My reaction to the first half of The Family, “All the Livelong Day” is in the ballpark of some of my reactions to the 2015 film, Room. It’s not simply because both feature someone captured and held in a small living space for some deranged man to regularly sexually assault whomever he’s captured. Nor are my reactions because the actress Joan Allen was featured in Room and is starring in The Family. The two characters, Claire Warren in The Family and Jack’s grandmother Nancy in Room, are so different from each other that if you didn’t see the credits you might not immediately realize it’s the same actress. What is similar about these pieces are the gut-punching moments of quiet horror that chill you, not because of fear, but because the empathic pain about the atrocities that have occurred.
At the same time, The Family is a totally different piece in its focus. Room is a story about survival, finding joy in awful circumstances, the love between a parent and a child, and trying to move on from tragedy. As the show’s logo art suggests, “The Family” is about how one man’s evil acts has shattered the lives of so many, and the cracks keep rippling out. Although the heinousness of the things Doug (Michael Esper) has done is not glossed over, thus far the story is more about the brokenness of what’s left behind, not the healing from it.
What I find different about this show is that there are plenty of movies and TV shows that have focused on the minds of the criminals. The Family focuses on the victims of a criminal and how they become tainted and twisted by what has happened – even though Doug may have never physically touched them. The weight of these effects are heavy, and can be explored in a way that a film format doesn’t have time for and that TV shows rarely bother with.
Of course, you don’t need to have seen Room to appreciate The Family and what’s happened over the last two weeks. The Family, “All the Livelong Day” isn’t billed as a part two from last week’s episode, “Nowhere Man,” Nevertheless, it does pick up exactly where we left off: the confrontation between Claire and her daughter Willa (Alison Pill).
What a tour-de-force scene! Claire’s devastation and rage are well-matched by Willa’s desperate need to explain why she tried to pass off Ben as Adam. Considering who Willa is, the reasoning makes sense. Last week showed the moment where Willa becomes completely enmeshed in her mother’s well-being. Willa saying to her mother that it was the, “worst moment” of her life follows up on that idea. The worst moment of Willa’s life is not Adam going missing – it’s what that did to her mother! Willa’s entire life from that point on has become trying to make up for losing Adam and hurting Claire.
What else is smartly done is how the scene informs audience that Willa’s decisions about Ben weren’t about politics – although it’s not surprising that Claire would think that. As the episode goes on we really get to see how these two can be so close and yet so unaware of what’s really going on with the other. Claire has never questioned why Willa is so focused on her mother’s political career. She most likely assumes that Willa has her own ambitions and has inherited the same cutthroat instincts as her mother. (That second part is right!) Remember how Willa guessed her mother had chosen to go rogue in the family interview? Claire told Willa that she was too cynical, but Willa was right about what Claire did. So as awful as this situation is, Claire can imagine Willa doing this for the name recognition – because she thinks in a similar way.
However, Willa’s reaction to Claire’s accusation makes that accusation unlikely. Believing this election is the most important thing to Claire, (and I don’t think Willa is totally wrong about that) Willa’s, “What if someone see’s you like this” is a “hail Mary” throw to try to keep her mother from getting in the car. As the episode goes on what becomes clear is that the only reason Willa is such a political animal is so that she can help Claire get what Willa believes Claire wants. It always comes back to Claire for Willa: protecting her from anything hurtful, keeping her safe, and getting her mother what she wants. This idea later gets solidified when we learn exactly how Willa came up with the idea of Ben being brought in as “Adam,” She is still basically that 13-year-old girl we saw the day Adam disappeared who wishes things had been different. Hence her child-like logic of bringing back “Adam.”
Willa: Your son is dead! …and Ben is here…. He may not be Adam…but he’s the closest thing we have.
Claire can’t respond to that. It’s all too overwhelming and hurtful. Adam has just been snatched away from her and murdered, all over again. She gets into the car and leaves a shattered Willa standing there. For Willa, she’s just caused her mother’s devastation, again.
Thank goodness that’s when the commercial break is because that scene needs the moment of silence that’s put in before they begin. You need to let what you’ve just witnessed sink in.
