Mind blown! The Family, “Sweet Jane” has nothing sweet about it although at times it is bittersweet. The majority of it’s a raw, emotional, and at times brutal, exploration about all the ways people lie to themselves – and the consequences of doing so. If a psychological strip-search of these characters isn’t enough to reel you in, guess what? The mystery of “Adam” just got twistier than ever! The number of, “Oh my God!” moments while watching The Family, “Sweet Jane” are too many to count!
Before I jump into this review, it occurs to me that we are eight episodes into The Family, and I don’t think I’ve ever stated the name of the show’s creator! You can thank Jenna Bans for this intense psychological thrill ride, and if you click on her name you can check out her IMDB page. The short version of it includes, but is not limited to, being a long-time writer and producer on: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal.
Even though all of the shows above are great, The Family is absolutely its own unique thing. For one, while those shows do get bloodier, psychologically The Family raises the bar on the idea of a dark drama by focusing more on the mental than the physical. When the physical is shown, it’s a quick sharp shot, and then all the mental repercussions start radiating out into the story.
The Family, “Sweet Jane” – The Setup
The Family, “Sweet Jane” has five major plotlines going on, all of which fit into the theme presented by Hank Asher (Andrew McCarthy) in the opening voice over.
Hank: We all wear a mask to protect us from the world. To protect the world from us. And if you take your mask off, even for a second, you risk being seen.
The masks that Hank is talking about for himself is, of course, the mask of being normal.
1. Flashback – Hank, 10 years ago
Hank’s monologue takes place in his house with his mom (Judith Ivey ) ten years ago. The kitchen of the house is being renovated, so there are workmen there hammering and fixing things. In the living room, Hank’s mom is asking him about how a date she’d set him up on went. Hank uncomfortably says they’ve not much in common. At this point his mom works up the courage to ask if Hank is gay, assuring him that if he is, it’s fine. Hank, quickly, but gently tells her he’s not gay. With that his mom starts to encourage him to give the woman another chance, but then there’s a knock on the door. To Hank’s surprise and horror a young boy walks in for a piano lesson. His mother has lost her space to hold lessons and will now be having them at the house. Hank…is not happy, which says a lot. You would expect that the opportunities this would present would be a win for him, but as we’ll see later it’s not.
This continues on the show’s idea of explaining the difference between a pedophile and a sexual predator of children. Basically the latter is always the former, but the former isn’t always the latter. The show also sets pedophilia up as similar to being gay in terms of someone being born that way.
Let’s just stop for a moment, because this moment could be twisted all kinds of ways, and I don’t think that’s the intention. While science is saying that pedophilia is similar to being a LGBT person in that two things have a genetic component, that doesn’t mean it suggests that pedophilia is a part of the normal range of sexuality. The topic is an article unto itself, but the analogy I would use is comparing someone who’s born blind to someone who needs glasses. Both involve differences with eyes, but the former is a birth defect and keeps the person forever out of being able to participate in things like watching a movie, or viewing paintings, etc. A blind person is no less human than a sighted one, but there are just some things they will never be able to do. Being born farsighted or nearsighted is still on the normal spectrum of human vision and doesn’t keep a person from doing anything that someone with perfect vision does. Hank’s story is not about suggesting that pedophilia is something than should be added to the normal range of sexuality. It implies that because of his brain defect sexuality can’t be a part of his life – but it doesn’t mean he’s automatically a monster who will prey on children. Hank has morals, sees the problem with his hardwiring and doesn’t want to act on it. Hence the last thing he wants is to be alone with a young boy.
Okay, back to our story!
2. Present Time – Ben & Claire
Hank’s monologue continues as we jump into present time. At the Warren house We see Ben/”Adam” (Liam James) in his room sitting on the bed and holding that key we saw him take from the bunker. Claire Warren is in her robe walking up the stairs. As she walks past his room Ben calls out to her. Claire stiffly says she’s surprised he’s still awake.
Ben: I was waiting for you to come say goodnight to me.
