Back in January, when it was announced that The Fosters would be ending at the conclusion of its fifth season, paving the way for a Callie and Mariana focused spin-off, I was hit with a pang of nostalgia.
It all came back in at once — Callie, face bruised from the fight she had with Daphne in Juvie, calling Stef and Lena “dykes”; Jude painting his nails blue and Lena telling him it was okay to be brave; Mariana’s Quinceñera dance with her two moms. I thought about when I first discovered Lucy Hallowell’s writing about The Fosters all those years ago and the space she created for fans online. Then, the community wide glee we all felt when Lucy’s nickname for Jude — Judicorn — first made its way out of our online home and on to the big screen. I remembered how good it felt when the show we were watching started talking back to us. Those memories, they flooded me like a wave.
I was also tentative. The greatness of The Fosters has been fleeting at times. Even though the batch of episodes that aired last summer seemed to be putting the show back on track, the middle seasons of The Fosters definitely lost their way. They were bogged down in a breakneck speed of unnecessary drama and plot twists. The big, endearingly messy Adams Foster family that was once the show’s heartbeat barely even filmed scenes together. Characters seemed to make the same mistake over and over, never completing a satisfactory growth arc. I worried about which version of The Fosters would show up to take its final bow — the warm, progressive family drama that I first fell in love with or the cheap veneer soap opera it had once tried to become.
With the winter portion of the fifth season firmly behind us, and only a three-episode special summer “goodbye” in our future, I can say confidently that The Fosters is coming back full circle. They have returned their focus to the family, and most importantly, to the best moms on television.
I had the pleasure of covering the winter season in Autostraddle’s weekly television round up, Boob(s On Your) Tube, but in case you haven’t been able to follow along, with most of the Adams Foster kids in their late teens and independent of their parents, the moms were given space to play. Stef’s first love, her high school best friend Tess, moved next door with her husband and child. It wasn’t long before Tess realized that she had repressed feelings of her own, and began the messy, complicated process of a late in life coming out. Stef and Lena’s longterm on again/off again close friend Jenna also showed back up, and just like that the stage was perfectly set for a suburban minivan version of The L Word.
￼Jenna provided consistent comic relief and Tess’ emotional upheaval weaved well into the weekly Fosters drama. Most stunning were the ways that Tess’ involvement gave Teri Polo the opportunity to open up her toolbox one last time and find new colors in the role Stef Foster. There was a time, not many seasons ago, that Tess’ arrival would have signaled a love triangle or cheating plot for Stef and Lena. Instead, The Fosters took this opportunity to bring together what were previously thought of as separate threads of Stef’s history: her fraught relationship with her homophobic father, her own internalized homophobia about her butch gender identity, and the ways she emotionally closes herself off from Lena. Separately, none of these themes were unheard of to the audience, but introducing a new intimate character from Stef’s past allowed us to reconsider what we already knew about the San Diego police detective — she has long been suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Whenever given the brief opportunity to shine, Teri Polo’s work as Stef Foster over the years has been carefully drawn, emotionally honest, and nuanced. The Fosters winter season gave her ample room to guide us through Stef’s emotional barriers. We watched as her panic attacks went from mild to acute, as she finally found help in therapy, as she dug deep in her guts and confronted her mother (the always delightful Annie Potts) about the lack of support she felt during her coming out. Lena held the love of her life late at night, kissing her temples through tears and telling her it would be okay. Eventually, Lena put her foot down about Tess and the ways that their neighbor continued to carelessly ensnarl the Adams Fosters into her family problems. That moment of protection, an action we are most used to seeing from Stef as opposed to Anchor Beach’s hottest principal, set the stage for the winter finale, where Stef and Lena left the kids alone to embark on a couple’s meditation retreat.