Adam and Ben
That opening scene between Claire and Willa is loud and painful, but what comes next is a quiet heartbreak. It’s a flashback of young Adam (Maxwell James) with young Ben (Aidan Fiske) that shows the first time Adam wakes up in his prison with Ben. Ben has cut a doughnut in half and is prattling on to Adam about if he’d like french toast or scrambled eggs. Adam is on the other bed across the room, curled listlessly on his side. Ben keeps talking, asking Adam questions about his favorite book, telling him about his pet mouse…and asking Adam’s name. Adam is unresponsive as he holds the small ship that had been in the bottle when we met young Adam in episode 1. It’s all he has left of his old life.
This is a mournful scene, but it gets worse when Adam comes around and plays along with Ben’s game of pretend, telling Ben he hates eggs.
Adam: “What happens down here?”
Ben: We eat. We play. We have school. Er, sometimes our friend comes.
Adam What does he do?
As a viewer the expressions of misery, sorrow and guilt that crosses Ben’s face hits hard. He doesn’t have to say to us what the friend “does.” It’s a testament to the young actor playing Ben just how agonizing this moment is.
I’ve discussed before how the The Family has managed to make the audience feel and experience more of the impact these awful situations have on the characters than shows which use far more visually graphic storytelling. The television landscape is fond of its procedural-style shows where there’s a horrible crime, a dead body, or a brutal rape. Because this is a story about the raping of children there’s no way anyone would want to depict that – not even on cable. What’s notable is the fact that the scenes about Adam’s abduction, and these with Adam and Ben, are so emotionally shattering that it proves when there is great acting and writing the visuals are unnecessary.
At times it may even be a disservice to the stories being told to be overly graphic, because when a scene is gory or sexually graphic you become more focused on the act instead of the emotional consequences. We often hear that American society has become desensitized to violence. Well, that happens to protect the psyche. When viewers are confronted with intense and graphically pictured acts we can become action-oriented instead of emotionally connected.
Shock-value is very often highly overrated. The question the story creator needs to ask themselves is what’s more important – to see the act, or to feel how the act affects the character and overall story? Ideally you want a scene to do both, but sometimes a visual may be so shocking it forces the audience to emotionally distance from what’s happening. This is not to say that violence is never warranted or that explicit acts should never be shown – but the reason for it should be about moving the plot forward and drawing the viewer in even more than before.
After that scene with the boys we are given a time-lapse of the next ten years. During that time, to John’s dismay, Claire becomes Mayor and Willa tells him Claire is going to be president one day. Meanwhile, we see that John is sleeping around on his book tours. Then Hank Asher (Andrew McCarthy) is in prison on cleaning duty. It’s nine years later and he’s hearing about Claire’s new zero tolerance law on unregistered sex offenders. (I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Don’t all sex offenders caught have to register anyway?) Then we’re back to the dungeon.
This is where The Family, “All the Livelong Day” gets its title. Aside from the boys pretending meager things are fabulous food, the time-lapse shows young Adam and Ben scraping away at the mortar between the bricks in the wall (and we see they’ve managed to remove one) while singing, “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.” Ben also reads from a newspaper when Adam asks him to tell him, “something new.”
Ben: “They killed Saddam Hussein.”
Nine plus years later, and in the dungeon it’s now Ben (Liam James) asking Adam (Luke Slattery) to tell him something new. Adam reads the same headline from the same paper when they were little. Nothing much has changed…except that next we see that where the bricks were is now a giant hole in the wall. Adam is standing inside what they’ve dug through, but as he tries to find a place to keep digging he discovers that the entire tunnel they’ve started is blocked by a steel wall. This was the hope that had been keeping Adam going the whole time, and with that gone, it’s the last straw. Ben tries to make it better by asking him if he’d like prime rib or pizza.
Adam: This is not pizza. It’s old bread.
Ben: If we’re good, maybe our friend will bring ice cream.
Adam: Stop calling him that.
Ben: Huh? What?
Adam: He’s not our friend! You know what he comes here to do, and it’s not to bring ice cream.
Adam: He’s not our friend!
With that Adam curls up on the bed in the same position we first saw him in when they were young boys. Back then Adam made the decision to make the best of his situation – and to find a way out. With the failure of the tunnel, he can’t bring himself to pretend anymore. Ben, who has been so brainwashed into accepting his fate, is shocked at the smack of reality.
The next flashback is the week before Ben stepped in as “Adam.” In the dungeon, a very sick Adam is on his bed unconscious and covered in sweat. Ben promises that their “friend” will soon arrive and take Adam to the hospital. We can tell he won’t make it and from Ben’s mournfully singing, “I’ve been working on the railroad” it feels like he knows it too.
