Monday, December 8, 2014

REVIEW: 'The Fosters' - Brandon Remembers Christmas While Stef Deals With Her Mother in 'Christmas Past'

ABC Family's The Fosters - Episode 2.11 "Christmas Past"

As they spend their first Christmas with the Fosters, Callie feels the sting of still being an official foster kid while Jude's guilt over having been adopted has him overcompensating. Stef feels that her mother's gift giving is excessive, especially when she learns where the money is coming from. Lena must face her own bias against another family member.

Considering The Fosters' summer run of episodes ended nowhere close to the holiday season, I was wondering how the show would do their first special Christmas episode while still dealing with all the emotional arcs that were left as cliffhangers. The Fosters frames this episode as a flashback to the previous Christmas. It's the first one Callie and Jude spent with the Fosters and it also took place in the time between Season 1 and Season 2. More importantly, there's a purpose to Brandon remembering this point in time. After Callie failed to get adopted yet again, she was willing to give up and rekindle her romantic relationship with Brandon. They had done so well at building up a dynamic as siblings that that kiss undercut a lot of that emotional development. The contextual shape of this episode is in Brandon actually dealing with the aftermath of it. And that makes it all worth it because he remembers that he doesn't want to stand in her way towards happiness.

I can't help but feel though that a lot of stuff that happens in this episode is simply alluding to new dynamics and plots that will be on display in the second half of the season. Yes, the hour goes back in time but many times seem relevant to upcoming stories of various members of the Fosters clan. Brandon and Callie have to be getting to the age where college starts entering their minds. That makes Grandma Foster's gift of money feel like an even larger deciding factor. Lena gets worked up into a petty state simply because her parents are spending the holiday season with her half-brother who is mentioned for the very first time in this episode. She doesn't have a great relationship with him and that leads to an awkward bit of misunderstanding. And yet, I only see this plot as the foundation for his actual introduction in the future. Then, there is Daphne who gets an actual story by working hard to see her kid again. She kidnaps her and you just know that will come back to haunt her when it comes to revisiting her visitation guidelines. And lastly, there is Jesus' new relationship with their elderly next door neighbor. It's not a particularly nuanced story but I'm certain it will eventually become something about the neighbor needing a young kid like Jesus in his life since he is living all by himself.

All of these plot points feel distracting. They are largely just laying the groundwork for the upcoming episodes but not actively engaging in building a self-contained holiday special story. Yes, it would have been tricky to do that considering the emotional cliffhangers the summer finale ended on. But at times, this episode does feel like a very good, family bonding episode. Family is the thing that Callie needs the most in her life right now. Of course, it would be a flashback to this time of year that helps Brandon remember that. They made a deal not to let the other get distracted from what they truly want in life. That was a wonderful beginning to their sibling dynamic in hindsight. I appreciate that this episode largely deals with the fallout of that kiss. Now, the new episodes don't have to spend much more time on deciding what their relationship should be like.

However, Brandon and Callie don't spend a whole lot of time together which makes the grand realization in the end seem not as important as it could have been. Every member of the family gets their own story - whether it's big like Stef fighting with her mother and Lena over money or small like Mariana making sure Jesus doesn't give her another bad gift. And yet, if this entire episode is framed as a flashback induced by Brandon, why do we gets stories with Jude, Jesus and Lena that Brandon would have no clue were also happening then? It's all a little too lax with how and why we are seeing these stories. But it does allow every member of the family to be happy in the end. And that is a great dynamic to end on.

But the episode does not end there. We return to Brandon and Callie in the present day with looks of acceptance over their current situation and remembering what they both truly want from life. Again, that would have been a great way to end the episode. Instead the episode truly ends with an ambulance speeding to the party at the Quinn Mansion because in all likelihood Sophia tried to kill himself after Callie stormed away upset. That is what I thought was happening with her in the final minutes of the summer finale. This seems to confirm that. And yet, why show it as the final beat of the Christmas special? To simply give the audience another cliffhanger to make them even more excited for the winter premiere in a month? That just doesn't seem to work for an episode that should have just been a holiday special and end on a happy note.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Christmas Past" was written by Joanna Johnson and directed by Norman Buckley.
  • The Lena story really was kinda bad. As a mom, she has embraced the "love is love and family is family no matter how they come together" mantra. Her saying half-siblings aren't the same as real ones - thus leading to her rationalizing what she meant to Jude later - felt uncharacteristic even though she does have a personal experience that makes her wary of her half-brother.
  • Also, did we need the neighbor saying what family used to be like in his day and then later being happy that the Fosters have each other? It was on the verge of being preachy and thus the heart warming ending didn't hit as strongly as it could've.
  • That was one very generous sales lady to Jude but she more than made up for it by saying Happy Kwanzaa.