"Until the world walks in our shoes, they will never understand," Melody Bledsoe (Marlee Matlin) tells her Deaf Studies class in Switched at Birth while devoting class time to airing emotions about integrating after learning Carlton will be closed. But this simple line of dialogue within the episode "Uprising" can be used as the genesis for everything that follows after-- not for the characters within the show but the show and its audience itself. Switched at Birth has already opened deaf culture to thousands of viewers who might not have ordinarily given it a second thought or ever known someone who spoke ASL. Now it is going one step farther in putting the audience directly in those characters' shoes with its all-ASL episode.*
"Uprising" is an extremely emotional episode for just about everyone involved, and that extends deeply to the audience. While the majority of the episode deals with a small section of Carlton students, led by Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and flanked by Emmett (Sean Berdy) and Travis (Ryan Lane), preparing a "shut in" protest in a key building on the school's campus, it is still Switched at Birth; it is still a family drama; and all of the issues that have been playing out over the last few weeks are prevalent as well. Struggling to trust Regina (Constance Marie) when she is drinking again, John's (D.W. Moffett) strong-armed over-protectiveness, Travis' deep dislike of Noah (Max Lloyd-Jones), and of course, a love triangle, all come into play, even with this greater purpose and greater mission looming overhead.
Everyone is on the top of their game in "Uprising," but we really have to spotlight Leclerc for carrying much of the weight. In a way, much of the episode is seen through her eyes, starting with the opening all-ASL scene, in which her hearing aid battery dies, and it is literally like we are walking in her shoes as she combs the halls of Carlton. Between stepping up and rallying the other students, having to choose between it and the play her mother is directing at a pivotal point, and standing in front of them later, setting rules and an example, Leclerc carries all of Daphne's concerns on her face. ASL is a very expressive language, and even without reading the subtitles, she makes it extremely clear just how much is at stake here.
Inspired by the real life events at Gallaudet University in the late 1980s when deaf students there protested for a deaf president, Switched at Birth creator Lizzy Weiss crafted an episode that feels both inspired by, and a tribute to, those real life heroes. They stood up and fought for what they believed in then, as the kids of Carlton are doing now. Only things are much more complicated in Weiss' world, partially because of the times (social media proves to be both a help and a potential hindrance when some consider this shut in more of a party than a protest), and partially because Carlton has a small contingent of hearing students. Should they be allowed to protest alongside the deaf students? And at what point should they be brought into the process? Many feel Carlton is being used as an example, especially with their production of Romeo and Juliet, to show how deaf and hearing kids can get along when pushed together and asked to relate, but in the beginning, the plans for the protest are still kept a secret, even from the most sympathetic to the cause.
And should one of the demands be that the school stay open and deaf? Even with Bay (Vanessa Marano) ultimately giving the cause its imagery and fighting alongside everyone, some kids still want Carlton to revert to what it was before the pilot program-- the moment they thought all these problems started for their school. What are they fighting for if not their home away from home, their sanctuary-- and is that not such a place for all kids, deaf or not?
These are very real questions with uncomfortable answers. "Uprising" isn't Switched at Birth's attempt at a bottle episode, locking all these kids in a building for their cause-- a cause. Nor is it a chance for the show to get on a soapbox about a cause and lose its sense of self. In fact, "Uprising" is Switched at Birth finding itself at its best, highlighting each individual character's plight in light of the greater cause. Because of the nature of being "switched at birth," Daphne and Bay were always searching for a sense of self-- who they are deep down, when you stop worrying about what you got from genetics and what you got from environment. Bay's struggle was a bit more prominent in the beginning of the series, until she lost herself in her art and in Carlton. It is this second season that we have seen Daphne deal with similar issues, but what is fascinating about "Uprising" is that for once, they are both in the same place, looking for the same thing. Both have always been accepting and tolerant of everybody, but they will both have to deal with not everybody, including each other, being accepting and tolerant of them in this protest moment. And the question will arise: What are they, each, individually, really fighting for?
* As previously mentioned, there is a spot of dialogue at the beginning of the episode, as well as one line to close it out. Though the rest of the hour-long program is silent when it comes to words, score plays during the most emotional moments to keep that cinematic feel to the show. No ambient sound-- nothing hearing characters would be able to hear-- are present. Without such sound, the pivotal moment at the end when the protest is taken to the next level is that much more alarming and certainly leaves the audience with a lot about which to think.
Switched at Birth airs on ABC Family on Monday nights at 8 p.m. "Uprising" airs on March 4 2013.
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