Claire mumbles something about him having therapy in the morning, and starts to leave. However Ben, looking like a hopeful puppy, calls out that he loves her. Claire can’t bring herself to say it back.
There’s a commercial break at that point, which gives the viewer ninety seconds to ponder why it means so much to Ben to have Claire’s affection.
3. Willa & Claire – and blackmail
When the show returns we’re back and Willa Warren (Alison Pill) is at church praying. An older African-American woman walks in and introduces herself as Patty Lang (Roslyn Ruff) – Governor Lang’s wife. Yes, she’s married to the incumbent democrat Claire is running against who a few episodes back
condescendingly kindly explained to Claire that the only thing voters care about are the issues. His wife…is smarter than that.
Patty hands Willa photos of Claire looking out of it and buying liquor at the convenience store, and then drinking out of a bottle while walking around looking like a derelict
Patty: She’s a strong, smart woman with incredible potential. No one wants to see her career snuffed out before it’s begun. She drops out now, gets the experience she needs, and in four years, when Charlie’s out of office, she’ll run, and she’ll win.
Willa, being Willa, looks calm and collected when she turns to Patti.
Willa: So she’s had too much to drink. Who hasn’t?
Patti, looks at Willa with almost pity. She’s got that “older and wiser” vibe going on. She explains to Willa that a man could do what Claire did and “get elected President,” but the rules aren’t the same for women. There’s no way the public will vote for a woman caught doing that. (This discrepancy is sadly true.) She ends her talk by expressing some sympathy for what the Warren family has been through. The unspoken part: that won’t stop them from releasing the pictures if Claire doesn’t drop out.
Is it wrong that the first thing I thought of was how amazing it was that Patty felt comfortable saying Claire would win in four years. Is that what they mean by bipartisan cooperation…?
4. Sweet Jane
The night that Patty is talking to Willa at church Detective Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham) asks Jane if she’d seen anyone from the oil refinery (where Jane works) when she’d been at the mall that day. She then tells Jane that the FBI had been looking for the man who had taken Adam Warren and that he’d been wearing a blue jacket. Jane’s memory flashes back to the mall and Doug telling her there had been a bomb threat. Does she tell Nina this? No! lies! However, Jane does goes home and frantically starts to look through all of Doug’s clothes. She’s obviously searching for the blue jacket that we know Doug tossed in the trash at the mall.
Ben, Hank, and Claire
We see Ben sneaking out of the Warren house very late at night – and he has that mysterious key with him. Remember, the one he went back to the dungeon to get? Hank sees Ben leaving. He’s not the only one. The next day an officer comes to Nina with a street camera photo of Adam walking late at night in another part of town! What’s up with that?
The Family, “Sweet Jane” Shockers!
The shocks are many in this episode – in a good way. Most are completely unexpected, yet in hindsight make perfect sense – which is to me one of the biggest differences between a thriller and a soap-opera. (Not that there’s anything wrong with soap-operas. It’s only when a show is calling itself a thriller, procedural or straight drama that soap-opera tactics annoy me.)
Ben , Claire – and the Ashers
There’s a flashback of Hank ten years ago trying to deal with his problem concerning young boys. A boy is standing outside in the pouring rain pounding on the door of the Asher house. He’s there for a piano lesson, but Mrs. Asher isn’t home. Hank is hiding and not letting him in.
The boy is a friend of young Adam Warren ( Maxwell James). He recognizes his friend Jack (Noah Ouari) standing in the rain as Claire is driving him home. Claire stops to see what’s going on. When she peers into the house she gets a glimpse of Hank. The fact that he would let the boy stand in the rain like that makes her suspicious. Once she gets the boy into her own house, gets him dry, and sends him off to play with Adam, she Googles him and discovers he’d exposed himself in a public park.
In a later flashback Claire tries to convince John that they should warn the kids about Hank. He’s less concerned, noting that a drunk guy who pees in the bar’s parking lot is exposing himself in public as well. Maybe, but there aren’t a bunch of kids in that parking lot. It’s interesting though that John’s thought is that guys may whip it out whenever there’s a bathroom emergency and that’s okay. Guess that’s just one of the perks of being a guy….
