‘The Fosters’ Review: ‘Going South’ Makes the Case for AJ as a Valuable Character
Recap and review of The Fosters – Season 3 Episode 5 – Going South:
The Fosters is in a bit of a transition, as the real ongoing storylines of Season 3 not only reveal themselves, but are set into place. “Going South” is a crucial episode for making sure these storylines work, since this is both our halfway point of the half-season, and the turning point as well.
What I mean is simply that several events transpire that take us to a crucial juncture in the narrative: AJ (Tom Williamson) and Callie (Maia Mitchell) acknowledge their feelings for one another, Mike (Danny Nucci) expresses his commitment to AJ, Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) comes clean about Wyatt to her parents (and also reveals that she’s, thankfully, not pregnant), Brandon (David Lambert) manages to make it back into Idyllwild, Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum) agree to go to marriage counseling, and Ty finally makes contact with AJ. It’s an impactful episode, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t largely due to AJ. A few weeks ago, I detailed why I didn’t think the character was working, and why this could end up being a problem, going forward. And one of those issues was with the material Tom Williamson was being given. He didn’t really get to show too many different shades to AJ’s personality, because the script felt inherently restrictive and one-dimensional. Maybe it’s because this has been a show littered with unlucky, down-and-out kids, but it felt exhausting to be introduced to yet another teen with a chip on his shoulder. However, as the weeks have gone by — and especially tonight — AJ has grown into someone who’s more than just his situation. He’s a foster kid, yes, but he’s also a charismatic guy, a loving grandson, and a young, black male in a world where trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low due to racial tensions. There’s a lot to unpack with AJ, and “Going South” does a great job of making the case for why he’s a valuable character.
AJ’s storyline this week largely plays out as a series of vignettes, with AJ accompanying Mike on a ride-along as they go searching for Ty. That includes a heartbreakingly poignant stop at a nursing home to visit AJ’s grandmother, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s and can barely remember her grandson from one moment to the next. Williamson plays this dutifully, as AJ wants to do right by his grandmother, since she’s one of the few familial attachments left to him. But her condition makes it hard for him to maintain any sort of meaningful attachment. In a lot of ways, you could argue AJ visits Grandma Hensdale more for himself than for her benefit, as the disappearance of Ty has left him feeling more lost and isolated than ever. Grandma Hensdale anchors him to the memory of having a family, even though it’s a fractured one right now. AJ’s pervasive sense of loneliness is never more apparent than later in the episode, when he accompanies Mike to the scene of a burglary and gets taken down by one of Mike’s fellow officers, who mistakes him for an accomplice. The act is racially charged, and even when Mike angrily admonishes his colleague for his behavior, the officer only begrudgingly apologizes. It’s a moment that haunts AJ, who shouts at Mike about how he’ll never understand what it’s like to be perceived as a dog simply due to the color of his skin. While it’s a low point for AJ, it’s a high point for Williamson, who imbues AJ with a bitter resignation about his situation. AJ depressingly yells at Mike about how, as a black foster kid, he’s nothing more than a statistic, and that their foster relationship can never work. And this is where I have to give it up for Danny Nucci, who proves Mike is a whole lot more than just Brandon’s dad.
Mike is a character who isn’t always given a lot to do, but through Nucci, he always comes across as the most sincere character in the series. And it carries over into this scene, as Mike lets AJ know that he’s never going to let him become a statistic. Mike poignantly declares that he needs to believe in a world where a kid like AJ can get a real chance. The hug they share is one of the more powerful moments of the season so far, and I don’t see it as an accident that Mike is wearing his police uniform at the time, as if apologizing on behalf of his profession. By the end of the episode, AJ seems to have reconciled his situation somewhat, at least enough to flirt with Callie, in one of the more surprisingly alluring moments of the episode (I say “surprising” because it showed a brief spark of real chemistry between Williamson and Mitchell that left me sincerely intrigued at seeing where their possible relationship goes, which is something I didn’t think I’d be saying a week ago). Granted, it looks like his sense of stability is about to be rocked, as he gets a cell phone call from Ty in the episode’s big cliffhanger. But I think we’re now in a place where we can follow AJ on that emotional journey, and care about where it’s headed, independently of whether or not one of our more familiar characters are involved. Yet it’s more than that, as AJ offers a different window into the challenges facing foster kids, as well as young persons of color, while also offering a romantic interest for Callie who feels inherently different than any other romantic interest who came before. Consider me officially converted on the AJ character.
The rest of the episode was a bit dicier for me. I’m not entirely loving the marital discord between Lena and Stef. It’s strange, in that I get why Lena is upset, since Stef keeps making decisions without her. On the other hand, it also feels like Lena is looking for arguments to pick, such as when she gets on Stef about how she talks to Mariana, regarding the Wyatt incident. Lena thinks Stef is shaming Mariana, but it really didn’t feel that way to me. If anything, it felt like a concerned mother, desperate to understand why her daughter did what she did, and why she felt it was something she needed to hide from her parents. That said, Polo and Saum do a great job illustrating that not every marriage is going to be all roses and sunshine, even if the love shared between two people is one of depth and passion. In any case, it feels far more authentic than Callie’s somewhat random decision to abduct Brandon and go to Mexico to go hang-gliding. On the one hand, I can get why Callie felt she had to do it, since she’s finally off probation and can go wherever she wants. On the other hand, it’s purposely irresponsible in a way Callie is rarely shown to be. Her lack of foresight about the passports is kind of galling, and her decision to basically trick Brandon into leaving the country with her is crazy, to me. This just felt so far removed from the Callie this show has established that I found it kind of jarring. But, again, this is a case where the actors save it, as Mitchell and Lambert are terrific on-screen together, in my opinion. I just wish it had been in service of a better one-off story.
Ultimately, while “Going South” is a mixed bag, I think The Fosters is on the right track this season, especially with regards to AJ. The storyline is really starting to show promise, and if The Fosters can continue to make that story compelling, I think it’ll make up for a lot of what’s been underwhelming so far this season. The Fosters is still one of my favorite shows on TV, and while I think this season could be better, it could certainly be a whole lot worse.
But what did you think of “Going South”? Sound off in the comments!
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