The Legacy of “How to Get Away with Murder”

Richard LeBeau
May 15, 2020 · 12 min read

After 6 seasons and 90 episodes, the ABC legal drama “How to Get Away with Murder” wrapped its run last night. Although it never quite rose to the top of the drama heap in terms of quality and consistency, it leaves behind a rich legacy of diverse casting, social justice themes, and a performance from Viola Davis that ranks among the best in the history of television.

Image Copyright: Shondaland/NoWalk/ABC/Disney

Over the past six weeks, I have had to bid farewell to five series that I have stuck with for a combined total of 42 seasons and 762 episodes. I have already lamented the loss of Schitt’s Creek, Modern Family, Will & Grace, and Homeland. Today it’s time to bid farewell to How to Get Away with Murder.

A Brief History of How to Get Away with Murder

How To Get Away with Murder aired its pilot episode on September 24, 2014. The show’s production company Shondaland (named for its powerhouse leader, Shonda Rhimes) had two huge hits currently on the air — the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, which despite entering its 11th season was still ranking as one of the most viewed shows in the U.S., and the political thriller Scandal, which was entering its 4th season and at the peak of its buzz and popularity. Wisely, ABC decided to air all three shows back-to-back on Thursday night, creating an unprecedented lineup of female-led drama. The gambit paid off nicely, with big ratings for its pilot episode.

Just being from Shondaland at that point in time was enough to garner major buzz, but the show also had two other major things going for it. The first was its premise. The second was its star, Viola Davis.

The premise of the show was certainly titillating — the fate of brilliant but troubled law professor Annalise Keating (Davis) and a cadre of young and hungry law students are forever entwined when they get caught up in a murder. The plot set up allowed for an ensemble split between seasoned middle-aged acting veterans and hot young stars, as well as a balance between serial drama for the diehard fans and cases-of-the-week that could entertain more casual viewers. It was simultaneously gimmicky and immensely clever. (It was also remarkably contrived and not built for the long term, but more on that later.)

The show was obviously designed from the outset as a vehicle for Viola Davis. By the time the show premiered, she had two Oscar nominations under her belt — one for her brief but unforgettable turn in the religious drama Doubt and one for her heartwarming and nuanced lead turn in the smash hit race drama The Help. She also had three Tony nominations and two wins under her belt for her Broadway work in the shows Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, and Fences (the role that would finally win her an Oscar when she reprised it on film in 2016). Davis might not yet have been a household name, but she commanded tremendous respect in the industry and was familiar to viewers.

Viola Davis claims the Lead Actress Emmy in 2015 (Image copyright: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences)

For an actress who commanded the respect that Davis did at that point in her career to headline what looked at first like a network television procedural lead some people to assume it was a “paycheck” gig. But it was anything but. Davis committed to the role with a ferocity rarely seen in the history of television (and especially rare on network television). She was never afraid to explore the darkest and most complicated sides of Annalise Keating, including — but certainly not limited to — her childhood sexual abuse, battle with alcoholism, struggle to accept her identity as a bisexual woman, anger related to being marginalized and discounted by society, and immense trauma over the death of her baby. But despite all that vanity-free vulnerability, Davis never let Annalise become a tragic figure and she was certainly never a weak one. Annalise was unfathomably brilliant, persistent, self-aware, and brave. Davis won an Emmy and a pair of Screen Actors Guild Awards for her performance and amassed dozens of nominations at various awards shows. Each one was well deserved and hard earned. (Fun fact: Viola Davis was the first woman of color to ever win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.)

The focus on Davis, however deserved, resulted in a tendency for critics and fans to overlook the strong work of the rest of the ensemble. Although the supporting characters could often become one-dimensional plot devices, several stood out with remarkable performances when given the proper material. The supporting cast highlights were undoubtedly Jack Falahee (who was a highlight of the show’s early seasons as tortured gay sex addict/brilliant law student Connor Walsh), Liza Weil (as Annalise’s devoted sidekick with a history of unfathomable trauma that unfolded over the show’s duration), and Karla Souza (who did staggering work in the third and fourth seasons as the daughter of a prominent crime family/brilliant law student Laurel Castillo).

Unfortunately, none of the ensemble could really go toe-to-toe with Davis’s Annalise. This is not intended to be critical of the ensemble’s talent, but rather to point out how heavily the show was geared as a star vehicle for Davis. Thankfully, they had numerous brilliant guest stars that were able to show up from time to time and keep her on her toes. None was better than Cicely Tyson. The now 95-year-old legend of film, television, and stage made a total of 10 appearances on the series as Annalise’s no-nonsense mother Ophelia Harkness, who is slipping into senility. She commands the screen every time she is on it and is in the undisputed highlight of every episode she appears in. She has scored four Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Guest Actress category for her performance, but has somehow yet to win. (Note to Emmy voters: You have one last chance to fix this injustice, don’t mess it up!)