In present time, Hank is trying to sell his mother’s house. (I don’t blame him! Starting over where no one knows him – say in another state – makes sense.) She’s super critical about the fact that they had the original cabinets redone, and notes that the drawers stick. Nevertheless, she thinks because it’s a good school district that it may do okay. Her main suggestion to Hank is to make nice with his neighbors. Meanwhile, she’ll check “Meagan’s Law” online – to see if there are any sex offenders around.
Hank: There’s one.
Agent: Really? How close?
McCarthy’s responses, deadpan with that touch of knowing irony, are perfect!
The next flashback is Claire talking to Mrs. Asher who’s apologizing to Claire for the inconvenience. She’s had car problems and forgotten her phone. Claire’s more interested in letting Mrs. Asher know that she doesn’t think “the kids” should continue taking lessons anymore – because of “the thing” about Hank. The bewildered look on Mrs. Asher’s face makes Claire realize the woman doesn’t know. Claire is flustered. With pitying looks hustles “Annie” (Annie Asher….) out the door while telling a confused Annie to ask Hank “who he is.”
That scene is nicely juxtapositioned against this one in present time. (This was also a sneak peek .) Hank comes over to tell Claire about “Adam” sneaking out. He’s trying to be nice and neighborly but she’s not really listening because her self-righteous attitude is all about making Hank the bad guy. The takeaway she has from Hank saying “Adam” is out wandering the streets at 2am is that Hank is staying up all night watching her son!
At that Hank really lets Claire have it! In a blistering monologue Hank calls her a mother who has never paid enough attention to her kids and that is why Adam was taken back then – and now, she’s still not watching him – because “Adam goes out every night for hours and she doesn’t know!
You have no idea where he’s going, what he’s doing – you have no idea who he even is! You’ve got your head so buried in the sand that you need the friendly neighborhood pedophile to tell you that you should be a better mother and keep an eye on your son.
Best. Lines. Ever. Hank doesn’t know just how true the first one is – but Claire does. The second one is the one that gets me the most. Claire Warren, you just got royally smacked!
Flashback – Nina follows Ben
Nina had gotten a photo of Ben going somewhere late at night in a neighborhood far from the Warren’s. She’s been following him – so now the audience gets to follow him as well. The time’s a little hard to pin down because we’ll find out she’s been doing it for a while – maybe a week? A month? At any rate she’s figured out he takes a bus to another neighborhood, but doesn’t know where exactly where he’s going. Luckily, we get to switch to Ben’s point-of-view, so while Nina doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, we do. It’s to a house on an ordinary street. Ben pulls out the key, unlocks the front door, and goes inside.
What! Ben has a home and he knows where it is! We see him go to his room. There’s a dog that remembers him and Ben is thrilled to see! Why is Ben not at his own house? Why is he so needing of Claire’s love and affection? What is going on?!
(Well…there’s a possible clue in the room…. did you see it? If you look at all the pictures on that dresser, all of the kids look different. I don’t think Ben lied about not having a family. I think he was a foster child and this was the foster home he was in!)
Nina sees none of this. Maybe if she had stuck around on her stakeout, but Agent Clements (Matthew Lawler) comes by and reminds her that the most important thing is the case against the man who took “Adam.”
Clements: We got the guy’s jacket, we got dog hair on it. We are so close. Don’t get distracted on me now. Adam Warren has parents to worry about him. You got me kid, so go home, get some sleep.
Dog hair may not seem like a big deal…unless it’s some kind of purebred dog like a yellow labrador retriever – which it is. Clements has someone going through the registrations of pets at the shelter and pulling all the people with yellow labs. Then they’ll cross-reference those with refinery people…. It’s just a matter of time.
It’s the evening after Hank gave Claire that little smack-down. (Claire has not had a good day, but the dilemma she has with the whole Ben/”Adam” issue has had most of her attention.) To her credit, Claire has decided to follow-up on Hank’s information. At 2 A.M. she’s up and waiting for him when he’s trying to sneak out of the house.
