How To Get Away With Murder still hasn’t found the right storytelling formula. It has complex, flawed, subversive characters, but it doesn’t always know what to do with them. The drawn-out Hapstall case last season lost its steam early on. So this season, the show returned to mixing self-contained cases of the week with the serialized narrative. And with only one real exception so far, the cases of the week formula just isn’t quite cutting it either.
In “Don’t Tell Annalise,” Bonnie and Asher run point on a case defending Tristan, a high school boy who stole credit cards in order to buy things for his unborn child. Things get messy when it turns out that the mother is one of Tristan’s teachers, who knew about his history of abuse at home and took advantage of him. Bonnie’s own history comes to the surface, and Liza Weil continues the magnificent work she does in last week’s episode. In one of the best moments, Bonnie goes off on Asher, asking him if the fact that he did nothing to intervene when sexual assault happened at his own party got in the way of him looking at abuse cases objectively or if that’s only true for her because she was a victim. The show never makes light of Bonnie’s trauma, exploring her pain in a way that feels more genuine than exploitative.
It’s by far the most interesting part of this episode’s case of the week, but there lies part of the problem. The episode acknowledges that Tristan is a victim but strips him of agency. Well, Bonnie quite literally takes away his agency by not listening to what he wants and pulling a total Annalise in court, coercing the teacher into a confession on the stand. Tristan calls out Bonnie and Asher, pointing out that his child will now likely end up a part of the cycle he was trying to break out of. Bonnie’s actions come from a believable and emotionally grounded place. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Tristan ends up just being not only someone for Bonnie to project onto but the show’s pawn, too. The case is just a device to bring Bonnie’s history to the surface again so that the impact of Frank killing her father could be more fully felt. That could work if it wasn’t so clumsily done. Tristan’s emotions and experiences get generalized for the sake of the bigger story. That’s the problem with these cases of the week. The way they interplay with the serialized narrative is purely plot-driven and often very surface-level. Even given the powerful storytelling this week’s case touches on when it comes to abuse and trauma, there’s still an overall disconnect. Why is Asher the lead on this case? Why is he suddenly insensitive toward Bonnie when he hasn’t previously been on the particular topic of her abusive father?
Suspension of disbelief is a weekly requirement when it comes to How To Get Away With Murder. Never watch this show with a law student. It isn’t fun. But I’m usually okay with the show’s improbable courtroom procedures and legal loopholes so long as it doesn’t distract too much from the story. But Bonnie continuing to run Annalise’s clinic in the wake of her suspension even though she doesn’t even work for the university? That’s quite the stretch, especially since an entire storyline for this season hinges on the university president cracking down on Annalise’s rule-breaking behavior. There are so many reasons why this episode could have done without a case of the week. But then again, did we really need an entire subplot dedicated to Wes’s surprise party?
It’s very telling that the best scene of “Don’t Tell Annalise” is the scene that immediately follows the flash-forward cold open. A temporary break from all the murder, slapping,, house fires, and threatening fliers, it merely features Eve (she’s back!) and Annalise dancing at a bar, taking shots, and messing with some annoying dudes who try hitting on them. Shonda Rhimes joked on Twitter that she could watch an entire episode of Famke Janssen and Viola Davis dancing, and I half-wish that’s all this episode had been. Unsurprisingly, it’s Janssen, Davis, and Billy Brown who do a lot of the heavy-lifting in this episode. Every time any combination of the three are on screen, the episode starts to seem like it’s coming together. Because these actors are nailing all of their characters’ emotional beats, even when the foundation is a little flimsy.
Take Eve and Annalise for example. Now, we haven’t seen Eve in several weeks. And any mention of the character has been purely exposition. She shows up here as if she was never gone, thrown back into Annalise’s emotional arc. But it works. Eve’s reappearance comes at a crucial time for Annalise. Eve’s role in the episode is more character-driven than plot-driven, and the relationship dynamics that play out are the richest, most satisfying part of the episode. Annalise and Eve’s complicated relationship has been one of the most compelling relationships on the show since it was first introduced—up there with Connor and Oliver. This show thrives on the idea that you can’t trust anyone. All of its characters are paranoid, power hungry, self-destructive. That’s a difficult environment in which to foster meaningful relationships. I’m not saying How To Get Away With Murder more functional relationships. Dysfunction and distrust are part of its game. But when no one really cares about each other, it makes it harder for us to care about the characters.
