The TV Room: How to Get Away with Murder Season 1, by David Bax
How to Get Away with Murder, which concluded its rollicking and striking first season last week, is a show that says anyone – literally anyone – is capable of killing another person in the right circumstance. What’s invigorating (and fitting for a stakes-raising series such as this) is that this is not an argument the show makes; it is simply its baseline premise. It builds its characters and stories from that dark axiom upwards.
In the pilot, we meet most of our main cast on the night they’ve killed someone. They are the law student interns of a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and their victim, as revealed at the end of the first episode, is her husband. HTGAWM is establishing immediately that, yes, this is a varied platoon of characters not unlike those you’d find on any nighttime soap – the rich girl, the shy one, the sexpot, etc. – but then says, oh yeah, they’re also murderers. The season goes on to build up to the killing by its midpoint and then forward through the fallout. But the die is cast in the first moments. Your heroes are killers and, if the show’s title is to be believed, they’re going to get away with it.
The series quickly established itself as one willing to take risks and to chart waters heretofore unexplored on a mainstream network show. There was, of course, the sex. HTGAWM gave Davis the first sex scene of her career when one of her students entered her office without knocking and found Keating on the receiving end of some oral manipulation. Simulated cunnilingus on network TV, where female sexual pleasure is treated as dirtier than male sexual pleasure, was powerful enough but the show doubled down by also giving us what have to be the most explicit sex scenes featuring gay men that television has seen outside of cable.
This is all as powerful and important as it is titillating. But it pales in comparison to HTGAWM’s most shocking scene. After coming to a devastating realization, Keating sits in front of the mirror in her bedroom, removes her wig and wipes her face clean of make-up. It happens in real time and in close-up. The effect is at first startling because it’s unlike anything seen on television before. And then, it quickly becomes depressing because of the fact that it’s unlike anything seen on television before.
That’s not to give the impression that HTGAWM is a show that celebrates its diversity. It’s a revolutionary show, in many ways, because it breaks down walls and, instead of shouting triumphantly, calmly insists that, underneath our superficial differences, we are all alike in ways that are animalistic and dangerous. In its relatively mundane appraisal of mankind’s universal capacity for cruelty and selfishness, the show is nearly as dark as NBC’s Hannibal.
One scene in the two-part finale brings the season’s thesis thrillingly to the forefront. We’ve seen these people lie to protect themselves; we’ve seen them wipe off their make-up; we’ve seen them kill. But when Michaela – the group’s princess type, living her life according to a schedule that inevitably will culminate in marriage into a wealthy and powerful family – finally drops her guise in front of her mother-in-law to be, it’s chilling. Michaela’s bayou-deep Southern accent comes out to speak harsh truths and the Machiavellian mother of her fiance is floored.
How to Get Away with Murder’s first season was a huge hit. And why wouldn’t it be? Its infectious, soapy bravado is a sugar- and arsenic-coated twist on the ‘mirror to society’ brand of art. And we’re just narcissistic enough to love it. I can’t wait to see what season two tells us about ourselves.