, protesting a lack of skill, but with a laugh. There are too many tensions between all parties involved for this moment of family bliss to erase all of their problems, but it’s a perfect moment for Bay, finding a place where she fits, swinging around the living room in her parents’ arms, and for Regina, who is pulling herself back from six weeks in rehab for alcoholism and the stumbles in her life that preceded that, and for Angelo, who is largely consumed by a soapy subplot about his quest to find the infant daughter that’s just been taken from him. These three characters have waited 17 years to bond as a family in their own right, and it’s a moment that does that wait justice.
The thing that pushes the scene over into a piece of television perfection, however, is the moment where Daphne and Kathryn enter. They have arrived at the apartment to bring Bay and Regina a spare lasagna, convinced that the two women must be starving without their familiar comforts, and they are coming off of an episode where Daphne’s confusion over Regina’s decision to move out of their home and Kathryn’s confusion over Bay’s decision to move out of their home has materialized as an impediment to their communication with each other. Kathryn and Daphne have a strong mother/daughter bond now, one that’s sturdy enough to support the fights and squabbles that manifest in every substantial relationship, but neither of them is used to seeing a similar bond between Bay and Regina, they don’t know what to do with it, and they exist in the scene as outsiders. These are Daphne’s parents, but they’re not, this is Kathryn’s daughter, but it’s not. Angelo and Regina and Bay are doing just fine without them.
It’s a beautiful scene, one informed by the entire history of the series. It would not work as well without the growing wall between Regina and Daphne, the one that’s built of more than just Regina’s insistence earlier in the episode that Daphne is a guest in Angelo’s apartment, but also Daphne’s resentment of Regina’s relapse and the communication struggles that have arisen from an injury that prevents Regina from signing. It would not work as well without Kathryn’s life-long inability to understand Bay, no matter how much love she feels for her daughter. It would not work as well without the anger Daphne feels toward the father who abandoned her after she went deaf, or Kathryn’s tendency to do the wrong thing when she’s trying to do what she thinks is right, or the frustration simmering between Bay and Daphne over where they each belong.
Switched at Birth has never offered its characters easy answers, only increasingly difficult questions. I am sure, as this season and series progresses, that these families will reshape themselves again and again as they try to figure out how they best fit in such an impossible situation. For now, though, they are aligned, for the first time, by biology–even visually the two families are isolated, only appearing in each other’s frames from behind–and the problems this will cause are already rising behind Daphne and Kathryn’s frowns. I look forward to seeing the mess that gets left behind after they crest.