Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t homogenize its portrayal of abuse

Illustration for article titled How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t homogenize its portrayal of abuse

“Two Birds, One Millstone” manages to balance a lot of stories without completely losing steam or falling apart. The episode, for the most part, separates Annalise from the Keating Five, which ends up working in its favor. There’s solid balance between the Case Of The Week and the serialized stories, and even though the latter overpowers the former a bit, both sides have strong character moments. Still, there are parts of the season’s longer arc that haven’t quite found their footing, especially when it comes to the Hapstall case.

This season, How To Get Away With Murder has particularly excelled at tackling really complex issues not usually seen on network television. “Two Birds, One Millstone” includes a transgender woman (played by Alexandra Billings) who kills her husband in self-defense. Her story weaves in commentary on trans issues—namely the fact that law enforcement officials are unlikely to believe trans women who act in self-defense—organically. How To Get Away With Murder has always done an excellent job of tackling issues like homophobia, sexism, racism, and transphobia within its stories in a very natural way that more closely resembles real life than when a show tries too hard to make a point. With “Two Birds, One Millstone,” it doesn’t feel like the writers sat down and said “okay, let’s do an episode about transphobia.” The story is much more specific than that. It’s about Professor Jill Hartford’s own experiences; it’s her story. But it still makes smart and piercing larger points about systemic transphobia as well as domestic abuse within the context of her narrative.

Annalise keeps catching her in lies, as Annalise often does with her clients and worker bees, but in this case, it’s not because Professor Hartford has some ulterior motive or is trying to cover up a murder. She stages the crime scene and gets one of her students to lie for her, because she spent so many years meticulously covering up her husband’s abuse that there isn’t enough evidence to convince the investigators that she really acted in self-defense—and she knows it. It’s a devastating story that reveals how abusers can escape the law and how the concept of fighting back can sometimes be an oversimplification of the issue. Even though Annalise’s situation with Sam was a little different, she relates to Professor Hartford and feels for her. The show acknowledges that abuse comes in many different forms and that people cope in very different ways, but there’s also power in the connection Annalise feels with Professor Hartford.

While there is some really great writing that comes out of Professor Hartford’s story, the case itself gets pretty buried in the episode, especially since it ends so suddenly. I am glad the case doesn’t go to court, because court scenes tend to miss more often than hit on this show, and the story accomplishes a lot of what it needs to without having to take it to court. But the case doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves, and it’s resolved pretty anticlimactically with Annalise’s two birds, one Millstone play, which, sure, connects the Case Of The Week to the serialized structure of the show, but I’m a little weary of Judge Millstone’s re-entry into the show.

For one, I definitely tripped over the name David Allen. Once I looked back on last season’s “Freakin’ Whack-A-Mole,” I remembered how crucial, and compelling, the Allen case was. While How To Get Away With Murder usually goes to great lengths to keep viewers in the loop, often relying on flashbacks to jog our memories, the Allen shoutout came with very little explanation. So much happens in an episode of this show—hell, so much happens in the first 15 minutes of an episode of this show—that it’s a lot to ask viewers to go all the way back to something that happened a full season ago. But even more so, this Millstone plotline in the episode really builds to the falling out between Asher and his dad, and that is a conflict that has zero emotional stakes. This season seems to be attempting to make Asher a more fleshed out character, but it’s all happening in pretty broad strokes and isn’t nearly as fluid or compelling as, say, Michaela’s adoption. It makes sense that this part of Michaela’s background hasn’t come up yet, because she’s obviously very self-conscious about it, but now that they’re working on a case involving adoption, these feelings bubble to the surface.

Once again, this show has my head spinning about Annalise and Wes. Ever since the pilot, the dynamic between these two has been an unsettling part of the show. It’s consistent, I’ll give it that. Annalise presents feelings for Wes that are simultaneously motherly and somewhat sexual. She spends most of their scene in “Two Birds, One Millstone” explaining Wes’s psychology, basically just really laying into his mommy issues. She’s retreading ground a bit here, and the scene seems out of place in the episode, even though it definitely is a great acting moment for Viola Davis. There are certainly layers to it, especially since Annalise is lying as she adamantly insists to Wes that Rebecca isn’t dead, only to then turn right around and call Frank to make sure he’s properly taking care of Rebecca’s corpse.


The best explanation for Annalise’s feelings for Wes is that they’re completely phony, that she just exploits his mommy issues in order to manipulate him. She has, after all, been trying to manipulate him ever since he walked in on her and Nate in the pilot. It’s yet another relationship on this show predicated on manipulation and an ulterior motive. But if it really is all an act like I think it is, then it’s just sort of tough to swallow how often the show trots out their Oedipal vibe. It’s a relationship that essentially means nothing, so why should we care? And yet, if Annalise really does feel something real for Wes, the show has yet to provide any kind of real reason for it. So we’re stuck with these super intense scenes that are just totally empty, and it’s hard to build any real character development on that.

Stray observations

  • At one point, Annalise literally says “you’re all garbage” at every single person who works for her, and it’s absolutely the highlight of the episode.
  • “Juries love a secret baby” according to Annalise.
  • “Right now, I have to go handle a bitch.” Annalise never misses a beat to read Sinclair for filth.
  • The sequence of Frank dealing with two different bodies is fantastically directed.
  • Catherine had some great moments tonight, and no I’m not talking about her seemingly coming back to life at the end.
  • I’m very worried about Connor and Oliver.
  • The weirdly suspenseful music playing over the already weird scene of Frank taking Laurel to meet his family made me certain that we were seconds away from finding out that every single person in Frank’s family is a psychopathic murderer. No such luck.
  • It looks like Eve is back next week?! Please be true!