Why is only Adam sick? Could it be something Adam breathed in from being inside the tunnel? Maybe…or one could look at it as his spirit died with that tunnel failure. Heart-broken and faced with no other way of escaping his body took the only way out.
Adam’s death is pivotal for Ben. The next scene is Doug coming to tell Ben that Adam is dead. We also learn why, as the boys grew older, they never tried to overpower Doug. Doug makes Ben put on a heavy iron shackle and then toss him the key. Only then does Doug come down the ladder with food. His seeming concern for Ben’s well-being is sickening. However, it’s when Doug tells Ben not to worry, because he’ll get Ben a new friend, Ben’s grief turns to a heaving rage. He can’t let this guy do this to yet another person. It’s Ben’s turning point.
Scenes like this are why I’ll never be one that says there should never be violence on-screen – just like I don’t say sexual situations should never be show. It’s when those scenes are largely just gratuitous that I get annoyed. Here the scene is vital because Ben has been so passive prior that we needed to see his transition to doing whatever it took to get out of there. We also knew about the shackle he was forced to wear so we needed to see how he managed to break out of it.
I need to take a breath here, because from the moment the episode began up until Ben’s escape I didn’t breathe much. Watching the boys and then the young men left me with a heavy mix of sadness and anger. When Doug came in to tell Ben that Adam had died, and then was all concerned that Ben wasn’t eating, the desire to jump through the screen and pummel him was visceral. It then echoed back to when little Ben was telling Adam that Adam needed to eat, making it seem like that’s where Ben had gotten that from, and that was even sadder. The whole way Ben was trained to put on the “bracelet” was also a heartache. However, that bracelet may explain what the key is that “Adam” went back for in episode two. It could be the key to Adam’s “bracelet”…a sad memento.
Hank’s part of the episode is spread throughout the episode, but it’s actually a short sequence. It shows us the level of self-hatred and despair he had while in prison. In the time-lapse we saw him take a clear plastic paper recycling bag with some paper in it.
Next we see him visiting with his Mother. He tells her that if anything were to happen to him while in prison he wants her to know that what he is – it’s not her fault. She won’t hear him.
Hank says okay, and that’s the end of it, his mom starts them on a crossword puzzle. Not only does Hank’s mother not believe her son killed Adam, but she doesn’t seem to believe he’s a pedophile. She’s half-right. Hank has been a good son – although her calling him a “good boy” suggests there’s some issues there!
Later we see Hank surreptitiously take one of those clear recycling bags and tuck it under his shirt. That night in his cell Hank ties the plastic bag over head and tries to suffocate himself. He can’t do it and ripping it off falls on his bed weeping a bit – but glad to be alive.
Ben and Willa
The rest of The Family, “All the Live Long Day” shows us how Adam ends up at Willa’s, how the plan got concocted, and what events led up to her coming up with the plan. It also tells us that at the last-minute she backs out of it – but Adam carried it out on his own.
This is the sequence of events that leads to Willa that Ben should replace Adams.
- That morning Willa sees her brother taking advantage of her mother financially – likely for drug and alcohol money.
- Ben shows up at her house and finds her coming back for a run. At first she doesn’t believe it. Here’s the scene where Ben convinces her that his story is true.
So now Willa is emotionally wrecked to learn her little brother was so concerned about her. It is interesting that Adam’s “message” to Willa is that he’s the one that walked away. Of course, for Willa, it’s irrelevant because she will still feel that as the older one she should have been watching him to make sure of where he was. The other thing to notice is that Ben says he has no family….
- Willa takes Ben to a motel so he can shower, rest etc. She’s bought him some new clothes and toiletries for which he is very grateful. While dressing his wounded hand, Willa tells Ben they will go to the police – but the next day. Her mother has a big speech to give at a political event and she doesn’t want her upset before that. Ben understands.
- Unfortunately, Claire’s already being upset by John who comes home just in time to escort Claire to this event – and asks her for a divorce. Claire is clearly not okay with this, but gets John to act like everything’s okay so she can get through that night.
- At the state Republican convention party Willa finds her mother falling apart in the bathroom. Really, this is the scene that shows what Willa has become for her mother.
This is who the girl who was by her mother’s side when Adam disappeared and who blamed herself for his disappearance grew up to be. (Claire’s speech is darn ironic being the reason she was sobbing in the bathroom is that her husband just asked for a divorce a couple of hours ago!)
