‘The Fosters’ Review: ‘Deja Vu’ Centers on the Show’s Most Frustrating New Character
Recap and review of The Fosters – Season 3 Episode 3 – Deja Vu:
AJ (Tom Williamson) is new to The Fosters, but he’s already carved out a niche as the most frustrating new character the series has had in some time. Of course, I’d be far more miffed about his frustrating role in “Deja Vu” if I didn’t think his character was designed to be this way.
That said, presenting AJ in this fashion makes it difficult to warm to him. “Deja Vu” features AJ acclimating to life with the Adams-Foster family, and adjusting to his new surroundings at Anchor Beach, by stealing the baseball Brandon’s grandfather left him, and generally bailing on Callie (Maia Mitchell) at every opportunity. By episode’s end, he’s remorseful about how he’s shown nothing but distrust to Callie, Mike (Danny Nucci), and the rest of the family, particularly since they seem so keen on helping him find his brother. But by then, it’s too late, as Brandon (David Lambert) catches him trying to return the baseball to its place in Brandon’s room, indicating that he stole it in the first place. Despite the indication that AJ has a good heart, and that he’s really just a misunderstood kid who’s desperate to be reunited with the brother the foster system ripped away from him, it can be difficult to really side with him. It took me a while, but I think I know why. And it isn’t just one reason either, as there’s a multitude of reasons for why AJ is difficult to get behind. That said, none of these reasons preclude AJ from becoming a favorite down the line. Rather, these reasons are simply why I’m not exactly loving the character, or this story arc, right now. So here’s why AJ isn’t catching on with me, personally…
1. The Disruption: Good drama is the disruption of normalcy. But normally, that drama feels far more organic than AJ’s sudden, inexplicable arrival. Callie and the Adams-Foster clan had a REALLY rough Season 2, and although the finale ended at a point of possible tragedy, Season 3 premiered with a sense that things had finally gotten back to normal. There was peace and normalcy, albeit hard-won. But these characters seemed to finally be free of the type of anchoring drama that seemed to drag them down at every turn.
Enter AJ, who arrived and, by the end of his first episode, had already caused irrevocable damage in Callie’s life, interrupting the balance of normalcy she’d worked so hard to attain. Now, you could argue that Callie was just as disruptive to the Fosters’ way of life when she arrived. But there are two crucial things that prevented Callie from being as off-putting as AJ: firstly, she had Jude with her. Jude served as a softening agent, an adorable, lovable character whose frailty made Callie’s rough-edged desperation seem all the more understandable. Of course she’s going to do what she can to protect Jude, and of course she’s going to be distrustful of everyone and everything, because if her instincts are wrong, that spells disaster not just for her, but for her beloved little brother as well.
What helped Callie was that we could see Jude, get to know Jude, and see that brother-sister connection, so we could understand why Callie was the way she was. But Ty isn’t around, and we can only go on AJ’s word. For all we know, Ty doesn’t want to be found (just as Mike suggests to AJ). Maybe Ty has found a new family, and simply wants to move on with his life. We don’t know, which can make it hard for audiences to see where AJ is coming from (namely, that AJ feels he needs to find his brother in order to save him from a worse fate). Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the other reason Callie was less off-putting upon her arrival than AJ was that we were meeting the Adams-Foster family for the first time with her. Prior to Callie meeting them, we hadn’t spent two whole seasons seeing them struggle to attain normalcy, suffering through deaths, physical attacks, tragic accidents, and financial hardship. So we had no sense of attachment to the sense of order that Callie’s presence would have been disrupting. This family simply felt like a cool collection of people who, while partially reticent at first, ultimately came to accept Callie and Jude into their home like blood relations. But with AJ, he comes into the Adams-Foster home at a very delicate time, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if we hadn’t seen all of the hardship the family had been through prior to his arrival. Whether the close call of the car accident in the Season 2 finale, the death of Frankie, the death of Stef’s father, the departure of Jesus, the close call with Jude nearly getting shot, and all of the business with Callie’s adoption, it’s been a rough year for a family that is only JUST getting back to normal. And now this.
2. Duplicity: Maybe duplicity is the wrong word, since I don’t necessarily think AJ is an inherently bad person who seeks to trick people and undermine their attempts to help him. But…well, his actions speak far louder than anything else about him. Part of the reason Callie never stirred this level of resentment was because she was never this outwardly duplicitous. AJ is cool to Lena (Sherri Saum) and Stef (Teri Polo), saying “Yes ma’am” and “This dinner is delicious,” and generally being the perfect foster son. He’s even cool to Mike, slinging back sodas and watching the NBA finals while excitedly making plans to go to a baseball game. But then he steals Brandon’s baseball, sneaks out of class at Anchor Beach, gets up in Callie’s face when she calls him out for costing her the job at the drop-in center, and acting like a standoffish, brooding teenager. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t already invested in the characters AJ was opposing. We saw what a rough year it’s been for Mike, we saw how hard Callie worked to finally find a home (and a possible career) at the drop-in center, and we saw how losing the baby affected Lena and Stef, to such an extent that temporarily fostering a new kid could potentially open old wounds. This wasn’t the case with Callie and Jude, so while Callie certainly was a brooding teen prone to running away, it never felt as egregious as it does here. Even when he shows remorse at the end of the episode for his actions, and seems apologetic towards Callie and Mike, it’s hard to know if he’s even being sincere, since so much of his character is predicated on this frustrating duality: cool and respectful on the one hand, and distrustful on the other. Naturally, this complexity would make him a good character in any other context, except for one problem.
