How To Get Away With Murder

“He’s A Bad Father” unravels plenty of thread for How To Get Away With Murder season four’s murder board, managing to connect Annalise’s class action, Wes’ death, Laurel’s fucked up family drama, and even Isaac’s once seemingly random backstory with more coherence than the show has exhibited in a while. Look, I get it. The writers have been playing the long game with a lot of these storylines. We’re supposed to trust that it will all come together eventually, and it’s already starting to. But the issue with playing the long game is making sure that the stakes stay high, that the characters still have room to breathe and convey an emotional narrative instead of just seeming like they’re going through the motions, invisible writer hands pushing them toward whatever makes the most sense from a plot perspective. “He’s A Bad Father” advances the plot and makes key connections between intertwining storylines, but it almost does so at the expense of that emotional narrative, the character-driven aspects of the story buried beneath layers of meticulous story spinning.

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And in what is becoming a troubling modus operandi for the show, a previously unknown character is introduced and suddenly expected to play a huge role in both the plot and emotional narrative of the story. Laurel’s mom is thrust into it all before we even have a chance to get a real grasp on Laurel’s father, the Big Bad who’s more like a Broad Bad (and who it turns out might not even be the Big Bad after all, but more on that in a moment). Surprise, she’s French! And she’s also a very strong advocate for mental health, explaining in court that people who have mental health issues can still be parents.

On that note, Annalise’s skepticism about Laurel’s mother’s health throughout the episode is one of its more confusing throughlines, especially since Annalise is usually a champion of the marginalized and suffers from her own mental health issues. It does turn out that pushing Laurel’s mom to the edge is all part of her legal strategy, but that still doesn’t really explain away why Annalise makes comments about taking bets on how crazy she’s going to be or about Laurel needing to be back in the psych ward for thinking her mother is the key to winning this custody battle. It’s incredibly frustrating when the writers change up characters for no real reason—and even when they do it for a real reason, it can be frustrating, too. For example, there’s a weirdly meta exchange in this episode where Michaela asks, surprised, if Bonnie and Annalise made up and Frank replies “for now.” Annalise and Bonnie’s relationship is all over the place, and even the show acknowledges it.

But back to Laurel’s mom: Surprise, she’s also maybe evil?! But actually, that isn’t much of a surprise at all. The second Jorge Castillo tells Laurel she’s wrong about his involvement in Wes’ death, it becomes pretty obvious that the show is going to turn our suspicions on her mother. The way paranoia seeps through the show after Jorge suggests he wasn’t the one who had Wes killed is really great. He gets into Frank’s head and Laurel’s eventually, too. Jorge certainly isn’t innocent. He’s basically holding Laurel’s baby hostage over a hard drive. But if he truly isn’t responsible for Wes’ death, then it does complicate matters for everyone who has put their lives on the line to help Laurel defeat him (which is pretty much everyone on the show at this point). Now that we know Wes met with Laurel’s mom the day before he died, it’s clear that she’s hiding something. But asking us to suddenly be invested in this twist is a tall order considering the fact that we just met the character. Even though Laurel’s mother has been alluded to in the past, it still all happens very quickly, and it’s difficult to assign any real emotional weight to the twist.

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The episode has a lot to say about mental health, and weaving nuanced, meaningful commentary into its storylines is a consistent strength of the show. Laurel and her mother both have to defend their mental health on the stand, and it’s clean in both instances that the legal system is not friendly toward mental illness. But the episode takes things even further by introducing a new character, Nate’s father, who has been held in solitary confinement for years and who Annalise suddenly hopes will be the face of her class action against the state. Nate’s father is an extreme example of the way the criminal justice system harms people—especially black people. Solitary confinement has led to mental illness which has led to additional crimes which has led to a cycle of incarceration and suffering for Nate’s dad. Using extreme examples of injustice is something How To Get Away With Murder does a lot, and it works because of how it still manages to treat these characters and their problems with nuance and specificity.

I’ve been writing a lot about how Nate feels like deadweight on the show, and it’s about time that he get a real backstory of sorts or at least something more to do other than the straight-up nothing that he’s usually up to. All that said, his dad is introduced rather haphazardly—much like Laurel’s mom. It’s another technically emotionally heavy storyline that is sort of cheapened by its hastiness as well as the character’s position as a plot device. But at least the class action storyline has a little something more to hook us with now.

And then there’s Isaac, who still struggles to fit into the overall web. Annalise calls Isaac to the witness stand as an expert to testify that Laurel’s mental state does not preclude her from being able to care for her son. That goes well until opposing counsel (played by Jack Coleman, whose mere presence always signals doom thanks to how much I associate him with his Heroes character) reveals that the case of Isaac’s daughter’s suicide has been reopened by the D.A. office and is being investigated as a homicide...and Isaac is a suspect. It’s an absurd turn of events, and even though it contextualizes why Issac’s backstory is relevant in the first place, it does so in a way that is hollow and mechanical. Even when Bonnie says that it looks like the D.A. office has real evidence on him, it’s impossible to take it all in because of how awkwardly the twist is wedged into the episode and how detached Isaac remains from the emotional epicenter of the show. “He’s A Bad Father” manages not only to (unofficially) reopen Wes’ murder case but also this other murder case that we only just recently learned of. Sure, “murder” is in the title of the show so it follows that there’d be plenty of it. But as well balanced as this episode is compared to other recent episodes, by the end, its focus dulls, and the twists fall flat.

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Watching How To Get Away With Murder often feels like piecing together a murder conspiracy board...while underwater with your eyes closed. Even now when the pieces are coming together, there are some that just don’t quite fit, like Bad Mom and Nate’s sudden Annalise relapse. This is without a doubt the best episode since the show came back from its break, but How To Get Away With Murder is undermining itself by prioritizing the game over its players.


Stray observations

  • Karla Souza gives a damn good performance throughout the episode. Both her and Liza Weil are very underrated in terms of their acting abilities.
  • “Whatever mean thing you’re about to say, I’m already thinking it.” Wow this intensely vulnerable and insecure line makes Frank suddenly very relatable.
  • I want my ringtone to be Liza Weil saying “mommy” on a loop.
  • Viola Davis sports a very good purple lipstick in this episode.
  • Michaela/Laurel hand-hold sighting
  • It seems that Karla Souza is at the very least trilingual, which makes me love her even more than I already do.

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