Claire gently, but seriously confronts Ben with her knowledge of who he isn’t by telling him he can’t live there anymore. Ben goes into full panic mode! He starts listing all the reasons why her outing him is bad news – the news, the election, how it will affect John – Claire doesn’t care. Then Ben finds the right button.
Ben: I can tell you about Adam. I can tell you all about him. You never knew how he grew up to be. But I do. I’m the only one who knows him. And I can tell you everything.
The subsequent scenes are poignant and bittersweet. There are questions and revelations – like that Adam had seen a movie he wasn’t supposed to, and that he loved to read. Claire asks what his favorite book had been….
Ben describes Adam as smarter than him, and always coming up with new ways to try to escape. They tried all of them – but obviously they didn’t work. By the end of the night Ben has achieved his goal. We can see by the way she touches his shoulder under the blanket. No, Ben is not Adam…but she’s bonded to him nevertheless. He’s all she has left of Adam.
The next day we watch a resigned but purposeful Claire come out of the house and walk across the street to Hank’s place. Hank is putting up a campaign sign in front of his house – for Claire’s opponent. When she marches over there you’re thinking that it’s going to be about the sign. Instead there’s a long uncomfortable silence. Claire clearly does not want to be here….
Claire: Thank you.
With that Claire turns and goes back to her house. Hank – like everyone else watching – is dumbfounded!
Flashback – 10 years ago: Hank and his Mom
Ten years ago the outcome of Claire’s telling Annie Asher to talk to Hank ends with him having to tell his mom his problem. You can tell Annie’s figured it out – but she needs him to say it. The way he does it is painful – and scary.
Annie: Why didn’t you let Jack in the house?
Hank: Because he was safer out in the rain than alone with me.
Wow…. The fact that Hank didn’t let Jack into the house is to his credit, but…just, wow….
From the moment Jane doesn’t tell Clements about Doug you’re thinking she’s got a serious problem. It’s obvious she suspects him of something. We’ve never seen Doug be anything but loving and sweet with her, so the whole battered wife syndrome doesn’t seem to apply.
The same morning that Claire has apologized to Hank, Clements is having breakfast at a diner while going over the dog registration papers. Jane adopted a golden lab a couple of years ago. Clements figures out the kidnapper might be her husband.
What happens next did tweak me a little. Clements calls Nina, who doesn’t pick up. He leaves her a cryptic message that he’ll fill her in later, and heads out. Immediately, I’m figuring Clements is going to end up dead. Like, really? Mr. FBI isn’t going to tell anyone where he’s going or what he’s looking into? On top of that, he is heading out to go check out the possible home of a man who set a place on fire to destroy the evidence of his crime?
However, I’ll give them some mercy on this, because in no way, shape, or form did I expect Clements to die the way he does! At Doug and Jane’s place, Jane sits and listens nervously to Clements as he asks how long she’s been with Doug – it’s since high school. She says Doug is her boyfriend though, not husband. Even so, she’s been working at that oil refinery for 16 years, so we’re still talking about a common-law husband kind of thing.
Clements asks if Doug had been at the mall with her when they caught her on tape. She reluctantly says yes. Cue the golden lab – “Ajax” walking in. Jane’s surprised that Clements knows the dog. He gently tells her that she should come with him – because he thinks she may be danger.
Jane: You think Doug took that boy?
Clements: We’ll talk in the car.
Jane: Good Lord, what do I do?
Jane is very agitated and upset as she caresses her very large baby bump. Clements is sweet and funny as he tries to keep her calm and get her to safety. Jane gets up to go get her purse…only she’s in the kitchen. Clements is taking some of the dog’s fur and putting it in a little evidence bag when Jane clocks him on the side of the head with a heavy frying pan and kills him!
