Written by Matt Taylor
The first season of How to Get Away with Murder was a perfect example of an addictive guilty pleasure from the very beginning of its pilot. Was it the most realistic show on television? No, not at all – but it wasn’t trying to be. It was a soap opera, through and through, and a show that rightfully prided itself on its buzzworthy cliffhangers, boundary pushing sex scenes, and a diverse ensemble headed by Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who can read the hell out of a monologue.
While its second season was still strong in its own right, and developed the characters in interesting ways, the problems with How to Get Away with Murder’s format started to emerge. The show had so many “OMG moments” in its first season, and the pressure to live up to those moments was obvious. Unfortunately, they never had anything quite as shocking – partially because the main storyline of the season was dragged out for too long. There were still highlights: Famke Janseen was great as Annalise’s ex-girlfriend, and Wes’ backstory was surprisingly compelling. But there was certainly room for improvement in season three.
And that brings us to the show’s third season – one that has been marred with decidedly mixed reviews, and lessened ratings (something which may be attributed to typical lead-in Scandal being held for the spring). Rest assured, there is certainly a lot to celebrate about this addictive soap, thanks to some funny moments, compelling characters, and a central mystery that promised the death of a major character. But the problem is clear: How to Get Away with Murder needs to slow down on its twists, because almost all of them have fallen flat this year.
One of the season’s first shockers – that fan favorite couple Oliver and Connor were breaking up – was truly surprising in the moment, and about as sad as fans had feared it would be. But it also created a road towards uncharted storytelling territory: what would these characters be like single? But the writers never did anything with this development. Instead, we were stuck with weeks of Connor moping, with the possibility of them getting back together constantly being teased to the viewers. And while the show deserves credit for the way it handled Oliver’s struggles with dating as an HIV+ man – it continues to be amongst the most progressive, socially conscious shows on TV – the decision to break up this iconic couple felt thoughtless. The writers clearly didn’t know what to do with them both as single men and, instead, viewers are stuck waiting for them to get back together.
In fact, most of this season’s relationships fell flat. Pairing Wes and Laurel last season felt random, but was at least a unique development. But, once the couple actually got together their pairing just felt strange. The actors didn’t have chemistry together, and the fact that they fell in “love” with each other so fast came off as forced. Similarly, having Bonnie and Frank sleep together was a wholly unnecessary moment, and betrayed the character development from the previous two years. A climatic scene in the finale involved Bonnie telling Frank she loved him, but it did not feel earned. The writers need to realize that, while audiences might gasp at particular hookups, the surprise will only leave them frustrated if it doesn’t make sense.
And, of course, there is the season’s biggest mystery: which cast member is “under the sheet?” The idea of revealing one member of the cast who will survive each week was a stroke of genius, and shows that the writers clearly understand how much the fans love these characters. Since its start, one of the best things about How to Get Away with Murder was the passion that fans felt about the Keating Five, and having us worry about who will survive, while devising countless theories, became the main reason to keep tuning in. And while the writers sort of had to cheat to get away with a surprise, killing Wes was actually quite shocking and, in many ways, proved satisfying. The character had run his course, and his death – not to mention the tantalizing tease that he was murdered before the fire at Annalise’s house – is enough drama to propel the next few episodes.
Otherwise, the season has been a decidedly mixed bag. The mystery as to who was hanging up flyers harassing Annalise was suspenseful, until the final reveal proved to be anticlimactic. Meanwhile, having Frank kill Bonnie’s abusive father felt like a random way to bring back an old storyline. But, Annalise’s alcoholism and budding relationship with the president of the university has proven to be a shockingly well-done storyline. Similarly, Michaela and Asher, who were previously less developed members of the core group, have been wonderfully characterized and play off each other perfectly.
Do you see the pattern? The big twists (mostly) failed. The character driven plotlines succeeded. When How to Get Away with Murder returns in the spring with the final six episodes of the season, hopefully it will spend more time focusing on its unique group of characters and the talented ensemble playing them. Only then can it return to its season one glory, and stand tall as the best guilty pleasure on TV.
HTGAWM AIRS THURSDAYS AT 10 PM ON ABC