Potential energy is the stored energy of any object. It is energy yet to be used, or in the case of The Fosters’ fourth-season premiere, unleashed to cause harm. Like its namesake, “Potential Energy” is all about the waiting for something to happen, the latent possibility for tragedy. And because the episode is so skillfully put together — from the performances, to the direction (Rob Morrow, that final shot will haunt me for weeks), to the pitch-perfect musical choices — that anxiety-induced wait, the fear of what might come, is awfully palpable.
True confession: I clutched my hand to my mouth for about 75 percent of this episode. It was that intense. It also meant my note-taking was less than stellar. But what good would notes be when you can’t read them through your own tears anyway?
Before we jump into things, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the timing of “Potential Energy” — an episode about gun violence — makes it hurt all the more. For me, the saddest moment was the scene in which Brandon immediately knew what what a “Code Blue” was and the protocol that follows. He knew because he’s done repeated drills for this very situation. Learning how to handle an active shooter is just a part of a teenager’s life now. A lot has changed since I’ve been in high school.
It’s safe to say that real-life tragedies deserve a better forum than a TV recap, so let’s turn to what just went down at Anchor Beach. We just witnessed a tremendous hour of television.
If you recall, last season’s finale ended with Mariana’s boyfriend, Nick, suffering the one-two punch of watching Mariana and her ex-boyfriend, Mat, kissing and also being completely reamed out by his father. He was in a bad, bad place — so bad that I can’t even call him Terrible Nick tonight — and things quickly unraveled. After burning down his dad’s warehouse (which was also home to Brandon’s musical), he pulled up to school with a gun in his car.
“Potential Energy” picks up Nick’s story exactly where we left it: He’s sitting in his car, staring at the gun in his glove compartment. Broken and hurt, he stuffs the gun in his backpack. He’s really doing this.
Once inside, Nick runs into a few familiar faces, including Jesus, and sets off a few warnings — but not enough for anyone to guess what’s really happening. After some pleading texts from Mariana, the two meet in their “spot,” which is an eerily empty courtyard cut off from most of the school. I hope Mariana learns to pick better “spots” in the future. The direction of this scene is perfect: As Mariana explains that Nick only saw a good-bye kiss and that she chose him over Mat, he circles her, making sure not to reveal the gun tucked in his back pocket. The camera spins around Mariana along with Nick. She has no idea how much danger she’s in — but we do.
Thankfully, a custodial worker forces them to get to class before Nick does anything. Mariana goes straight to Lena’s office; something’s off with Nick and she’s worried. Other people are worried about him, too. News broke about the warehouse fire, and Nick is a suspect. Stef, Lena, Monte, and Mike meet with Nick’s Terrible Dad (I have no problem calling this dude terrible) to figure out where he is. The fire, paired with Mariana’s assessment, puts everyone on high alert. They want to find Nick before he hurts himself or someone else.
Moments later, they discover Nick has stolen his dad’s gun. Since Nick was last seen inside the school, they have to go on lockdown. It is chaotic and frightening, and those tense feelings remain for the duration of the episode.
The Adams Foster kids are split up (with the exception of Brandon and Callie), waiting out the lockdown in different classrooms, each dealing with their own issues. Brandon and Callie attempt to avoid the fact that Lena and Stef know they had sex by dealing with a hapless substitute teacher. They end up taking charge of the junior high room, keeping everyone safe and calm.
Meanwhile, Jesus is in the main office rekindling his feelings for Emma. Why they were told to go back into the school when lockdown was initiated, I’ll never know. But I also won’t question it too much because the chemistry between Noah Centineo and Amanda Leighton is currently off the charts. If you’re keeping count, that’s another point in the “Reasons Jesus Two is Better Than Jesus One” column.
Jude is dealing with the fallout of kissing Taylor in a very public hallway. Taylor’s friend Daria is up in arms that he would lead Taylor on like that, especially when everyone knows he’s gay. Jude still seems confused about his feelings for Taylor, but he doesn’t seem confused about moving on from Connor. Jude texts him seeking comfort during the ordeal, but he doesn’t answer until much later. When he finally does, Jude realizes he doesn’t need Connor for comfort, and brushes him off.
But of all the Adams Foster kids, we should worry most about Mariana. She misses the initial call for lockdown, and by the time she gets to a classroom, the doors are locked. Per protocol, people inside the classroom cannot open the door for anyone. Watching Mat furiously reach for the door to let her in, only to be pulled away by Timothy, is heartbreaking. The entire cast delivers some really powerhouse performances throughout this episode. Cute Mat is breaking hearts on an entirely different level.
Unable to open the door, Mariana’s out of luck and left to fend for herself. (Reminder: This is a real part of lockdown protocol. I am so sad for kids.) As Lena and Stef helplessly panic over the whereabouts of their daughter, Mariana cowers in a bathroom stall. I feel like I’m repeating myself ten times over, but the visual of Mariana is harrowing: She’s hiding alone, trying to make herself as small and as quiet as possible.
As the SWAT team arrives and begins evacuating kids classroom by classroom, each Adams Foster kid makes it out to safety … save for Mariana. Finally, thankfully, Stef walks out of the school with Mariana safely in her arms. The ensuing sequence of Adams Foster family hugs, set perfectly to Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang’s “Calling All Angels,” takes your breath away. (Obviously, Jesus running to Mariana crushed me.) It’s at this point that I yelled at my television, “Why don’t more people watch this show?!” But really: Why don’t more people watch this show?
The terror at Anchor Beach is over, but Nick’s whereabouts are unknown — well, unknown to everyone except the audience. While the kids at school dealt with the trauma of lockdown, the gun-wielding Nick sped over to the Adams Foster house. That’s right. He and his gun are in Mariana’s room. When the family arrives at home, Stef smartly does a sweep of the house, but Nick doesn’t turn up. He’s still there, hiding, waiting for his moment. The terror is now inside their home.
Yes, there are many more things that could be said about the Brallie of it all, or about Jude’s current predicament, or how darn cute Jesus and Emma would be if she would only give the dude a second chance, but tonight’s episode is all about the powder keg that is Nick Stratos. Once again, we have to wait. We have to wait and see just how far Nick goes. As that ominous music played over the final shot of the Adams Foster door closing behind the family, I suddenly realized that the waiting may not be the worst part. Man, I love this show.