Yep…this is exactly how I reacted! I was expecting Doug to show up. Jane? I…yeah, I could not wrap my head around this. She loves Doug so much – and obviously this “love” is not love – that, knowing what Doug did, she’d kill someone trying to put him away.
It get worse! That evening Doug comes home and finds Jane in the kitchen scrubbing that frying pan – and she is mad! She wants to know what the extra box of cereal each week had been for. Seriously. Doug looks almost…remorseful, as he tells Jane she has to stay calm for the baby. Cue the second bombshell….
Jane: You said, it would never happen again. You promised.
Again?! Again! She knows that he’s done it before? My God, she’s as loony as he is! Really, there’s a name for it, but the nickname is easier to pronounce: Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome .
What’s amazing is that Doug is honestly sad and upset. Like he is tearing up. Especially when he realizes that Jane has killed someone!
Doug: What did you do….
What? Kidnapping and sexually assaulting young boys is one thing, but murder is something above and beyond? …Maybe he sees it as a sign of Jane’s “love” for him. Whatever it is, the last scene with them is Doug dragging the body of Clements out to the shed. True love….
This twist is amazing! Shocking and horrific – but amazing! Why? Because once you get over the shock of it, this makes perfect sense. It’s why she was suspicious at the birthday party, and on the trip. There’s always been a sense that Jane suspected something. It’s just that it never occurs to a viewer that she concretely knows he’s capable of it. Who thinks like that? (Besides the writer Jenna Bans…and maybe Stephen King. )
Claire and Willa: Like Mother, is Daughter
You know, the line, “She’s just like her mother” is usually either a complement or a criticism, but at least it suggests a separation. It’s possible I just haven’t watched enough television or seen enough movies, but the only mother/daughter relationship that comes to mind suggesting anything like this level of enmeshment is the Marsha Norman play-turned-movie, Night Mother. The characters and topics are vastly different, but the cluelessness of the mother in terms of her daughter is in the same vein.
We already know Willa has the information about the blackmail. The next morning, Claire is brusque with Willa as they go over the upcoming campaign issues – there’s a debate scheduled. Willa is aware of her mother’s anger, but she’s still got to tell her about the pictures. Once she blurts it out, she quietly asks what Claire wants her to do
Claire: Fix it
Claire: You will think of something. You have covered up much worse.
Willa comes up with a solution – one that involves the reporter Bridey Cruz (Floriana Lima). That night we see Bridey at a bar trying to win a stuffed toy from a game machine. A drinking Danny Warren (Zach Gilford) sees her and is hitting on her. He asks about her new boyfriend the one whose calls she’s currently ignoring. Bridey doesn’t comment, but lets Danny win the toy for her – a pink stuffed penguin – before leaving the bar.
The next scene is Bridey in her car in a dark secluded place – where Willa is waiting. Willa gets into the car.
Bridey: So, where to? A bar? My place?
Willa: This is work-related
Bridey promptly kisses Willa – twice.
Bridey: Isn’t it all the same?
Well, that explains a lot about Bridey!
Anyway, Willa gives Bridey a file and when Bridey sees what they are she’s shocked. What we’ll discover is that they’re the text messages between her father and Nina when they were having an affair. She cautions Willa that she will use it for a story – but that’s what Willa wants….
Bridey: I’m being manipulated here, but I don’t know how.
Willa: That’s why they call it manipulation.
Willa, is flirting! It looks like she’s about to kiss Bridey, when she notices the penguin in the back seat. She thinks it’s cute…. Did anyone else get the feeling that Bridey wanted that particular toy because she thought Willa would like it?
The following evening the story about John and Nina hits the news. It hits Nina’s workplace right after she’s just met with John. A conversation about how “Adam” had gotten his pitching arm back up to when he was “7 or 8” sparks the realization that Adam Warren is right-handed, but when she was following “Adam” he did everything with his left hand! (Willa had warned him that he could never use his left hand as dominant again! As Hank said in the beginning, if you let the mask slip, you will be seen!). She’s coming out of her office after double-checking the fact, and everyone at the police station is whispering and staring at her, many with distaste. Then she sees the news on the station’s TV….