A host of other terrific actors recurred or delivered memorable guest appearances. They include Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden (as Annalise’s suspicious sister-in-law) and Timothy Hutton (as the head of a high profile law firm that Annalise joins), well-known television actors Kerry Washington (who played her Scandal character Olivia Pope in two cross-over episodes), Laura Innes (the ER star played the Pennsylvania governor), and Brett Butler (the Grace Under Fire star came out of semi-retirement to play the mother of one of the law students), and gifted character actors Glynn Turman, Amy Madigan, and L. Scott Caldwell (who each gave Emmy worthy performances as some of Annalise’s most memorable defendants).

Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis on the set (Image Copyright: Shondaland/NoWalk/ABC/Disney)

Unfortunately, even though the acting rarely disappointed, the writing sometimes did. The contrived premise was not build to last, given the highly unusual and inappropriate nature of the central relationships, the time limited nature of law school itself, and the narrative need to resolve mysteries and create new ones. Rather than reboot the plot arcs and shaking e up the ensemble, however, the show simply expanded both the existing plotlines and cast of characters for the series’ entire run. The result is that huge narrative leaps were made to keep the characters in each others’ lives and few — if any — plot threads were ever satisfactorily wrapped up and left behind. By the time the show reached its final stretch of episodes, it was hard for even me (someone who watched the entire run of the series as they aired) to remember who committed which crime and who betrayed who. It was even hard to keep track of which crime people were even on trial for and if they actually did what they were being accused of. The show was in dire need of a reboot as early as Season Two, but it went its entire six season run without ever getting one.

Another significant issue that the show never moved on from was its structure. Each 15-episode season played out the exact same. Each of the first nine episodes progressed the central mysteries while showing brief flash forwards that hint at some tantalizing twists to come. By the end of the first nine episodes the action would finally catch up to the flash forwards and reveal yet another shocker. Then the show would go on hiatus for a few months and come back with the remaining six episodes that wrapped everything up. It worked well the first season, but became gimmicky and unnecessary quickly. In the final season in particular, the flash forward device was distracting and confusing, rather than enticing and titillating (more on that in the review of the series finale).

However, the disappointing unwillingness of the writers to let go of the past and shake things up should not underscore their considerable achievements. In addition to crafting so many great roles that gave so many actors the opportunity to do brilliant, the writers certainly knew how to deliver a jaw dropping twist and were remarkably bold in their choice of subject matter. Significant plot arcs delved deeply into issues like criminal justice reform, incest, PTSD, AIDS, dementia, alcoholism, poverty, interracial relationships, and infanticide. The show may not have always done these issues justice (its portrayal of psychological treatment of mental health and substance abuse problems is extremely problematic), but even when it didn’t get it right it deserves points for attempting to tackle them. The show stood in stunning contrast to the recent proliferation of series that showcased a diverse cast but failed to actually dig deep into issues of social justice and race relations in its plot. How to Get Away with Murder’s commitment to diversity was not just evident in the on-screen cast; it was also embedded into the core of nearly all of its scripts.

Series Finale Review

Last night the series aired its final episode, simply entitled “Stay.” Rather than mess with the formula, series creator Peter Nowalk opted to make the finale a quintessential How to Get Away with Murder episode. Thus, it involved courtroom theatrics, huge personal confrontations, shocking discoveries, and some truly convoluted plot developments. My jaw dropped, my heart raced, and my eyes rolled — my typical reaction to a powerful How to Get Away with Murder episode.

In the episode, Annalise successfully defends herself on the murder and conspiracy charges. Along the way she reconciles with Nate, tries to talk down an increasingly unhinged Frank, and spends some time with her mother. The closing argument scene is one of the show’s best and provides Davis some truly wonderful material that she knocks out of the park. Her “the mask is off” speech before the jury is an understated emotional powerhouse that screams Emmy reel (in a good way). Connor and Oliver come to blows over Connor’s belief that he should do the right thing and go to jail. Their scenes together are wrenching and bittersweet. Michaela ends up with no jail time but is left devastatingly alone in her final scene. Connor is in jail, Oliver is enraged at her, Asher is dead, and Laurel’s phone number has been disconnected.

The episode falls into some of the narrative traps that befall many series finale, including overly tidy resolutions of central character dynamics and a rushed pacing marked by countless “big moments” with little breathing room in between. That is until it goes a bit off the rails in the final ten minutes.

