What this show does brilliantly is… a lot. It’s courtroom drama, it’s college drama, it’s character-driven, it features a diverse cast of characters.
The opening scene plunges us right into the heart of the story — and the season’s main toss-up: the murder and the getting away with it. Intercut with scenes from three months earlier, the start of the semester, we see the top of the class scrambling to hide a body. The murder weapon: a statue of Justicia, presented to the most impressive student of the year.
Viola Davis plays Annalise Keating, defence attorney and law professor Middleton University, Philadelphia. She’s brilliant, demanding, direct, a committed teacher, competitive, she’s mean, and she’s unapologetic about all of that and more. She’s got heart and character flaws and she’s just so… real. Well, hyperreal, since this is TV and courtroom drama and a Shondaland production, but she’s multi-dimensional and Viola Davis has an incredible on-screen presence. Her character is an escape artist, someone who gets defendants a get out of jail card even if they did it. That scene with her and Wes at the university function is wonderfully ambiguous, because you don’t know whether she’s maybe also manipulating him — propositioning him, even — but at the same time you want to believe that that hurt she shows is real. Let’s see how that baby subplot plays out, if it’s real.
The other actor I’m most excited for here is Alfred Enoch, our beloved Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter adaptations. I don’t think it would be stretch to say that the entire fandom is pretty damn proud of him right now. I also love seeing Liza Weil in her role as Bonnie, Annalise’s partner at the firm, and overall so many great young ladies and gentlemen among the students. Annalise’s top four are a great and very diverse mix — and it’s down to the acting that it doesn’t just feel like ticking boxes. It means that everyone can be who they want to be, and that a view of the world on television must be a cross-section of the world off television. The first real thing we learn about Connor’s character is not just that he’s either gay or bisexual, it’s tangled up in the whole first few minutes we spend with him, from his answering the first question in the lecture hall to him being charming, obviously ambitious, wily, and not above flirting with the IT guy to get his hands on some incendiary emails. Flirting with, not seducing. He just genuinely also wanted to sleep with him. His sexuality is thus not made out to be the most interesting thing about him, which is the one thing that saves this plot strand from being played solely for sensational value.
Of course, there are some tropes that Shonda Rhimes can’t stay away from. The sexual escapades between teachers and students, for instance. Frank, correctly identified by Laurel as a “misogynistic ass,” still manages to get into her pants — and, mostly naked, onto her phone’s caller ID screen. A seemingly neat visual to key us into the fact that they’re having an affair in the scene where they’re hiding from the couple in the woods, but an incredibly dumb idea in real life, because anyone on campus could see her phone call screen from pretty much anywhere if she takes his calls in public. And then, there’s more tension elsewhere in the house: there’s clearly something going on between Sam, Viola’s husband, and Bonnie. Oh, and his reaction to the missing girl’s body being found, and Annalise saying, “bet ya the boyfriend did it” — very interesting. Makes you wonder, which boyfriend? She was his student…
Now, during the last scene, we see that the murder victim is Sam Keating, and the murder weapon is the statue of Justicia. The fact that the four say that Annalise is out of town could be the truth, or it could just be them protecting her. Any which way, I’m certain one of the eight central characters introduced in the pilot did it. A closed-door mystery, if you will. No doubt the getting away with murder will include introducing an external new suspect. But this, for us, for now, is our pool of suspects. One of the students, Bonnie, Frank, Annalise, or her boyfriend Nate. (The fifth chosen student is conspicuously absent in the scenes three months into the future; the token douchecanoe, Asher.) Undoubtedly the murder of the missing girl and Sam’s death are connected.
This being a pilot, necessitating a lot of exposition, what we see now are snapshots of a relatively large ensemble cast introduced from the get-go. Necessarily, it’s easier to work with shortcuts for some of them — Laurel is the idealistic one from Brown, Asher is the self-important, sexist jackass, Connor is the charming smart guy, Michaela is ambitious, occasionally smug, Wes is the wide-eyed underdog. And then of course there’s the mystery of Wes’ next-door neighbour, Rebecca, who’s clearly got something to hide, together with Lila’s boyfriend. We’re going to learn more about these characters as time goes on, and hopefully they’ll all come out of those snapshots and show us more than what we’ve seen so far. Wes is undoubtedly going to be our moral compass — but let’s see how long that will last. That’s the challenge in writing a show about the grey area — the audience will like and identify with the characters, will want them to make it through this most likely. But what’s that going to teach them about themselves?
Next on How to Get Away with Murder: It’s All Her Fault.