The very emotional “Sex Ed” (Feb. 28) covers the full spectrum of the hormonal teenage experience, from those first moments of fledgling curiosity to the heart-wrenching emotional reckoning of an abortion. And in these and other plotlines, we see the myriad of ways in which hidden truths start to function more like landmines.
Principal Monte (Annika Marks) takes her usual thankless role here, skulking through the school hallways in her sensible “don’t scare the horses” skirt-and-blazer ensembles, an ex-corporate banshee foretelling the death of all (or at least much) that is beautiful in her realm: Sex and Art. Her first target: Callie (Maia Mitchell)’s senior project.
Callie’s solitary-confinement cell recreation does the very thing that art is meant to do: It makes a statement. Among her impressed classmates we find former tormentor and Talya Banks (Madisen Beaty), Brandon’s (David Lambert) memorably terrifying ex-girlfriend, whose honest appraisal and gratitude — for learning justice isn’t cut and dried; for seeing her own prejudices — is a shot of light out of the blue. We see Callie rising above the confining labels, and owning the stuff that used to own her. It’s a beautiful thing.
Ah, but the school’s Open House is drawing near, and Monte thinks advertising Callie’s juvie past like this isn’t the best marketing move — given that school shooter Nick already considerably dulled some of Anchor Beach Community Charter School’s shine. She asks Lena (Sherri Saum) to ask Callie to take the art installation down, which doesn’t sit well with Callie’s classmates, who threaten to boycott Open House — and that gives Lena pause. If Callie’s classmates were willing to take a stand, her own acquiescence feels that much more shameful. But Callie comes up with a brilliant, bad*ss solution by ep’s end: She sets up the art installation on the lawn just outside the school’s apparent jurisdictional outrage. Even better? Callie is scouted by a professor who thinks she’d make a fine addition to her prestigious art college.
Next up for Monte’s middle-management mayhem: Lena’s suggestion that the school’s already laughable, out-of-touch sex ed class could use a modern-day reboot — with some info for the LGBT kids, too. The implications of this necessity play out elsewhere in the episode, but it’s important the idea enters the story the way that it does: With Jude (Noah Byerly) visibly uncomfortable, rendered invisible and unwelcome, by the instructor’s strictly (and unnecessarily) gendered “a boy and a girl” opening volley. It isn’t that kids want to talk about sex, or in search of ideas: It’s that they want to exist, and the rituals of personhood are ways we can validate or torpedo that.
But if schools have to teach sex ed, by gosh, Monte’s gonna make sure it all sounds as flavorless and vanilla-straight as possible — strictly mainstream mechanics. Anything more would have the PTA moms clutching their pearls and twinsets, and then they’d need to have a Victorian fainting couch nearby, and that’s just quite a lot of bother… Plus, as she points out during a showdown tacitly over both things, both her livelihood and Lena’s depend on parents opting into the school. She must do the cold equations in both cases as to whether compassion (Callie’s sad story; Jude’s beautiful one) is worth the financial hit: Which “inclusiveness” is more functional, in the long run?
(Of course, what nobody points out is that charter schools are inherently designed to cause this problem, by offering an easy choice between the fantasy of an education and a real one — diverse viewpoints included — but then, nobody ever really does.)
Off yet more of the helpful advice we expect from ex-girlfriend and lifetime P-FLAG poster girl Taylor (Izabela Vidovic), Jude takes things into his own hands: A gay hook-up app called Pump (so much grosser than Scruff, much less Grindr!) presents itself as the alternative educational route. And, true to life, the second he posts his tear-jerkingly tiny, jailbait torso profile shot, Zing! The first IM comes flying in, and Jude quickly assures his online suitor that he is indeed 18.
While there is a seediness inherent to this storyline, it’s also important and fascinating — but above all, doesn’t stigmatize gay dating apps for existing. You’re a kid, creeps are everywhere, don’t get murdered: That’s the lesson, and as usual the delicacy and brilliance of the show make clear that’s all it’s trying to say.
Sleuthing Mama Stef (Teri Polo) finds e-traces of said hook-up app, and just as she and Lena are ramping up to a justifiably major freak out, Jude comes slinking in the front door… Having left us, over a commercial break and a few short scenes, wondering whether “The Fosters” was going to get fully gruesome. Spoiler: No Adams-Foster, but especially Jude, would ever get punished this way: He’s in the right, just going about it wrong; his hookup proved to have a modicum of conscience (or a suitable fear of jail, once he got a glimpse of Jude’s adorable baby face).