Stef’s mom gifted the duo with the mini-vacation, but mistakenly listed Stef as “Mr. Stev Foster” so things are off to a great start! (They are not). There’s canoeing and yoga sessions where goats stand on your back for God know’s why, but more than anything, Stef is hesitant to be emotionally bare around all these straight couples who she feels she has nothing in common with. The other couples in attendance don’t help matters much, with their veiled comments and microaggressions that two women shouldn’t need counseling! They must be so great at communicating! There’s also the gendered therapy activities, exercises where the “wife” is supposed to dress sexy for her “husband.” It’s all a mess, and Stef and Lena can’t seem to stop fighting. Stef finds herself drawing back into old habits, closing herself off.
Until the group therapy session, where couples share the individual lows in their relationship. One husband laments that the lives of their teen children have interrupted his bonding with his wife, another admits to an emotional affair with a co-worker, a wife talks about her unresolved relationship with her dead father. If these plot points sound similar to you, it’s because we have seen Stef and Lena fight each of these battles over the last five years. I’m as quick to make an “Ugh! Straights!” joke as the next gal, but ultimately that’s the thing about humanity: there’s more that connects us than divides us. Sometimes, that can be the hardest truth to see.
Lena, always so brave with her heart, finally feels safe enough to be vulnerable in front of these strangers. She shares her darkest truth, with two of the Adams Fosters kids leaving for college in the fall, and another two after that, Lena’s worried that once the house is empty again — will she and Stef have anything left that’s just for them?
Stef looks like someone struck her in the chest. With all of her emotional turmoil the last year, I think this is the first time she really thought about how Lena’s been coping. We’ve seen a lot of ups and downs between these two women, and they’ve always chosen to keep fighting, to keep loving. Lena’s worried that they can’t keep going, not without help. It’s a vital turning point in their relationship, and with the show wrapping up, it couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
That night, after another fight, Stef storms out into the woods alone. She’s tending to one of the therapy goats when she’s confronted by a familiar voice. The spirit of her father.
What followed could have come across as hokey or laugh worthy, but Teri Polo sells it with all her might. I stood barefoot in my kitchen, mouth agape, eyes glued to my screen as she finally let go of the emotional baggage Stef’s been holding onto in a vice grip for the last five years.
The messages you receive in childhood stay with you. All Stef ever wanted was her father’s approval — it’s why she became a cop, it’s why she married Mike, it’s why she pretended to be straight.
His memory has haunted her. Even when she wouldn’t admit it, she’s felt him in the corners of her mind. He left her feeling ashamed of herself, and she hasn’t let it go. All she ever wanted was for him to be proud of her. All she ever wanted was to hear him say, “There’s nothing wrong with you”
But, he can’t.
So instead, this vision of her dad guides Stef, tears streaming down her face and breath coming out in broad gasps, to say those things to herself. Tell herself that she’s worthy. That she loves herself. That she gets to be proud of herself, and of how much she loves her beautiful Lena, their kids, and this life they made together.
He tells her, when she’s finally able to believe that, maybe then the scars he left on her soul can heal. Maybe she’ll be able to make room and remember that he did love her, even if he didn’t know how to show it the ways that she needed it most.
I don’t talk much about my dad, ever. He’s a cop. He’s stoic. Over 6 feet tall with a voice that grumbles more than it carries. We speak on the phone maybe once or twice a month, never for longer than ten minutes. We talk about basketball scores, or the last book we read. Sometimes we exchange recipes. We aren’t close. And he doesn’t know I’m gay.
What has kept me watching The Fosters, despite its flaws, is that on the days when I’m brave enough or optimistic enough to imagine my future self, I am most often sipping tea somewhere that looks like Stef and Lena’s kitchen. I have writing to attend to, or a stack of papers to grade, and a wife who loves me. I have kickass feminist kids like Callie or Jude or Mariana. The Fosters has been my safe space to dream. Lots of people in my life have been quick to notice how much I’m like Lena, a mixed race girl with a curly fro, a social justice core, and a big heart. This episode reminded me that my toughest parts are most like Stef — I’m closed off, protective. If I’m going to one day have healthy love in my life, I have to find the courage to love myself and tell myself, even at thirty years old, I have permission to let go. I do not require his — or anyone else’s — approval.
