I didn’t plan to write about How to Get Away with Murder. For a while, I doubted I’d even finish the series, which initially struck me as formulaic and preposterous. I felt similarly about Scandal, another Shonda Rhimes’ show. (I should point out that Rhimes herself is a producer here, but not a writer, or at least, not listed as one. Peter Nowalk, her longtime collaborator is given primary credit – but the themes and style are certainly very much in the Rhimes wheelhouse.)
Among my objections – twisty but not particularly gripping plots (or really, plot – the show revolves around a single crime); an ensemble of ambitious kids – the select sub-group of super-lawyer Annalise Keating’s students – whose characters are lazily built on types, and not ameliorated by good acting; too many loose ends (what kind of experience must the rest of Keating’s 100-plus students be having?); and Rhimes’ and Nowalk’s propensity to – shall we say – borrow ideas. (The classroom stuff more than slightly resembles The Paper Chase, and while I’m not sure they’re getting away with murder, they do seem to be getting away with stealing the chief storytelling structural device from Damages.)
Yet I continued watching. Though I’m generally ambivalent about Rhimes’ work, I have some genuine admiration. The shows are justly praised for snappy dialogue, and that’s on full display here. I also like her knack for revivfying familiar elements (Murder has an overlay pulled from the high-gloss women’s pictures of the 1950s and ‘60s, which I love) – as well as coming up with some surprising new ones (including here a startlingly bold series of gay sex encounters).
More important – there’s Viola Davis, one of our truly great actors.
It’s fascinating to compare what Davis does in Murder with Kerry Washington’s work in Scandal. Washington is lovely and appealing, but a limited actor. (Her big scenes make me think of a screen test with a local weather reporter.)
Davis, by contrast, is a human volcano of emotion. When she’s going at it full-throttle, I wonder whether even Medea is a role epic enough for her resources.
At first, I also wondered whether her grandness of scale would be an asset or a liability. Davis’s level of investment isn’t always an asset on television. Stalking around in stilettos and bejeweled in Diane Lockhart statement necklaces, she seemed too big for the room. (That room, by the way, is meant to be the Penn Law School.)
Then came the fourth episode – the “wig episode” – with Davis seated at her dressing table, laboriously removing make-up and hair – and, with it, the shellac of her Annalise Keating persona. For the next few minutes, she was a small, broken thing. It was a tour de force. Even the show’s awful final line (“Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”) couldn’t completely kill the tingles.
Still, I expected that this moment – which, it turns out, was mostly Davis’s idea – would be a one-off. Maybe it would become one of tomorrow’s icons of camp. (The scene is a striking inversion of the opening of Mommie Dearest, where in the dead of night, we glimpse Faye Dunaway undergoing the Frankensteinian process it takes to turn Joan Crawford into “Joan Crawford.”)
In fact, the wig moment was not a one off. We’ve seen a lot more of Annalise en déshabillé, and it’s opened a floodgate. Gradually, we’ve come to see that the cool, cruel lawyer is a persona – almost a kind of drag performance – that masks Annalise’s far more vulnerable inner self, bruised and haunted by the past. This was a particular focus in a late-season episode featuring Cicely Tyson as Annalise’s hypercritical mother, who calls her by her given name – Anna Mae. Clearly, she means to take down her daughters’ pretentions. (This scene and several others are loaded with issues of racial identity.)
Have I made it sound like a Lifetime movie? Well, it is, a bit. But mostly, it’s too daring for that. Annalise – Anna Mae – is like no leading woman I’ve ever seen on TV. There’s a hugeness to her energy, her desires, her intelligence, her pain, and her mystery. Maybe Davis is Medea, after all.
Will audiences find the two Mrs. Keatings fascinating, or too much? I’m not sure. But I applaud Davis, Rhimes and Nowalk for their go-big-or-go-home boldness. Who else is using a prime-time TV sit-dram to explore constructions of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation?
For better or worse – I’m hooked on Murder and the duality that is Annalise & Anna Mae, and I can’t wait to see what next season will bring!