All season long, the flash-forward gimmick has shown Annalise’s funeral and Wes walking through the crowd at it. The series finale also has a new flash-forward of its own, beginning with a fatal shooting outside the courthouse. The obvious implication from both of these flash-forwards is that Annalise would be shot to death outside the courthouse after her trial and that it would be revealed that Wes is still alive. However, it was all a manipulation. It actually turns out that an enraged Frank assassinates the governor and both he and Bonnie are killed in the resulting shootout. (Mark Frank officially losing it and killing the governor as one of the show’s more contrived twists.)

Annalise is actually alive and well. In a brief montage we see her have a romance with Tegan, bury her mother, and grow old. The funeral service we have been seeing in the flash-forwards actually is occurring decades in the future. The sequence features a beautiful eulogy by Annalise’s ex-girlfriend Eve (Famke Jannsen, who appeared in several episodes of the show’s early season) and the accompanying montage reveals that Connor and Oliver ended up together, Michaela became a judge, and that Laurel’s son Christopher is now a law professor at Middleton taking over. And Christopher is played by Alfred Enoch (the actor who portrayed his father, Wes) so it’s not that Wes is back from the dead it’s just the same actor playing his son in the future. If that paragraph was exhausting to read, well it was also exhausting to watch. And, while serviceable, the old age makeup on all the characters was hugely distracting.

As was the case with so many episodes during its run, the series finale of How to Get Away with Murder simply tried to do too much. It tried to resolve countless plot threads, give closure to nearly a dozen distinct character dynamics, and give us an ambitious flash-forward that showed us what happened to everyone. As a result it was a bit messy and rushed at times. Nevertheless, I commend its audacity, its passionate execution, and the fact that it delivered fitting endings for pretty much all of the characters (with perhaps the exception of Frank and Bonnie).

The show’s ensemble at the wrap party (Image Copyright: Shondaland/NoWalk/ABC/Disney)

The Legacy of How to Get Away with Murder and 5 Essential Episodes

How to Get Away with Murder leaves behind numerous impressive legacies. Its success established Shondaland as a true empire. Its commitment to diversity in its casting and storytelling was largely unprecedented. And the performances of Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson will (and should) be revered for decades. It also left behind a quintet of unforgettable episodes, that I highly recommend you revisit whenever you need a Murder fix.

Image Copyright: Shondaland/NoWalk/ABC/Disney

5 Essential Episodes

  1. “Pilot” (Season One). The show’s pilot episode truly delivered. It gave us a fascinating introduction to the characters, it effectively sold the convoluted setup, and the episode-capping flash-forward that reveals that not only is Annalise’s husband eventually murdered but also that her law students are involved set the tone for the whole series.
  2. “Mama’s Here Now” (Season One). One of the most scintillating courtroom twists in series’ history unfolds while Bonnie is forced to take over a rape trial for a depressed Annalise, but the real fireworks are at home where Annalise’s mother (Cicely Tyson) comes to visit and reveals some stunning family secrets.
  3. “Anna Mae” (Season Two). This true stunner of a season finale involves the season’s central mysteries coming to a close and a shocking final twist. All of the action is interwoven with Annalise’s trip home to Memphis where she is confronted with the return of her father.
  4. “I’m Not Her” (Season Four). Delicious drama abounds in this episode, but the centerpiece is clearly Annalise’s therapy session with Isaac (Jimmy Smitts) where she discusses her decision to take on the case of her former cell-mate (L. Scott Caldwell). Davis, Smitts, and Caldwell are electrifying and the script digs into fascinating psychological and ethical territory.
  5. “Leahy v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” (Season Four). The show rarely got more rousing than it did during the Scandal cross-over when Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) showed up to help Annalise get her class action lawsuit before the Supreme Court. It is a start-to-finish winner as top tier character study and courtroom drama.

Follow the author of this article on Medium and Twitter.

Check out recent articles by this author on the art of making a good series finale and the series finales of Schitt’s Creek, Modern Family, Will & Grace, and Homeland, as well as articles about the latest seasons of the streaming hits Dead to Me and Homecoming.

Rants and Raves

Richard Reflects on Hollywood

Richard LeBeau

Written by

Passionate cinephile. Music junkie. Classic TV lover. Awards Season Blogger. History buff. Social justice advocate. Avid traveler. Clinical psychologist.

Rants and Raves

Richard Reflects on Hollywood

Richard LeBeau

Written by

Passionate cinephile. Music junkie. Classic TV lover. Awards Season Blogger. History buff. Social justice advocate. Avid traveler. Clinical psychologist.

Rants and Raves

Richard Reflects on Hollywood

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