A whimsical children’s book becomes a fun, clean, educational TV show in the hands of Apple.
So just how do you get away with murder? Step 1: Hire a killer lawyer, preferably one long on IQ points and short on ethics. Someone like Annalise Keating. Step 2: Get out of her way.
Annalise’s very successful at her job, no question. Was her client standing over a dead body clutching a bloodstained knife? Annalise would argue her client was framed, just like in North by Northwest. Was her client heard shouting, “I’m going to kill you!” to the recently deceased shortly before buying an economy tub of strychnine from Sam’s Club? Well, the client had a pretty horrific rat infestation, Annalise would claim, and the threat was misheard: The poor, innocent lady simply wanted to bill the recently deceased for overtime.
Keating could get Dexter off on a technicality and posthumously clear Breaking Bad’s Walter White by framing his wife. Would she feel bad about it? Not one little whit. After all, she’s supposed to get her clients off the hook—and she’ll resort to any means to do so.
When not grilling witnesses in court, Annalise is terrifying students at Middleton Law School. She tears into freshmen like a lion at a fresh kill. But for those who have the stomach for Annalise’s withering looks and icy retorts—for those who show intelligence, creativity and a certain willingness to overlook all manner of ethical concerns—she dangles a carrot: an internship at her own prestigious firm, where up-and-comers can learn to be just as ruthless and conniving as she is. They’re all, to varying degrees, willing to lie, cheat and sell their bodies and souls to help Annalise win her cases.
Oh, and one other thing: They’ve all been involved, or at least connected with, their own little murder schemes. Seems that Annalise’s killer instinct doesn’t necessarily stop at the courtroom door.
Which turns Annalise’s pet name for her class—”How to Get Away With Murder”—into a sort of tragic double entendre. But as the show goes on, it seems that Annalise and her collection of assistants and admirers may want to take another macabre class: How to avoid getting murdered yourself.
This ABC show, fronted by the superlative Viola Davis, is a salacious, schlocky and compelling drama. Guilty pleasures don’t get much guiltier, really, what with every episode filled with sex, murder and all sorts of folks acting really, really badly.
To call Davis’ Annalise an antihero does a disservice to the term. Admittedly, there are signs that a few have a greater good in mind at times. Even Annalise herself isn’t as Machiavellian as her reputation. Still, Annalise and her cohorts don’t do bad things for good reasons as much as they do bad things to just win, baby—at any cost. And if their ethics in court are questionable, their ethics outside court are abysmal.
How to Get Away With Murder isn’t meant to be aspirational television. Except that, in a way, it is. No, the show isn’t condoning murder. But when Michaela watches Annalise dance and jab in the courtroom and utters a breathless, “I want to be her!” we’re meant to nod in agreement. Just as there’s a certain visceral beauty in a shiny dagger or a pack of wolves on the prowl, Annalise’s underhanded virtuosity is meant to trigger respect, even admiration. We’re to be enthralled by her skill. Even as her students grow to question her methods and despise her flaws, we, the viewers, are asked not to forgive her for her ethical lapses as much as praise her for them.
I guess, then, that we’re also to be captivated by the violence and sex that comes along for the thrill ride. Will viewers really learn How to Get Away With Murder? Probably not. But there’s no question this show gets away with nearly everything else.
Lauren, Annalise’s longtime student and assistant, is fighting a legal battle for the custody of her baby. That custody now belongs to her father, whom everyone suspects of killing Wes, who was Lauren’s lover and the baby’s father. But Lauren has someone pretty formidable in her corner: Annalise herself.
In court, we hear why Lauren lost custody: testing positive for cocaine (which Annalise argues was a false positive), and insinuations that Lauren considered abortion and took that illicit drug to harm the baby. Lauren admits under oath that she had taken cocaine a “handful” of times as a teen because of an eating disorder. An expert testifying on Lauren’s behalf admits under cross examination that he’s a recovering heroin addict himself. We also learn that his daughter apparently committed suicide via an overdose of OxyContin, but the expert learns that the case is being reopened¬—¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬and that he’s suspected of murdering her.
We hear that Lauren’s father had multiple affairs. Annalise and her sometimes boyfriend, Nate, share a passionate kiss. Two people are shown in bed together, kissing: The woman says she hopes to have sex; we also see her reach down to her lover’s groin (her response implies that he’s not interested in physical intimacy). A gay couple talks about their relationship and other matters as one of them gets ready for bed.
