Allison Pill as Willa, Rupert Graves as John, Liam James as Adam, Joan Allen as Claire.
Each episode of The Family has been a little worse than the last, but “Feathers or Steel” breaks this budding tradition — it actually improves on what came before it. Unfortunately for the long-term prospects of the show, it does so by ignoring the frustrating, uninteresting mystery at its center.
Yes, it’s true: When things aren’t so focused on the tiresome question of Adam’s whole deal, The Family is more watchable! “Feathers or Steel” essentially abandons efforts to move the Adam portion of the drama forward, and is all the better for it. Instead, the rest of the crew gets a chance to show off just how terrible they are.
For starters, Danny is still consorting with Bridey Cruz. He compounds this extremely dumb decision by letting her stay over at the Warren home, then introducing her to the family the next morning by declaring, “She’s not a hooker!” Such a charmer. Claire and Willa, our two big politicos, apparently don’t have enough of a handle on their town’s only newspaper to recognize one of its more memorably terrible staffers. They just offer her breakfast instead. Later, after Bridey is egged on by her even-more-repellant editor, she worms her way back into the house and goes through Adam’s trash. It is at this point that Willa apparently decides to Google her. She also starts having sexual fantasies about Bridey. Are there no other women in this town? Are the Warren children all attracted to sleazy people who remorselessly exploit their family’s dysfunction? Surely they can branch out.
It appears that John will have to branch out in his choice of partner, too. Even though The Family moves its puzzle pieces around at roughly the speed of molasses on a lunch break, we have mercifully jumped forward in our flashbacks. Instead of frequently annoying mini-revelations from ten years ago, we’re now getting them from … eight years ago. Progress! Anyway, John did wonderful things at that time, like celebrate Christmas with his family before rushing off to celebrate a totally different Christmas with Nina. He naturally does this in front of a huge window, which allows Claire to follow him and discover his treachery for herself. Rather than kick him to the curb, she puts on her practical mayor’s hat and not so subtly hints that she’ll reach some kind of arrangement with him.
Eight years later, though, Claire is tired of that arrangement. She tells Nina that it’s time to stop sleeping with her husband. As far as requests go, this is one of the more reasonable ones.
Claire is the least of Nina’s worries. As the worst cop in all of Maine, she keeps getting herself into a lot of trouble. You might say that she takes one step forward and twelve steps back in this episode. The one step forward comes when a kid is kidnapped and Nina actually tracks down the correct perpetrator. (Sadly for our purposes, the perpetrator is not Doug, who we have been led to believe has something to do with Adam’s disappearance. He’s still up to something, though I’d be lying if I said I was particularly interested in what.) The twelve steps back come when, instead of calmly arresting the perp, Nina brazenly shoots him dead and then covers up her misdeed with the help of her FBI friend. Claire certainly doesn’t know this when, just after telling Nina to stay away from her family, she hails her as a hero at a press conference. I doubt she’ll mind, though. She’s got a gubernatorial race to run!
Claire’s quest for the governor’s office is probably the most fun part of The Family so far. For one thing, it gives Joan Allen something to do besides mope and mourn. Her ruthless use of her family trauma as a springboard to high office, her grande-dame mugging to the cameras, her delightfully nasty chat with Charlie Lang, the dopey incumbent she’s trying to take down — all of it has a zip and a flair sorely missing elsewhere in this most dour of shows.
As for Adam, our one-note centerpiece? He’s still around, though he mostly acts as a catalyst for other people’s plots. The most important one is Hank’s. Adam tries to help Hank clean off the nasty messages people keep painting on his garage. Claire clearly considers this to be somewhat at odds with her message to the world that Hank is a monster, so she and John get a restraining order against him. It’s not too nice, but hey, it’s better than that time she orchestrated his stabbing in prison. (That is a thing that also happens in this episode.) Hank then violates the restraining order, and winds up brutally beaten with a bat that carries Adam’s initials. But who did it?! It’s a pretty random twist, yet I’ll take it. Anything to avoid more Adam stuff, right?
- There have been some intriguing suggestions about the Adam mystery in the comments. Maybe Willa or Claire engineered the whole thing for political gain! Maybe the mysterious man is Adam’s real father! These theories are all more interesting than anything the actual show has suggested about Adam. Keep ‘em coming!
- When Claire visits Hank in prison, she ends their brief encounter by yelling, “We’re done here.” Has anyone ever said that in real life? I have a running list of stock phrases like that that I’ve never heard in the actual world. Others include: “You’re not seriously considering this” and “Can we talk about what happened back there?”
- Just like it does in the real world, CNN horribly botches the breaking news about the kidnapping in this episode and has to take it back. I enjoyed that.
- The title of the episode comes from this line by Claire: “If they cut you open, what would they find? Feathers or steel? Answer me that, I’ll tell you if you’re a mother.” That’s the kind of writing we’re working with here.
- Full disclosure: I’m a freelancer for Fusion, which is co-owned by ABC.