Stef comes back to the hotel to find Lena in their bed. There, alone — just the two of them — she lets out her truth in a whisper, like confessional. Tess moving in next door made it so that she could no longer outrun her shame. The shame that keeps her from letting Lena in all the way to her heart, the shame that leaves her feeling dirty or wrong when they make love. She loves Lena, and she is proud of their family, but she lives in constant fear that one day their right to love each other will be stripped away— because they’re not “normal.” Her feelings are ugly, and she used to just cover them up. She would act like she’s stronger than she was, because she didn’t want to hurt Lena or scare Lena. Worse, she didn’t want Lena to reject her for not being as brave in her love as Lena is in hers. But, here she is, ready to let Lena see her in her self-loathing, and hope that Lena will love her anyway.
Lena holds Stef’s hands in her palms, she looks at her wife in the eyes, and tells her that she’s always known. She knows Stef like she knows the contours of her own heart. She sees her fears, her struggles, and she loves Stef for all of those things, not in spite of them. She wants Stef to feel safe enough together to show her dark places. She wants to let her love heal those open wounds. More than anything, she wants their love to heal each other.
It was a raw, truthful love scene between two women who had nothing else to lose and everything left to gain. For the first time, Stef and Lena showed us that love isn’t a picture perfect frame — a house, cute kids, picket fence and kitchen to die for — it takes hard, scary work if it’s ever going to survive. They wake up the next morning, naked from their lovemaking and tangled in their sheets. Stef looks at her wife like the sun shines out of her face, and leans over to ask, “Lena Adams Foster, will you marry me for a third time? Please?”
Lena responds, “Honey, I will marry you every time you ask”.
The rest of 2018 can pack it in now. It’s not going to get better than this.
The finale ends on Graduation Day. Callie and Brandon barely make it on time (of course). Lena, presiding over her first graduating class as principal, tells her students, along with us in the viewing audience, “Thank you all so much for taking this journey with us. And remember: It’s not where you come from, it’s where you belong.”
First, we watch as Callie and Brandon receive their diplomas, along with a hug from Lena for each of them, the audience is told that Callie was accepted to the five year law program at UCSD and Brandon will be studying film scoring at the Musician’s Institute. Then, as quick as a blink, the camera goes out of focus before coming in on another year!
The surprise time jump is so exquisitely executed that I couldn’t stop myself from audibly whooping for the twins as they cross the stage next, with Mariana — and Emma — bound for MIT and Jesús staying local at a junior college. With my hands clasped over my mouth, I vibrated up and down as we see our little Jude Adams Foster cross the stage on his way to UCLA.
So many of our extended family, old reoccurring characters, show up in the crowds. Mike and Ana, the twins’ biological mom, along with Ana’s daughter Isabella; Daphne, Callie’s closest friend from Girls, United (and the person who bruised up her face in the pilot episode) is reunited with her daughter — seeing them cheer Callie on together brought tears to my eyes; Ximena and Poppy are together and safe with their family, Ximena’s DACA status finally approved; Jude’s biological dad watches with the sun glaring in his eyes. Stef and Mariana’s hair changes with years — Jude apparently went through a goth phase in the middle! — everyone grows older, but still comes back together as the future graduations mark their lives. Watching the quilted fabric of the Adams Fosters broader lives in montage, it’s a perfect touch.
The Adams Fosters end gathered around their family table one last time, chanting Judicorn!!! at the top of their lungs. Tears sprang forward to my eyes. A final callout to their gay fans and the home we created. I heard it loud and clear.
This isn’t to say the show got everything right in the last year. In particular I was disappointed that the growing, potentially romantic, relationship between Callie and Ximena was dropped in the finale without as much as a mention. It felt like the show ran out of time. I also wish that we could’ve spent more time with Jude away from his gamer friends and better connected to his siblings. Brandon is still Brandon, and it looks like he’s going to have a major arc in the summer goodbye event. I think the show is best when it’s not focused on his love life.
Still, despite those flaws, The Fosters has found itself again. It’s going to be bittersweet to say goodbye in June. If you didn’t have a chance to watch the episodes, it’s well worth it to catch up. Until then, I’ll see you all this summer! I have a few months to get something special planned.