Has anyone else noticed that network TV is getting weirder? With cable dramas evolving into prestige-style mini-/maxi-films, it seems as if the primetime slate for the major broadcast networks have taken a turn for the bizarre of late. NBC reluctantly played host to Bryan Fuller’s arthouse horror series Hannibal, Fox has allowed Gotham to evolve into a dark bloody reflection of the 1960s Batman show, and have you seen CBS’s Zoo? (If you want to see bad CGI animals attack humans as some kind of weird human/animal conspiracy, that is a real show and Season One is on Netflix.) And from ABC’s powerhouse Shondaland, we have How to Get Away with Murder, a primetime soap whose hairpin turns give even Empire a run for its money. In a broadcast field populated by sensational watercooler television, How to Get Away with Murder stands apart as a thriller so ambitiously shocking that it crosses right through schlock territory and wraps back around to being a work of freaking art.
How to Get Away with Murder is, ostensibly, a legal drama about maverick defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis, who’s already won an Emmy for the role) and her team of young aides, handpicked from her students at a prestigious Philadelphia law school. It sounds like your standard legal procedural, and it plays at this format with the occasional open-and-shut case of the week, but the real meat of How to Get Away with Murder is in the long game, in the slow-burning seasonal murder mystery. The audience is treated only to cryptic flash-forwards to the crime during the first half of either season, with the main narrative catching up at the mid-season break, and gaps and new perspectives of the crime being revealed in equally obscure flashbacks during the second half. Like any good mystery, it’s a puzzle for the audience to try (and usually fail) to put together themselves.
Without spoiling too much of this season’s main murder story, we’ve now reached a point the series where practically every character is responsible in one way or another for someone’s grisly death, leading to a web of lies so complex that not even genius-level liar Annalise Keating can possibly maintain. In the age of longform TV, there are plenty of series that try to stretch three hours of story into a thirteen episodes, but How to Get Away with Murder‘s episodes are each so dense and eventful that they’re actually exhausting to watch. A strange time dilation occurs—How the hell can this episode be only halfway over? What more could possibly happen? Oh, so much.
Of course, any daytime soap can offer shocking twists, sex, murder, and secret siblings. Apart from its deft plotting, How to Get Away with Murder boasts compelling performances not just from series lead Viola Davis, but from an ensemble that occasionally surprises the audience with a flash of brilliance. While Davis is indisputably series MVP, this season has offered Liza Weil (Paris of Gilmore Girls fame) the opportunity to make a play for her own Emmy this season as Annalise’s put-upon associate Bonnie Weatherbottom. Bonnie’s transformation from barely-contained stress ball to tragic human wreckage has been this season’s most compelling subplot, giving Viola Davis a worthy partner for tense, emotional duets.
Speaking of partners, Season Two has also seen the addition of recurring guest star Famke Janssen as Eve Rothlow, Annalise’s ex-girlfriend and probably the love of her life. Annalise is a calculating, manipulating bastard most of the time, to the extent that it’s often very difficult to root for her, but for whatever reason the relatively moral Eve still sees the best in her, and is able to coax it out now and then. Annalise and Eve’s romance is an outward representation of Annalise’s inner struggle between her pragmatic, often downright evil side, and the part of her that wants to do right and be worthy of love. Throughout the first half of Season Two, Annalise has managed to alienate just about everyone she cares about, but Eve hasn’t given up on her, despite the as-yet-unrevealed tragedy that ended their relationship a decade prior. Will Annalise and Eve eventually get a happy ending? Does Annalise even deserve one?
While Annalise’s character drama continues to tantalize, it’s hard to deny that her staff of young hearthrobs doesn’t quite measure up. Compared to the complexity of Ms. Keating’s layers and layers of deception and her personal struggle for self-worth, the “who’s sleeping with the client this time” student subplots feel like a distraction. Oddly enough, it’s Asher “Douche-face” Millstone (Matt McGorry), who was left out of Season One’s main murder plot, who gets the most compelling student subplot this year, as a heinous inaction from his past is revealed and (deservedly?) ruins his life. Even so, the flash-forward murder plot of this season feels low-stakes compared to last year’s, whose victim was a more major character, and the present-day case (a pair of siblings is accused of murdering their millionaire parents) isn’t as exciting as its predecessor (which of our series regulars murdered a college student?).
Where Season Two hasn’t slouched is in the wild-twists-around-blind-corners department. Is the pair of adopted murder suspects screwing? Will Annalise help her boyfriend’s dying wife commit suicide? What do Annalise and Eve have to do with the death of student Wes’s mother (or is she even dead?) fifteen years ago? How to Get Away with Murder‘s unpredictability is compounded by its fearlessness—how many network dramas out their lead character as bisexual in the middle of a second-season episode and then just move the fuck on? Anything can happen on HTGAWM, and probably will. And in a television landscape that includes headless horsemen and telepathic gorillas, it’s really delightful when a series ostensibly set in reality can still surprise you.
How to Get Away with Murder‘s second season returns in 2016. In the meantime, you can stream Season One on Netflix.