‘The Fosters’ Season 3 Episode 17 Review: ‘Sixteen’ Explores Complicated Teen Sexuality

Recap and review of The Fosters – Season 3 Episode 17 – Sixteen:

In dealing with many of the issues teenagers face today, The Fosters invariably has episodes that focus on teen sexuality. It’s been three seasons now, and each iteration of episodes like “Sixteen” explores a new facet of that topic. Yet I would argue that very few episodes The Fosters has done has ever been as effective in depicting the travails of hook-up culture as this. Even when sex isn’t that complicated, strings are almost always attached.

First and foremost, it’s great to have Jude (Hayden Byerly) back. I have no idea why he’s on the show so infrequently, but it feels like that’s always been the case. He’s a huge asset to the show, and his storylines often end up being among the highlights of a given episode. Such was the case here, as a racy pic from Connor (Gavin MacIntosh) leads to Jude suddenly canceling his trip to go visit Connor in LA. It’s a sudden onset of anxiety and uncertainty about where he stands with his boyfriend, since this is the first indication Jude has had that Connor might want to have sex. In his confusion, he asks Jesus (Noah Centineo) for advice on how he learned about sex. Naturally, his answer is simple: pornography. It strikes me as a refreshingly honest path for the storyline to take, since the internet is the thing molding many young minds today. It makes sense that far more kids are learning about sex through discovery on the internet than through frank conversations with parents. This isn’t to say that “The Talk” isn’t still a part of the family lexicon, but rather that it’s changed from teaching your child about what sex is to contextualizing what they’ve already picked up about it. Jude listens to Jesus and checks out some adult films online, but this only has the effect of confusing him further. And why wouldn’t it? Pornography is strangely impersonal, even in scenes meant to depict passion. And even in the ones that do depict passion with some semblance of accuracy, there’s a lack of that crucial emotional connection. Jude is confused because all he sees are people banging for its own sake, when pleasure isn’t really something a kid like Jude has even thought about. He’s all about the emotional connection between two people. So, naturally, he begins to wonder about the nature of Connor’s feelings for him. Did they really get together out of love or was it only because they were the only two gay boys in their grade?

The Fosters - Season 3 Episode 17 - Sixteen

Credit: Freeform

It’s a question Jude poses to Connor at the end of the episode after having a frank discussion with Callie (Maia Mitchell), in which she tells her younger brother that loving someone doesn’t mean you have to do something with which you’re uncomfortable. It’s clear that Jude does love Connor, but the question he poses at the end of the episode during their video chat is one that he needs answered, because there’s a wide chasm between a real emotional connection, and a connection born of convenience and circumstance. Connor reminds Jude that they were friends first, but Jude fires back that Connor doesn’t feel like his friend anymore, which has kind of been the problem in all this. Connor isn’t sacrificing anything to see Jude, such as making trips to San Diego or taking the time to have an actual conversation rather than a text message exchange. Hell, if anything, Connor is making it harder on the relationship by signing up for a bunch of extracurricular activities that prevent him from spending that much time with Jude. Granted, Jude could have been upfront with Connor about why he canceled the trip. He even could have broached the subject about the racy pic shortly after receiving it. But Jude had no idea what any of it meant, or how he was supposed to feel about it. He admits to Connor that it’s not as if he didn’t like the pic, but it wasn’t something he ever would have expected from him either. Of course, the irony in all this is that Connor is every bit as confused as Jude. He doesn’t even know if he wants to have sex or not. He just sent the pic because his football teammates send similar pictures to their girlfriends. He didn’t know the kind of inner turmoil the pic would cause, because he’s just as uninformed as Jude. If anything, he has it far worse, since Jude has an endless list of people he can talk to about his sexuality without fear of judgment, whereas Connor doesn’t really have anyone but Jude. It’s pretty sad, honestly, and we don’t get resolution either. But that’s more reflective of the fact that neither Jude nor Connor have resolution. First love is something that takes a while to resolve, so while the episode never reveals to us if Connor and Jude have decided to break up, it’s clear that their respective journeys aren’t over even if they have.