The Moms tell Jude exactly why that was the worst idea he has ever had; embarrassed on multiple levels — from shame over the outcome to regret he ever went there, all written on his face — he agrees… And Lena gets motivated to set up an off-campus sex ed class for LGBT kids getting as little out of (and feeling just as welcome in) the school-board-approved sex ed class as Jude was.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the c-story that finds Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) and Stef processing her recent upheavals, going back to the time Nick (Louis Hunter) was found lurking around inside their house with a gun: While everyone agrees that self-defense is a great thing, and that Stef is definitely the one to teach it, the learning process itself touches too many tender spots for Mariana, and she flakes out entirely. Eventually Lena explains that Stef coming at Mariana in her very Stef-like, aggressive mode, is not going to work, and Stef tries to help Mariana find her voice and self-protective instincts with a hilariously misapplied “Disney princess” fairytale — which gets the message across anyway.
In both cases, these Adams-Foster kids are too distracted by the social signals and pressures surrounding them to really take their own safety — or healthy mistrust — into account, and together these two stories represent one of the most powerful stances the show has yet taken: Trying to find a balance between being alive and staying alive, between comfort and fear, is tricky for anyone — but unfortunately, for kids like both Mariana and Jude it’s paramount.
Way at the other end of the sex-ed spectrum sits poor Emma (Amanda Leighton), in a reproductive health clinic waiting room, new buddy Brandon by her side, as she contemplates how she “should” feel when faced with such a momentous decision like abortion. Does knowing that teenage motherhood is generally a dead-end road make her a “cold-hearted bitch” for wanting another path for herself? If she allows herself to feel bad, does that mean she’s not allowed to be here, anyway? It’s a heartbreaking scene — and the dialogue between Brandon and Emma hints at even more hidden depths of difficulty inherent in such a choice, at least as far as girls and women are concerned.
We come to find out that Emma’s doctor recommended St. John’s Wort for her anxiety, and unbeknownst to her, this was capable of interfering with the efficacy of her birth control. Brandon is hopeful this might offer some reassurance that this outcome wasn’t her “fault,” which… Is a very Brandon move.
It’s an all-too-common framing of the issue in which both pregnancy and its consequences are presented as moral punishments: Given that Emma is already judging herself severely, we understand just how much of the moral burden girls bear in such a situation. Not to mention, it’s a slippery slope to suggest that the pregnancy of a “good girl” like Emma is somehow more deserving of compassion and understanding. One can recall similar dialogue in a “Jane The Virgin” episode, once upon a time, in which Jane’s mother insisted that she herself “deserved” to get pregnant, while Jane did not.
What’s the reverse side of this particular coin? On the one side, the good girl’s earned understanding, and on the other, the bad girl’s condemnation? What about the boys who impregnate the “good” girls and “bad” girls? Because in the end, it’s a biological and hormonal exchange between two parties, and it’s bodies functioning as they were designed. How often do moral judgments (and heavy decisions) follow the male partners around in the aftermath?
Brandon does get points for speaking for himself — and with appropriate parentheticals — when Emma asks what he’d be feeling in that situation: They both know he’s acting as a stand-in for brother Jesus (Noah Centineo), and are explicit about their decision to keep the news from him while he’s in such terrible straits. It’s a complex situation, Jesus being under such emotional upheaval from his medical issues, and the last thing anybody wants is a blowup…
But keeping a secret never quite works on this show, especially one with so many factors and characters involved — witness Mariana’s intuitive leap, within seconds, to understanding the whole situation; witness Mariana’s self-obsessed leap, seconds after that, which finds her somehow the injured party for being left out of this story, and subsequent Twitter complaints. It’s a very Brandon situation, being in the middle of someone else’s stuff and somehow under the moral gun anyway, but it’s well-constructed.
And most importantly: It’s poignant and bittersweet to have this scene play out within the same episode in which minimal real-world information about sex and sexuality is being doled out sparingly, haltingly, reluctantly, to teenagers. For that matter, it’s an episode in which which any kind of “realness” and forthrightness (like Callie’s art project) is raising hackles: When the squeamish get to decide how much truth is doled out, it’s so often those who are ready for the truth, but denied it, that will suffer. True of sex ed, and true of life.
In Mike (Danny Nucci) news, he’s forced to reveal that Ana’s (Alexandra Barreto) felony has put their plan to live together in jeopardy. He can’t foster AJ (Tom Williamson) under the same roof, but can adopt — which is already in the works. AJ doesn’t know about any of this, and with his brother Ty (Chris Warren) giving the hard sell about moving in together once he’s out of jail, it’s only a matter of time before he gets a mixed and muddled message: That Mike’s adoption proposal arises from wanting to be with Ana and their daughter — not primarily, or even involving, his relationship with AJ — and that’s a recipe for disaster…
As is any moment of happiness for our Callie, of course. High on the prospect of art college — and starting to believe in her talent, in her ability to belong at school and in her family — she finds Stef at the kitchen table with a grim-faced Robert (Kerr Smith): The parties involved in the Troy (Levi Fiehler) hit-and-run aren’t accepting Robert’s settlement offer, and Callie’s headed to court after all.
So uh, when will Troy’s hidden truth come to light? Because we are really getting tired of this kid.
“The Fosters” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform.