Switched at Birth has the consistent ability to unsettle the audience during the first third of every episode, making it seem as if each hour is heading down a predictable and poorly planned path only to pull out of the dive in an emotionally satisfying way each week. Tonight’s Season 3 finale, “And Life Begins Right Away”, did exactly that as it wrapped up many of the season’s smaller ongoing concerns while simultaneously introducing what the future might look like now that Daphne, Bay, and their classmates are high school graduates.
That all of the graduating class at Carlton would find themselves sharing the same city or college next season, an overwhelmingly obvious fact that has only become more clear in the last half dozen episodes, is indeed coming to fruition despite the sometimes hackneyed approach achieving that outcome required (Emmett promising to stay home from USC if Bay didn’t come with him the most egregious example of these plot machinations). Unlike other teen shows that have decided to avoid college by either skipping the four years required for an undergraduate stint completely (One Tree Hill) or conveniently forgetting college exists after a few months in that environment (Gossip Girl), Switched at Birth is committed to growing with these characters through the more mature problems they will encounter once living away from home, even if “away” is only a few miles down the road at UKMC. Carlton shutting its doors just in time for everyone to move on was a smart choice. Beyond the emotional beats it generates for Daphne it guarantees Toby and Lily can stay an item and Melody can jump directly into her new project next season without having to tie up any lose ends at her previous job.
The importance of the graduates staying in one place extends beyond their central friendships to the ongoing worries on the older generation’s half of the show. Regina and Wes’ long-telegraphed coupling finally arrives, with just the right amount of time between Angelo’s death and that moment in the office that it isn’t immediately obvious whether Regina would pull away from his advance or lean into the kiss. John and Kathryn have already been dealing with many of their central concerns about the switch in a more acute way recently, and when the girls they have been able to appreciate as a pair for only a short time grow too old for their influence completely it produces the type of moment between the two that the show has perfected by this point in its run. John is set up to receive some much needed character growth when Bay and Daphne both make important life decisions entirely on their own and he has to confront what exactly his role as father to both girls actually means. In what is hopefully a sign that the show is choosing to further examine relationships between parents and children moving forward, Travis’ mom showing up at the Carlton graduation and signing her pride at his achievement was a satisfying emotional payoff (even if she was brought up out of nowhere a few seasons after being relegated to a footnote).
Unfortunately even the exciting aspects of these character decisions don’t completely hide the fact that as each cliffhanger is introduced the show came off as trying too hard to prove it still knows how to pack a punch entering a fourth season. Regina’s decision to test out a relationship with Wes so soon after losing Angelo could provide a deep enough emotional well without the added complication of his Hawaii relocation offer. Daphne’s planned prison time was set up to conveniently span the summer between graduation and the start of college and would have caused a derailment of her life goals worse than her previous road bumps of getting fired or having to do community service. Bay and Daphne’s bond will be that much stronger after the former’s gesture at the end of the episode, but somehow it feels like a cop out in that Daphne is once again let off the hook for multiple poor decisions. It already required a suspension of disbelief that she was still able to speak at graduation less than a day before turning herself in for an extended stay in prison, and all things considered the show may be in jeopardy of tipping the balance between soapy drama and realistic events too far to one side. There were enough encouraging moments in this episode to assume next season will explore this material confidently, but the increasing number of out of character occurrences sow some doubt as to how much longer Switched at Birth will be able to maintain intelligent and measured storylines before it burns through all possible realistic representations of a non-traditional family once and for all.