Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
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Cicely Tyson’s arrival on How To Get Away With Murder typically signals it’s going to be a strong episode, and “Where Are Your Parents?” is no exception. It’s one of the more coherent episodes the show has done in a while and even contains some brief but very welcome levity, which the show is too often too short on. Not everything works, but the characters seem to be making choices that make sense and have clear motivations, some of which are spelled out pretty directly within the episode. But heavy-handed explanation is still better than none. How To Get Away With Murder too often becomes trapped in its own attempts to shock and unnerve, which does unfortunately happen by the end.

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But before we get there, there’s actually some calm before the storm. Two Christmas gatherings unfold, and the one at Annalise’s house brings with it the arrival of aforementioned powerhouse guest star Cicely Tyson, who is dynamic and charming as always as Annalise’s mother Ophelia. She carries a lot of the emotional weight of the episode, particularly when it comes to the central struggle of Annalise deciding what to do about the FBI’s offer. Operation Bonfire, the sprawling case that special agent Claire Telesco is heading up, is gathering speed, and Claire offers Annalise immunity in exchange for whatever she knows about Miller’s death. Even though it could hurt him, Nate encourages her to take the deal. He doesn’t need her protection, he argues, and plus it’s not like she hasn’t sold him out before...which is a fair accusation.

Annalise genuinely doesn’t seem like she knows what she’ll do, and that’s complicated by her mother, who uses Christmas dinner to remind Annalise of her history of helping rather than hurting others. She tells a sweet story about young Annalise giving up her lunch to a homeless man every day, and Annalise doesn’t even remember doing it. It was so long ago, before the drinking, the murder cover ups, the manipulation of others in a quest for power. How To Get Away With Murder certainly isn’t attempting to rewrite Annalise as a flawless saint, but this backstory does get to the heart of the character’s desire to empower the powerless. She hasn’t been perfect in the ways she goes about that mission, but she isn’t just in this for personal gain, and the show starkly reminds us of that here. At the same time, she feels pressured by her mother retelling this story, feels like she can’t be the selfless child Ophelia wants her to be. Annalise’s internal struggle throughout the episode is palpable and some of the best character work surrounding this protagonist in a while.

Even Tegan, who is often a difficult character to pin down, has clearer intentions in this episode. She’s moved by the story about Annalise and has definitely been drawn to Annalise more and more lately. Their dynamic is starting to look a lot more like friendship, and that’s especially true now. Tegan becomes wary of Claire and seduces her in order to discredit her and give Annalise more time to fix things. It’s easy to see coming, but it still surprises a bit because of how squarely it puts Tegan—previously a character who seemed mostly to just look out for herself—on Team Annalise. She’s a powerful ally and works much better in that context than as a foe.

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But the show continues to unfortunately treat Bonnie as its punching bag. So much of Bonnie’s backstory is so incredibly dark and tragic, and her storylines in the present only add to her trauma, allowing for very little healing or even just breathing space. She suffers through Miller’s funeral, where his mother goes on about his kindness and his seven layer dip, further reiterating just how simple and innocent he was. Then, she has a pregnancy scare. She doesn’t even end up being pregnant, so that subplot exists merely to drum up tension that doesn’t even take full hold because of everything else happening in the episode. Liza Weil is giving one hell of a performance week after week, but it’s still unclear if there’s a long-term goal for Bonnie other than just painting a really dismal picture of pain, guilt, and trauma. Her arc is starting to feel less like an arc and more like a flatline.

Meanwhile, at the other Christmas gathering, Gabriel joins the rest of the students because Frank forces them to invite him (his reasoning is that sad, lonely people do stupid things, which checks out). Connor’s mom also shows up, mostly just to make things awkward with Asher. She goes on the titular rant about where the others’ parents are and why they aren’t celebrating Christmas with them. The rest of their parents include...some not great people, including in Laurel’s case, actual murderers. Here, the show has an opportunity to actually say something about familial trauma, parents, and the ways parents mess up their kids, but it sort of just steamrolls right on past it and lets Connor’s mom’s pretty baseless accusations sit there. It’s a prime example of the show privileging plot over character. There simply isn’t enough time to really dig into the meaning behind their parents not being there because we have to get to the FBI showing up with a warrant for Connor and Oliver’s wedding and all the other meticulous developments that the episode packs into its final act.

It all builds to the big reveal of Annalise meeting with the governor. She tells her that she knows who actually killed Nate Sr.: Emmett. Suddenly, a lot of the good will that this episode earns in terms of character development is undone. “Where Are Your Parents?” literally forces Annalise and Emmett to become closer and even almost have a romantic moment only to then pull the rug out from under her by revealing him as a Big Bad. It’s exactly the kind of viewer manipulation that has become exhausting on this show. Annalise says so herself: She can’t trust anyone. But that kind of blanket distrust makes it hard to ever become invested in any interpersonal relationships on the show (outside of Laurel/Michaela and Oliver/Connor). Why develop Emmett and Annalise’s relationship only to set off a bomb? For the sheer shock value? To assign the reveal stakes in a hamfisted way? It’s messy, and it’s frustrating. It also just doesn’t make much sense yet, but I’m sure much of the next episode will be dedicated to some plot gymnastics to justify it.

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Stray observations

  • Who is the mystery caller pestering Laurel? Do we really think it’s her mom? The fact that the show seems to want us to think that means it probably isn’t.
  • Frank sincerely congratulating Nate on how good his frame job is is just...so Frank. He’s really a criminal dummy most of the time.
  • That said, Frank telling Gabriel that he and his mother deserved better than Sam is actually kind of sweet?
  • Connor’s mom is not really working as a character for me. The comedic relief of her and Asher isn’t as funny as the show wants it to be.

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