There’s something earnest and beautiful about the relationship between Eve and Annalise though, and that carries the episode. Whereas Nate sees Annalise as someone who needs to be fixed, Eve doesn’t see her that way. She’s the only person who doesn’t judge Annalise. Nate tries to say Eve doesn’t really know Annalise, but that isn’t true. Eve just doesn’t see Annalise as broken, and that’s not the same as not knowing her. In fact, Eve knows very well that Annalise is flawed. Annalise tells Eve about hiring a hitman to kill Frank. While Eve is horrified, her first priority is still to be a shoulder for Annalise to cry on. She sees a goodness in Annalise that others don’t. She wants Annalise to have a better, less tumultuous life, but she also knows she can’t force that upon her. She still envisions a world where they could live in New York together, and there’s a sweetness to the idea of Annalise and Eve that starkly contrasts the rest of Annalise’s life. But just as they’re reconnecting, Eve reveals she has met someone else. She’s in love with her, and she’s moving to San Francisco. Yes, the fact that it seems like Eve was merely brought back in this episode in order to write her off for good does cheapen some of the emotional significance of the story, but goddamn that scene is fantastically written and directed, every moment of it ringing true for the characters. Janssen sells the hell out of it.
Despite being a show full of twists and over-the-top machinations, How To Get Away With Murder is at its best in these one-on-one, intimate, tension-ridden scenes. Brown and Davis similarly have a scene that’s significantly better than the bulk of the episode. Nate and Annalise’s relationship has very circular movement to it. He always thinks he can fix her, and she always pushes him away the second she starts getting comfortable. It’s redundant but in a very real way, a relationship built on self-destruction and poisonous interests. Nate accuses Annalise of being an alcoholic, and then Annalise turns around and uses alcoholism as a way to get her license back. It’s fucked up, especially since Nate probably has a very valid point about her drinking. But it’s perfectly in line with this character to turn one of her problems into a way of getting out of another problem.
Again, I’m not so sure why Wes’s birthday party needed to happen, but the subplot about Connor and Oliver is one of the episode’s pros. The show continues to explore the different stages of their breakup in a nuanced and realistic way. And this storyline manages to both show and discuss safe sex practices. The show acknowledges Oliver’s sexual autonomy and the fact that HIV-positive people can and do have sex lives while also acknowledging the stigmas HIV-positive people face when dating. Connor’s return to Humpr hookups feels right for the character, and it would have been easy for the writers to just make Oliver jealous about it. Instead, they do something more complicated and interesting by making Oliver more jealous of the fact that Connor can run around hooking up with anyone without having to face the stigma he does. He wants Connor to be himself and do his thing just not in a such a showy way that makes him feel bad about himself. That jealousy comes from a genuine place. And it forces Connor to do some self reflecting. The characters on How To Get Away With Murder don’t often have time to be introspective between all the murders and whatnot, but it’s these quieter character moments that keep the show from going too far off the rails. The unexpected direction of Connor and Oliver’s conflict here, as well as the unexpected reveal that Eve has to leave, are the episode’s weightier twists.
There are the big twists, too. Frank is up to something odd all episode, and then it turns out he was scheming to kill Bonnie’s dad the whole time. It’s an intense and dramatic moment, but not one that’s really earned within the context of the episode. Bonnie’s childhood has certainly been a part of the story this season, but Frank murdering her father as vengeance on her behalf seems weirdly divorced from the character’s emotional arc. It comes out of nowhere. And then, the big reveal comes: The second body found in Annalise’s burning house is Laurel, and she’s pregnant. That’s something that would land better if it were more connected to the rest of the episode, but Laurel spends most of this episode staring at Wes, wondering what Frank’s up to, and eavesdropping. She doesn’t get any of the big emotional beats of the episode, so the final reveal ends up hollow.
- Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that Bonnie’s dad is dead. But Frank killing him seems so…random, from both a character and a narrative perspective.
- After Nate moves out, Annalise clears out her fridge of all the healthy food he bought for her, and I swear it looks like she throws out five boxes of arugula.
- So now Nate is sleeping with Annalise’s enemy from the DA’s office? That’s not going to go over well.
- Is it just me or was Annalise totally about to make out with the president?
- Annalise and Eve’s interaction with those guys at the bar is something my girlfriend and I have to deal with way too often.
- Meggy and Michaela have some cute banter but are otherwise pretty insignificant in this episode.