The Fosters - Recap and Review - Season 3 Episode 17 - Sixteen

Credit: Freeform

Another character facing the travails of confused sexuality is Sally Benton (Pepi Sonuga), the honor student who accused Monte (Annika Marks) of kissing her. Monty insists that Sally was the one who tried to kiss her, a claim which Sally vehemently denies in the meeting with Lena (Sherri Saum) and her parents. But it doesn’t take a detective to figure out that the only way Sally could have known that Monty was a bisexual “soliciting both men and women” through an online dating site was if she’d signed up for that dating site herself, and actively set the search parameters to specify women seeking other women. Lena confronts Sally on this at the twins’ birthday party, and she quickly breaks down, pleading with Lena not to tell her parents. In her usual motherly way, Lena tells Sally that she has the right to be an individual, even if her parents want her to be someone else. While the conclusion seems a bit pat for a storyline that resulted in such a huge cliffhanger last week, I think it’s an interesting enough wrinkle in the storyline to prevent this from feeling like a rehash of that story where Rita gets falsely accused of hitting one of the residents of Girls United. Adults in positions of power are always called into question, whether it’s Rita, Monty or Justina, and while there’s merit in some of those challenges to authority, the show needs to vary its approach enough that these respective stories don’t start to feel like rehashes of one another. I feel this Sally/Monty story did just enough to escape that feeling of similarity by turning this not into a treatise on Monty’s behavior, but rather an exploration into a young girl just looking for direction, and the big push she needs to start establishing herself as her own person.

Even Callie and Brandon (David Lambert) find themselves facing trouble with their respective romantic situations. After agreeing that they wouldn’t bring home anyone they’re dating, both Callie and Brandon break that agreement by sneaking out of Mariana’s party to be alone back at the house with their significant others. In classic Fosters fashion, both couples are found out, leading an awkward moment in the kitchen where AJ (Tom Williamson) and Cortney (Denyse Tontz) recognize the tension between Callie and Brandon. However, the responses are vastly different: Cortney is cool with it, because she feels that sacrificing a relationship to keep your family together is a surefire sign of maturity — and also because it’d make her a hypocrite if she threw a fit, since she also still lives with her ex. Meanwhile, AJ flips out on Callie, questioning whether or not she truly is over Brandon. Callie insists there’s nothing between herself and Brandon, but AJ is quick to snap back, “Nothing don’t feel like that, Callie.” And he’s right. Whether she realizes it or not, both she and Brandon have issues they haven’t worked through, and they’ll never be able to have healthy relationships with other people until they do. They need closure, although how they get it is anyone’s guess.

'The Fosters' Season 3 Episode 17 Review 'Sixteen' Explores Complicated Teen Sexuality

Credit: Freeform

Oh, and I suppose we should talk about that Ana relapse. I love Mariana (Cierra Ramirez), but I was practically throwing things at my screen when she came up with the boneheaded decision to take Ana (Alexandra Barreto) to see Gabe (Brandon Quinn). Mariana had taken it upon herself to team up with Ana to try and get Gabe removed from the sex offender registry, since this would allow him to have a fatherly relationship with Jesus. However, Mariana ends up not only bringing Ana to meet Gabe, she actually LEAVES her there! At the house of a man she hasn’t seen in sixteen years — a man who’s drinking beer in front of a recovering alcoholic! (And this isn’t to blame Gabe, since it’s not as if he knows Ana is recovering) While we don’t know what happens at Gabe’s house once Ana leaves, the effect is clear: Ana is either drunk or high, and she has a total meltdown at the twins’ birthday party, blaming her parents for sending Gabe away, and arguing that they could have been a real family had her parents not pressed charges. Stef (Teri Polo) removes Ana from the party, and Jesus accompanies her in a show of solidarity. But the damage is done, as it’s going to be another long road for Ana to get back to the place she was in her recovery. And that just might be the saddest result of all from tonight’s episode. But tragedy is compelling, for better or worse.

“Sixteen” managed to tackle complex emotional entanglements related to sex, whether it was Jude and Connor struggling to come to terms with their relationship, or whether it was Callie coming to the decision that she’s not ready to go all the way with AJ just yet. I love the frankness and maturity with which The Fosters tackles these subjects, because few youth-oriented shows on TV really dig this deep. Hopefully, the show continues to explore these types of issues facing teens today, because it makes for compelling TV.

But what did you think of The Fosters – Season 3 Episode 17, “Sixteen”? Sound off in the comments!

And for more on The Fosters, read our recap and review of the excellent “EQ”!

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