We hear that Nate’s father, who is still in prison, was originally arrested on drug charges. In a closing scene, we may see a character who’s stoned, but it’s not completely clear. We also see characters drink. Characters say “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “d–n” several times, and there’s one misuse of God’s name. Someone repeatedly calls Nate a “pig,” obviously a derogatory term for someone who works in law enforcement. He’s forcefully dragged away after seemingly becoming violent.
The show’s fall finale jumps through time with abandon: it begins with Frank, one of Annalise’s once-most loyal workmates, threatening suicide in her house. It ends with said house exploding. And in the middle, Annalise’s students celebrate passing the lawyer’s difficult class with oodles of champagne.
In the first segment, Frank points a gun under his chin, weeping as Bonnie (another longtime assistant) tries to talk him out of it. Annalise, meanwhile, encourages him to pull the trigger. He doesn’t, but one person does die during the episode. His body is found in Annalise’s house following the explosion; later, in the hospital, we see the head and torso of the victim’s body, the left side of it horrifically burned and blistered. (We later learn, however, that the man was dead before the explosion.) Laurel is injured in the explosion. We also see, in flashback, the bloodied corpse of someone else. In class, Annalise makes her students defend Ted Bundy, a serial killer who raped and killed 30 women.
Connor, a student of Annalise’s, has near-anonymous gay sex with someone after finding him on a hookup app. We don’t see the act itself, but do see Connor pull up his underwear after the encounter (nothing critical is shown). Beforehand, others see Connor surfing through the app and crudely remark on the people—and the private bits of anatomy—displayed there. There’s a lot of conversation about gay relationships. Annalise and Bonnie share a tender, passionate kiss when Annalise is drunk. There’s a suggestion that one of Annalise’s enemies, a woman, is attracted to Annalise as well.
Annalise rewards her students with a great deal of champagne. “Have a drink,” she says. “Have 10. Someone has to.” They oblige, and many get completely drunk. Annalise, meanwhile, is trying to kick her own drinking habit. She falls off the wagon quickly, downing a glass of straight vodka before switching to the bottle: She finishes it off and buys another. She burns incriminating evidence, smashes a laptop and asks one of her students to wipe her phone clean. (He does.) Annalise also asks the same student to hack into the district attorney’s computers. Characters use profane language throughout, including several uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times. People mention the status of their genitalia.
Annalise and her students continue to defend Caleb and Catherine Hapstall, the adopted children of recently murdered wealthy parents. They also continue to gather evidence on who they believe the real killer is.
That suspect, Philip, is the product of incest between the Hapstall mother and her brother, it turns out. Annalise challenges the prosecutor to convince a jury that “the inbred weirdo didn’t do it.” But that’s far from the only sexual content in the episode: No fewer than four sex scenes play out simultaneously as the episode comes to a close (with one being a same-sex encounter). We see shirtless men and half-dressed women kiss and clutch and gasp and move; the homosexual sex scene takes place in Annalise’s classroom, and when her student Connor and his lover Oliver hear the janitor moving around outside, Oliver says, “Let’s give him a show.” Another couple engages in oral sex, and there’s tasteless talk about “taste.” There are references to a threesome and using sex as “payment” (which Annalise refuses to do). Bonnie, Annalise’s assistant, is shown huddled in a shower, naked.
There’s a certain callousness shown toward death, here, and a corpse is seen surrounded by spattered blood. We hear mortal threats made.
Annalise’s team uses duplicitous means to defend her clients—combatting equally duplicitous schemes employed by the prosecutor. Characters say “p—” “h—“ and “a–“ three or four times each. God’s name is misused.
A corpse is found floating in a water tank. Wes, Connor, Laurel and Michaela try to figure out what to do with another dead body—and it’s implied that they were in on the killing. They tote it around in a rolled-up rug and eventually burn it.
Discussed murder cases include one in which a woman is accused of poisoning her married lover. Michaela lies to pocket bits of information for the case. Keating illegally uses other bits in court. Laurel hides in a bathroom to spy on the accused killer and the victim’s wife. Connor goes so far as initiating sex with another guy to snag incriminating emails. (The scene is consumed with kissing, bare torsos, explicit sexual movements and a brusque demand from Connor to “turn over.”) Wes sees Keating having sex with a man who’s not her husband. (She straddles the guy.) It appears that Keating’s associate Frank has a history of seducing students.
A neighbor gives Wes a bottle of stolen alcohol. Several people drink whiskey and other hard liquor. A scene takes place in a gay nightclub. We hear “b–ch,” “p—ed,” “h—,” “d–n” and “a–.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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