The good news? In tonight’s (Feb. 14th) appropriately-named “Cruel and Unusual” (a coincidentally poorly-timed Valentine ep, to be sure), the Fosters have a full house once again. The bad news? Their population increase came about by gambling with two young lives… And the odds Jesus (Noah Centineo) and Callie (Maia Mitchell) are staring down are of the nail-biting variety.

This show has always drawn a bleak map of what underprivileged territory really looks like, and all the more so lately with that sheer-face cliff dead ahead that Callie must scale now.  It’s a bracing but necessary reality check for anyone who has enjoyed a less tumultuous  journey through adolescence, to see what walking in less comfortable-fitting shoes might be like.

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After all, it’s easy to pontificate about someone else’s route, and spew wholesome American-dream axioms about the merits of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. To a more privileged point of view, missteps might appear to have more to do with bad judgment than bad prospects. But as Neil DeGrasse Tyson once pointed out, “It is OK to encourage others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But if you do, just remember, some people have no boots.”

It describes Callie’s (Maia Mitchell) situation all too well. She’s offered a sucker’s choice deal: Plead guilty to vehicular manslaughter and spend the next eight months in juvie, but rest assured the whole thing will at least remain off her permanent record. Does that suck? Hell yeah — but her moms (Sherri Saum & Teri Polo) aren’t exactly doing cartwheels over the alternative: That she risk the outcome of a fitness hearing not going in her favor, in which case she’s potentially looking at a minimum of five years in adult prison… All because she climbed into a car with a psycho, for the sake of helping her sister.

the fosters 1 Theres a vastly different justice system for the rich in The Fosters

Any number of incidents from her painful past would give Callie ample reason to think of nobody but herself, yet she’s still trying to do the right thing on behalf of others — and it’s still biting her in the ass. After being propositioned by a juvie guard with a reputation for plying his young victims with deadly drugs, Callie runs afoul of a fellow inmate who, remarkably, is feeling possessive about the creep in question.

But inevitably, when Callie finds that girl curled on the bathroom floor turning blue after ingesting said drugs, she intervenes. She also stays mum about who the drug-peddling culprit may be, because she’s nearly as savvy as she is sweet. All too predictably, the creepy guard does a creepy thing — he frames Callie for an aggravated assault against him, just to make sure she’s too preoccupied with more stuff hitting the fan to cause him trouble of the talking kind.

 Theres a vastly different justice system for the rich in The Fosters

Cause, meet effect: Callie now can’t stomach the idea of another eight months in this hellhole. Cue biological father Robert (Kerr Smith), both keen to make up for lost time and criticize Stef and Lena’s apparent parenting missteps while he’s at it. Again privilege rears its well-coiffed head: He’s got a fancy lawyer, and can afford to post bail, and thus decides the juvie deal is for poor suckers who have no other prospects.

So when Callie’s fitness hearing goes south after all, well… We’ll just have to hope that fancy lawyer is as good at his job as he likely is at golf.

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Meanwhile, Jesus’s (Noah Centineo) road to recovery is not a rose-strewn garden path, either. His doctor offers up a prognosis of cognitive defects and neurological setbacks, tremors, lack of mobility, and more: The poor kid has a long road ahead, and one best walked while under medical supervision 24/7.

Moms Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum), being mothers, can’t stand idly by and just watch helplessly as their baby birds are shoved from the nest into a cold biting wind. So they bring Jesus home, Lena opting for a leave of absence to help him through this. It’s a good time to stir the pot and add some rock solid plot-thickening stuff: It seems that angry, near-violent outbursts will be another symptom they’ll have to help Jesus cope with.

…Hey, seems like a great time for Emma (Amanda Leighton) to possibly be pregnant with Jesus’s baby, right? If only Brandon realized that was the more likely scenario before mentioning to Mat (Jordan Rodrigues) that he thought Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) might be the one in that kind of trouble. It proves too much for Mat to process, and he cuts Mariana adrift again.

About the only ones with anything to smile about in this episode would be Jude and Noah (Hayden Byerly & Kalama Epstein). A badly-written poem between them seems to be the worst of their worries, and it’s a nice spot of sunshine in an otherwise unyielding downpour of bummer.

the fosters 2 Theres a vastly different justice system for the rich in The Fosters

Well, and Mike wants to adopt AJ (Tom Williamson) — there’s that. But Mike inviting Ana to move in with, their baby? A sweet gesture — but one that, with her felon past, isn’t exactly the kind of thing that CPS will smile on when assessing Mike’s home life.

Mama Stef, in dealing with the news of Brandon’s (David Lambert) dead Julliard dreams, quips that parenting often feels like cruel and unusual punishment. It’s an echo of the Callie situation — foster parents trying to level the playing field for their beleaguered brood should be amassing some serious karma points, but the reward for their hard work is still harder work ahead.

You gotta wonder about the takeaway here for characters like Callie, Stef and Lena — and for the viewers who love and admire them. Is it that the karma bus doesn’t stop in rough neighborhoods, period, not even for the kindest passengers who have more than earned their seat on it? In moments of weakness, it can always look a little too much like that.

But the nobler interpretation, and thus the “Fosters” point, is that doing the right thing is rarely the easy thing. We know the calamities constantly befalling this family are intended to both demonstrate and strengthen resolve — and dedication to kindness — but right about now, cutting them just the tiniest break would give us a little room to breathe, and time to unclench the fists for just a moment…

“The Fosters” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform.

Posted by:Julia Diddy

Julia Diddy is a freelance writer and critic in Los Angeles.