3. The acting choices Okay, I need to stress this before I go any further. I don’t think Tom Williamson is a bad actor. AT ALL. If anything, I think he’s elevating what he’s being given, simply through his speech patterns and body language. With minimal lines, he’s able to communicate the damaged nature of AJ, and how he’s very much like a wounded fighter who’s been kicked around a lot, but is still hanging in there. The problem isn’t with Williamson, but rather, what the script, and the direction, asks of him. I would be more upset with Williamson if I thought there was actually a better character on the page, but I’m not entirely sure there is. I get that we’re only three episodes into the season, but we really don’t know anything about AJ beyond his one-track focus to find his brother, along with the general backstory of their separation. Who is AJ, outside the context of his brother? Even Callie had a character outside the context of her relationship with Jude, and her rough foster system upbringing. Granted, Callie’s character had more time to be fleshed out than AJ has gotten so far, but I feel as though the show is doing a disservice to Williamson and AJ by taking the slow-burn approach. If we’re meant to like AJ, and if we’re meant to view Callie as having misjudged him, then give us subtle reasons why. Have him recount a touching moment from his youth to Stef and Lena (or Mike!), have him be cool to people at Anchor Beach despite being mistrusted/picked on/whatever, or have him talk about his dreams for the future with Jude (they’re sharing a room together, after all! Use that to show us more of who AJ is, instead of turning it into a scene where Jude warns AJ about his teeth-grinding).
I guess what I’m getting at is that the AJ character is frustrating because there’s a lot of potential left on the table. For a character-driven show, AJ feels like a completely plot-driven contrivance, placed into the Adams-Foster household to make drama happen. He doesn’t feel like a part of the ensemble, and he doesn’t feel like someone the show is interested in making a part of this world. He feels like someone who’s just passing through until his storyline is resolved and he can be sent on his way. And that sucks, because there are ways to do a character like this that don’t feel so underwritten (look at any of the Girls United girls to see how a temporary, limited ongoing story arc can be done well). Here’s hoping the show offers more characterization for AJ next week, because I’m just not feeling his journey right now at all.
I might not have been as down on AJ had I not loved so much of the rest of the episode. The relationship between Jude (Hayden Byerly) and Connor (Gavin MacIntosh) continues to be one of the best teen romances on TV right now, owing largely to the lived-in chemistry between Byerly and MacIntosh. They alternately feel like best friends, significant others, and strangers trying to figure each other out. Stef helping Jude and Connor deal with their trauma from the shooting by taking them to a firing range delivered some of the most poignant material of the episode. Stef plays mother not only to her own child, but to the misunderstood Connor as well, offering advice about how to move on from such a traumatic experience, in a storyline that pays homage to the show’s own continuity, recalling how Stef was shot back in Season 1, and how hard it was for her to move on again. I also loved how Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) stood up to her grandfather about his refusal to accept that times are changing, with regards to his bakery. The churro donut idea Mariana’s cousin had (“the churro-nut”, complete with catchy, “My Sherona” parody ad) is a clever way for the show to explore how, in business, traditions can’t stand forever if it means becoming obsolete. And, as an added bonus, it tied into both Mariana’s difficulty in coming to terms with her affair with Wyatt, and Callie’s eventual plan for a new independent study project, as Mariana will help Callie develop an app called “Fost and Found” which will allow foster kids to find one another and keep in touch. And this is without even getting into some other nice character moments, such as Brandon struggling to come to terms with Mike fostering AJ, or Lena discovering that Monty (Annika Marks) might be gay after all. What we had here was an immaculately well-paced episode for 80% of the runtime. It was just that other 20% that was rough. Of course, I say this, but that’s still a FAR better ratio than most shows on TV right now.
Ultimately, while I didn’t love “Deja Vu,” I thought it had enough strong moments to prove well worth recommending. Earning trust isn’t easy, as AJ learns in his time with the Adams-Foster family. And so it is with AJ and the viewer. The character will have to build trust with the audience and earn that empathy that was intrinsically there for Callie and Jude (due to their status as main, viewpoint characters) but isn’t there for AJ (as a newcomer, recurring guest star). But if any show could pull it off, it’s The Fosters.
But what did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!
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