I used to think going to therapy meant my healing journey was complete. But after watching Hulu’s latest dramedy, UnPrisoned, I realized that I was nowhere near true healing. UnPrisoned follows relationship therapist and single mom Paige Alexander (Kerry Washington), whose life gets turned right-side-up when her dad, Edwin (Delroy Lindo), gets out of prison and moves in with her and her teenage son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana). Beyond being one of the funniest shows I’ve ever watched, UnPrisoned took me on a therapeutic journey I didn’t know I needed to embark on.
There is a point in the final episode, “It’s About Who You Want To Be,” when Edwin’s parole officer and Paige’s love interest Mal (Marque Richardson) summarizes the profound effects an absent father can have on a child. Mal tells Edwin that abandoning Paige at three years old after he was incarcerated contributed to her inability to find love. She “doesn’t recognize it walking down the street,” Mal says. The realization that Paige’s behaviors in adulthood were based on her father’s actions throughout her childhood made me reflect on how my own relationship with my father has impacted me. My dad formed some of the best parts of me and did his best, but the person I am now is paying the price for his failures. When Paige kicks Edwin’s ex, Nadine (Brenda Strong), out of her house because she took Paige’s son to visit Edwin in prison — the one thing Paige never wanted her child to experience — it sparks a discussion between Paige and her younger self about how the only person who will always be there for you is yourself. Through Paige, I learned that my healing hadn’t even started.
Paige’s behaviors in adulthood were based on her father’s actions throughout her childhood... My dad formed some of the best parts of me and did his best, but the person I am now is paying the price for his failures.
By the time I arrived in this world, my dad already had kids much older than me. People talk about being the baby of the family like it’s a fun position that means getting whatever you want and being constantly coddled. While my mom’s side of the family may have spoiled me a little bit, I never got that from my dad or his side of the family. It felt like when I was born, my dad didn’t get a child, he just gained a friend that he could choose to turn up to see whenever he wanted. I knew he loved me. He showed up for some of the hard moments but never all of them, and he wasn’t the kind of dad I could sit down and have heart-to-hearts with. Even though he wasn’t as present as I would have liked, like Paige and Edwin, comedy was very much present in my relationship with my dad. Through laughter and managing my expectations of the sort of dad he was capable of being allowed me to cope for the time I had him. Seeing how Paige’s childhood wounds carried into her adulthood, it shone a light on the way I saw healing as something you could ignore, and how I’ve carried that pain with me.
If you’re a woman and have a complicated relationship with your father, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “daddy issues.” It’s mostly used to describe women despite men being just as likely to have complex relationships with their fathers. Relationships with parents — especially fathers in the Black community — are typically presented as something we need to heal from. While this is not true for all of us, for some of us, the pain from our relationship with our parents can be crippling; after all, they form the foundational structure for our identity and personality. Our relationship with our parents and our physical and emotional needs in childhood set the tone for how we act as adults in friendships, parenting, and even how we see ourselves. Paige embodies this in UnPrisoned. Outwardly, she seems unaffected by her father’s absence for most of her life. But we very quickly see that her parenting style and the men she chooses to date are all behaviors dictated by her father’s absence.
In episode 2, “How to Be a Main Bitch,” Edwin calls Paige out for being her boyfriend’s “side bitch” when she needs to be a “main bitch.” While screaming at my TV in agreement, I understood that there’s liberation in recognizing you have unhealthy behaviors that stem from instability. When the person in your life who is supposed to be one of your most stable structures is flawed, it rocks your core. But to become a better version of yourself, you have to let those unhealthy parts die first. I have very loose boundaries when it comes to my relationships, I feel the need to be available to support other people even when those actions are not reciprocated. While it may seem like a healthy trait born out of kindness, while watching the show I discovered that it was a sign of me not wanting to let people down. It signaled that, like Paige, I had to unlearn those unhealthy behaviors I developed and become a “main bitch.”
I was fortunate to learn early on when my father didn’t show up to important events in my life that parents or parental figures aren’t infallible forces. Parents make mistakes, but in most cases they do the best they can. So when Paige asks in her Ted Talk, “What do you owe a parent whose best wasn’t good enough?” it hit me. I had never considered that.
If you’re Black, you probably are taught to skip straight to the moving-on part of your grief. But UnPrisoned teaches us that there is value in going back and reflecting on your hardships because it’s only then that we can grow.
Edwin’s ex Nadine, raises Paige, but she was not the parent Paige wanted or felt she needed, so it resulted in further wounds. As Paige’s wounds are revealed (which are in many ways a result of her father’s “best” not being good enough), we see Little Paige (Jordyn McIntosh) appear to reflect how pain can manifest from childhood to adulthood. Many of us grew up with the same conventional advice: when approaching a hard situation, accept it, grieve it if necessary, and move on. If you’re Black, you probably are taught to skip straight to the moving-on part of your grief and to push through any struggles. But UnPrisoned teaches us that there is value in going back and reflecting on your hardships because it’s only then that we can grow.
My father died of terminal cancer when I was 18, and I knew that I would be left with unanswered questions. Death may be the physical end of a life and it left me unable to ask my dad questions about how he made me feel and whether he regrets not showing up more, but it does not stop the memories we shared from shaping me. I don’t need those answers to feel complete but ignoring my past memories and feelings doesn’t make the path any easier to walk. Instead, it becomes another roadblock.
“Sometimes, until you make the wrong choice, you don’t really know what the right choice is,” Nadine shared poignantly in the show. As we grow up, we often constantly wait for the next bad thing to happen and rarely reflect on how we overcame hard times. I decided to break that cycle and pull a Paige. While I didn’t start talking to myself on the street or arguing in the car like Paige did in the episode “Are You My Mother Wound?” after she had a family meeting with Nadine (or “dollar store Sharon Stone” as Little Paige hilariously calls her), I did write a letter to my younger self. That process allowed me to put a lot of the pain away and find my answer to Paige’s question about what we owe parents whose best wasn’t good enough. You owe your parents gratitude for giving you life, but anything else, such as respect, is earned. The feeling that you owe your parents everything can become a toxic burden that prevents you from living the life that's best for you. It’s in understanding that you need to follow your desires and stop feeling indebted to your parents or anyone that you can finally learn how to forgive and heal.
My true healing journey started not only when I watched UnPrisoned but when I visited my younger self. Little Liv needed to know she’s going to be OK and that we did come out on the better side of things. So to her, I say this: the journey will be slow, it will have many challenges, but no matter how hard it gets, you will get through it. So little Liv, keep going. I’m proud of you.