For those of us involved in the adoption community, we often find ourselves riveted when adoption plots enter the small screen. The second season of Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) captured me this fall as it introduced viewers to the case of Caleb Hapstall (Kendrick Sampson) and Catherine Hapstall (Amy Okurda), adopted siblings accused of torturing and murdering their adoptive parents, Grant and Ursula Hapstall. Four episodes into the season, it’s clear that not only will this adoptive family storyline continue to operate as a B-level plot, but viewers also will need to grapple with understandings of race, kinship, and incest. WARNING: Spoilers concerning this particular storyline will appear in this post.
The Hapstall family embodies the 20th century transracial, and perhaps even international, adoptive family. Wealthy parents from Philadelphia’s Main Line, Grant and Ursula Hapstall operated a pharmaceutical company, valued in billions, prior to their deaths. In many ways the Hapstalls represent all adoptive parents – scions of privilege and wealth that rescued their adopted children from lives of poverty – or at least adoptive parents commonly highlighted in the media in the most sensationalized form. Their Black adopted son, Caleb, and Asian adopted daughter, Catherine, should (according to popular understandings of adoption) be grateful for the love and privilege adoption granted them. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) captures this sentiment in Episode 1, “It’s Time to Move On” as she seeks to obtain the Hapstall children as her clients. Keating states: “Rich, spoiled, and ungrateful for the privilege that you were born into…sorry, adopted into… You don’t deserve the money. You’re not their real children, you felt that growing up and it made you resentful, angry. And then, you decided enough. Let’s shoot mommy and daddy in the head.” Keating clearly articulates what the jury’s perception of them will be upon their trial.
As an adoptive parent, Shonda Rhimes is most likely aware of the dichotomy that positions adoptees as either “happy, grateful” or “unhappy, angry” individuals. By invoking these stereotypes in the first moments we meet the adult adoptees, I suggest that she nods to her viewers that this will not be just a simplistic understanding of adoption. This assertion is rooted in Rhimes’ production of Scandal. In Season 4, Episode 14, “The Lawn Chair,” the show deftly explores the unlawful killing of a Black youth and policy brutality and in Season 5, Episode 4, “Dog Whistle Politics” viewers witness the critical examination of why racially coded language is used by the media to describe Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Rhimes continues to prove that a one-dimensional understanding of race will not be seen on her shows. Remember the complexity of Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.