There’s a moment in The Slap, NBC’s eight-episode exploration of what happens when you hit another person’s child (spoiler: nothing good!), after the post-attack hysteria has finally faded. A kindly young tween walks up to his father to apologize for what just happened. He’s not the victim nor the assailant. He’s just the 12-year-old unlucky enough to have been put in charge while the adults were drinking and fighting and holding hands with college kids who aren’t their wives.
The kid is Adam (Khalid Alzouma). His dad, Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), also not directly involved in the preceding violence, absolves him immediately. Everyone moves on. If you check your phone at the wrong time, you’ll miss it.
But for all there is to say about the slap itself, it’s that apology that sticks with me. It’s one of the few times the show — or the argumentative adults that populate it — bothers checking in on how all of the yelling and the hitting and tension are affecting the people most vulnerable to it. What causes the incident, and what complicates its fallout, has so much less to do with how adults feel about and treat their children than it does with how they feel about and treat each other. These are people with messy lives; kids are just another smudge.
The abdication of grown-up responsibility that leads to Adam’s apology is, unsurprisingly, also what leads to the slap in the first place. The setup: A group of kids are left to play Wiffle ball, unattended, at Hector’s 40th-birthday barbecue. A Ruthian wooden bat somehow appears in the hands of elementary-school-age Hugo (Dylan Schombing), whom we understand is a Problem Child because earlier we saw him committing atrocities like not sharing an iPad mini and needing a haircut. After striking out, Hugo begins flailing his lumber in the general direction of the other small humans in the backyard. No adult does anything until Harry (Zachary Quinto), six feet of big, angry beardiness, takes the bat away, grabs Hugo roughly, gets kicked in the shins, and does the very worst thing. He hits a defenseless 5-year-old.
It’s easy to watch the scene unfold — especially knowing how it ends, since you’ve seen the promos — and assume that things would never escalate that far if you had been there. I certainly did. Events don’t build steam-engine momentum toward their open-palmed inevitability; they sputter along, firing warning flares along the way. The wooden bat in Hugo’s hand might as well be a semaphore flag signaling SOMEONE STOP THIS. In a world where being a parent supersedes all else, the slap would have been entirely preventable, as would Adam’s guilt, as would, presumably, any number of interpersonal tragedies. The Slap, in a way that’s both refreshing and off-putting, doesn’t live in that world.
That’s not to say there aren’t parenting styles aplenty on parade. There’s Gary (Thomas Sadoski) and Rosie (Melissa George), whose hands-off approach produced Hugo the hellion. There’s Harry and Sandy (Marin Ireland), alpha strivers who expect the same of their son. Hector and his wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) seem perfectly normal, except for that whole near-affair thing. And then there are Koula (Maria Tucci) and Manolis (Brian Cox), Greek grandparents clinging to old-world ideals. There are ample land mines laid.
A few of them even manage to go off. “You don’t know how to raise a kid, you two,” snarls Harry at Gary and Rosie. (They do, they just don’t know how to raise a kid like Harry, which suits them fine). Gary, meanwhile, sees children as “mysteries beyond our wildest comprehension … They aren’t even ours. They’re houseguests in for a long stay.” There are plenty of Big Declarative Moments like this, flashing neon signs declaring a child-rearing credo with all the subtlety of a Medieval morality play.
But The Slap is as much a serious meditation on parenting philosophies as Moby Dick is a serious meditation on blowholes. The kids are just satellites, warily orbiting adults behaving badly. Even the show’s defining incident isn’t about the kid with the bat, not really. Harry’s an angry man, provoked all afternoon over his wealth, his politics. He would slap everyone at that barbecue if he could. Given a big enough hand, you begin to understand, he would slap the entire Western Hemisphere.
That’s why is it okay to hit a kid? isn’t a question I’m interested in (of course not, don’t hit kids, they’re small and defenseless and don’t understand). But the way The Slap dramatizes how life can chip away at our ability to actually parent, to protect Adam from his guilt and Hugo from himself, and a backyard’s worth of bystanders from a wooden baseball bat? The way it reminds us that having big ideas about parenting doesn’t count for much when your attention constantly drifts away from your children? That stings plenty.
Brian Barrett is the former editor-in-chief of Gizmodo. He is currently launching a parenting site with the Awl Network.