The Wrap Up
John is home when he sees it on the news, and he’s devastated. Even though the texts are a decade old, it’s still humiliating – and he looks at Claire sadly. Claire in turn is furious and lays into Willa. Willa, however, is definitely Claire’s daughter!
This is the second truth bomb Claire’s gets hit with! Willa’s words reveal how she’s not just in the role-reversal of parenting – she’s become the worst kind of “stage mother” – willing to do whatever to push her “child” ahead, because she’s living her life through that child. Worse is the truth that Willa is who she is because Claire allowed Willa to become her caretaker and fixer. All of it stems from that moment in the park when Adam went missing ( “Nowhere Man” Goes Deeper into the Dark Side). Then Claire frantically had turned to Willa and yelled, help me. Willa never stopped helping Claire, and Claire’s own narcissism never once questioned her daughter’s choices or encouraged her to have a life of her own.
Instead, Claire allowed Willa to become an extension of herself. In this moment she wants to detach herself from Willa’s actions, but it’s exactly the kind of thing Claire would do. The end justifies the means in her book. We all know what she had done to Hank in prison. The fact that Willa can even say the things she does to her mother are a part of that same killer manipulative instinct that Claire herself has.
However, Willa’s words to Claire are also reflecting that Willa is starting to break away some. Bringing, “Adam” back, as wrong as it is, has in fact done some good for the family. It did help with Claire’s marriage, and it started to get Danny to straighten up a bit. For Willa, it’s allowed her to open up to her sexuality and start to forge a relationship with her brother….but as we’ll see, it’s all an illusion because it’s all based on this huge lie.
John is devastated by the text release, and it’s a betrayal of how he’s just come back to Claire. We saw in earlier episodes that Willa is now developing a relationship with her brother – but she’s also sleeping with her brother’s former girlfriend and recent lover. That’s not going to go over well. Prepare for more explosions!
Hank – Flashback
One of the things we learn about Hank and his mother is that she supported him in fighting his pedophila. Once she knew the truth she didn’t kick him out of the house – a fact that shocked Hank. It’s the last flashback before the end of the episode.
Annie: No more parks, no more kids. It’s never ever going to happen again. I will help you. …We can do this.
The loss of Hank’s mom gets deeper every week…. Hank couldn’t believe that she was willing to do this, but when he asks why, her answer is simple: he’s her son.
This mother’s love reasoning runs smack into the “love” that Jane has for Doug, and shows the difference. Annie didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. Jane tried to stuff the truth away and act as if Doug was normal. That perpetuated the problem – with awful consequences.
In the final scenes of The Family, “Sweet Jane” Hank is trying to fix those stuck drawers in the kitchen. He can’t, but finds the business card of the workman that did the original work 10 years ago – so he calls him.
Danny asks Willa to go out for a drink, but she tells him she’s made plans with a friend “from church” – but would love to do so tomorrow. She leaves. When Danny goes upstairs and walks past her room, he sees the pink penguin sitting on her bed….
Claire is allowing Ben to continue to be, “Adam” and acting like it’s okay. She comes in and puts back Adam’s favorite stuffed toy. She even manages to say, “I love you” back to Ben when he says it. All of this is a cover. Claire’s put a hidden camera in Ben’s room via that stuffed animal! I wonder what she’ll find out?
Hank’s voice over comes on, noting that that longer one wears a mask…the harder it is to take off. “It changes who you are,” he says – as Claire sits at the computer to spy on Ben, and Jane watches Doug dragging the body of Agent Clements to the shed.
Hank: It embeds in your skin until it’s impossible to tell what’s really underneath.
Hank is sitting at his desk when there’s a knock on his door. It’s the workman who did the kitchen ten years ago. That workman…is Doug! That’s how he saw Adam and targeted him! Now he’s next door again, and Ben is just across the street!
That’s how The Family, “Sweet Jane” ends – with a mountain of dynamite just waiting for a match. The next episode’s going to be one heck of an explosion!