- Willa seizes on the idea of the sanctity of family that’s in her mother’s speech and imagines how things would have been so different if Adam had been found that night.
- Willa goes back to the motel and tells Ben of her plan to have him become Adam. Ben isn’t sure it will work, but she yanks a piece of his hair out and says that they will. (Obviously she set up the fake DNA testing)
- The next day it’s all going along okay, until Willa talks to her father and he tells her that even if Adam hadn’t been killed he and her mother would have split up anyway. Furthermore, John tells Willa that Adam would have wanted the family to move on.
- Willa goes to church and prays before lighting a candle for her brother.
- Willa drives Ben to the bus station, tells Ben the plan, “won’t work” and gives him a backpack of clothes and ten thousand dollars to disappear and start a new life.
That last point is awful! Seriously, Willa? When she says it “won’t work” she means it won’t fix her family, but now she doesn’t ever want Ben to go to the police with what happened to him! Nope, she wants to bury the whole thing, so Ben has got to go. This is the one place where I have little sympathy for Willa. Once again though, she’s protecting Claire. If Adam can’t come back it’s better she never know the horror he went through.
The next day is the morning from season one when “Adam” returns – only from Willa’s perspective. She realizes at once that Ben has acted on the plan by himself. “Adam.” When she gets Ben alone she lays into him, but Ben is clear that he is taking over Adam’s life.
Ben: (angrily.) You need to stop calling me that. My name is Adam.
Back to the Present
After all of these things are revealed The Family, “All the LiveLong Day” circles back to that moment of Willa standing in the driveway as her mother takes off in the car. We’ve seen how Willa dealt with the truth of Ben, now it’s time to see how Claire does….
The answer is: not very well. Claire goes to a convenience store, buys bags of chips, a bottle of vodka, and denies that she’s the mayor to a woman in the store that recognizes her as the mayor. She then goes and finds a park bench…but it’s not any park bench. It’s one that the children of Adam’s school bought in Adam’s memory. She sobs over the plaque before laying down on the bench and going to sleep.
When Claire wakes up there are two elementary school girls staring down at her.
Girl: See, I told you she’s not dead.
The bench is in the play area/park across from the school! It’s morning and parents and children are everywhere!
Meanwhile, Willa is at the hospital waiting for Ben to wake up. When he does she tells him that she’s glad he didn’t listen to her because it’s been “nice” having Adam back. Ben immediately gets that something is wrong, but Willa leaves to get a nurse to discharge him.
The Wrap Up
Willa and John bring “Adam” home. John is completely oblivious, but Ben is concerned and Willa is basically waiting for this entire thing to explode. Instead it…implodes.
I know everyone watching was shocked that Claire didn’t say anything, but if you think about Willa, and how much Willa is like Claire, it makes sense. As hurtful and horrible as the truth is about this not being Adam, the other truth is that things have in fact gotten better. Danny’s drinking less, Claire’s gotten her husband back, and Ben…did know Adam. Willa’s statement of him being the closest thing they’ve got is true. Ben’s kidnapper is Adam’s kidnapper, so getting the guy is still about getting justice for her son. Then there’s the whole, what a mess this would this be for her campaign if it came out.
The problem is that Claire can’t fake loving a child that’s not hers – and Ben can feel the difference. In the last episode there was a lot about “Adam” enjoying feeling normal and what it was like to be loved by a mom. Feeling the distance in Claire he must realize she knows and is thinking he needs to run away because he’s going to get into trouble. That would explain why he went and got the money Willa gave him.
This was such a great episode. It answered so much – yet set up more questions. I don’t think Ben’s story is a lie because it was done as a flashback. It seems most likely that Adam is really dead. However, we still don’t know who Ben is.
We saw Ben tell Willa that he has no family. That means either Ben was snatched as a baby and has no memory of his family…or Doug is his father. I’m still leaning towards the latter. Ben’s response was a little too quick about not having a family. Then there’s the scene in the motel with Willa where he’s amazed at the sunrise because he’s never seen the sunrise. It implies that Ben’s entire life was spent in that dungeon, just like the setup Doug is planning for a new baby….
On the Warren front, I’m pretty sure Claire’s trip to the store got caught on a security camera, and that there’s tons of phone videos and photos of her on that park bench. How is Willa gonna spin those pictures?
Next week looks like there’s gonna be some major damage control happening – especially if Ben runs away!