After six seasons and a historic Emmy win under its belt, “How To Get Away With Murder” will be signing off of ABC.
The Shondaland drama is one of only three left on the broadcaster, and one that has left an indelible mark not only on that network’s schedule but also on the landscape of television in general. Showrun by Pete Nowalk, the series often wrapped deep discussions on tough topics such as addiction, adoption, abuse, an HIV diagnosis and criminal justice reform with more salacious plots about murdered husbands, mysterious new students and complicated romantic relationships.
“I still believe, and I will say this until I go to my grave, that Annalise Keating [and] Olivia Pope are the greatest characters on TV,” series star Viola Davis, who became the first African American woman to win the lead drama actress Emmy for her performance as lawyer and professor Annalise Keating in 2015, tells Variety.
“And I say that because the people here are not writing tentatively for people of color. And I see some of the characters that people eat up — that they love — that are just not deep, are not drawn-out; they’re everything that people feel comfortable with — even biopics, maybe even some things that I’ve been involved in. But they’re not bold. And I learned in acting class, some of the greatest acting teachers would say, ‘Just take a risk. Even if it’s the biggest mistake of your life, even if it looks a mess, just go for it.’ And that’s where we are with narratives nowadays.”
“How To Get Away With Murder” started with a central murderous mystery and spun the spiderweb outward to show how each key character in Annalise’s student group would become ensnared. Each season began with a new mystery — a flash into the future that the show, and the audience by extension, would unravel as episodes went on until time caught up with the shocking event and answers about the ‘whodunnit and why?’ were given. The sixth and final season is no different, requiring Nowalk to balance resolving the big cliffhanger from Season 5 (what happened to Laurel and her baby?), with weaving in details to explain how and why the next person comes to die, as well as paying off individual character and relationship nuances.
Part of what the sixth and final season has to deal with is Annalise’s alcoholism, as she has been on and off the wagon over the years. Davis hopes that Annalise will exhibit “a level of personal growth and redemption” by the end of the show, noting that she wants “to see what she’s taken from all of this experience that’s going to move her life forward in a way that’s interesting, in a way that’s human.”
But there are many other characters to service as well, some of whom are just embarking on new journeys, such as Michaela (Aja Naomi King) looking into her birthparents, as well as a budding romance with Gabe (Rome Flynn).
“Gabriel really challenges her to look to those deeper parts of herself that she’s been attempting to ignore because it hurts, it’s painful, who wants to go there?” says King. “That exploration could end up being really therapeutic, but she also sees the pain that he’s been in in attempting to uncover everything that’s happened with his father and everything that that brings up. Do you willingly challenge yourself in a way that you know might result in something incredibly painful? It’s always good to have that outside voice saying, ‘Yes, this is why you need this.’”
For other characters, there are still some lingering, long-term questions, including Connor’s (Jack Falahee) confusion over why Annalise tapped him to be a part of her group in the first place, and for Asher (Matt McGorry), the more internal debate over what kind of man he wants to be.
“I think he’s vacillated a little bit between more a holistic, open version of himself and a more closed-off, toxically masculine version of himself, and I’m interested to see what the final legacy, what the final point of Asher will be. That will essentially be where he lives in the minds of fans and viewers for eternity,” McGorry notes.
Characters such as Nate (Billy Brown), Frank (Charlie Weber) and Bonnie (Liza Weil) may be a bit more secure in their places in Annalise’s orbit, but at least for Weil, there is some desire to see a change before saying goodbye to the character and the series.
“This season is set up for Bonnie to resume her comfortable state of looking out for other people and carrying out everybody else’s stuff without really dealing with her own turmoil — but I’m hoping that she has to look at that stuff herself,” she explains. “I have never been given so much to do as an actor, with such a range. There is an element of feeling like you’re playing a completely different person every season. It has been a tremendous bootcamp for me. I think we’re all going to come out of it feeling so honed as actors.”
Falahee, too, says the show gave him a crash course in the industry. “Being thrown head-first into a Shondaland show, one day I was a nobody and the next day I was in the grocery store and people were asking for photos. It definitely took a toll on me mentally,” he admits. “As we’re getting towards the end, I kind of reflect back on it as my own form of grad school — learning the ropes, really, really quickly. And it’s made me much more aware of my privilege in the industry and the opportunities afforded to me. And so I hope that at the very least, leaving this show I’ll have a little bit more wherewithal in the industry of that privilege and how to best use it and choose roles accordingly.”
Similarly, McGorry acknowledges that before he began workign on “How To Get Away With Murder” he had “very little political awareness,” but now that has become “one of the primary factors and facets” of his life. “Combining my art with my social justice activism is incredibly important to me, and it’s been beautiful to be on a show where we are pushing forward progressive issues,” he says.
For Davis, “How To Get Away With Murder” elevated the veteran actress’ platform by putting her in millions of people’s homes around the country every Thursday night as a part of the “TGIT” lineup of programming. It also gave her her first major awards acclaim when she won the Emmy. (She later went on to win a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her film work in “Fences.”) She also launched a production company, JuVee Prods., with her husband Julius Tennon, to focus on “finding narratives that are different, that normalize and humanize people of color who are on the periphery” beyond the way she has been able to tell those stories through the pansexual Annalise.
“People want to get movies made and they want to get butts in the seats, and the butts still have to be the butts of white people: They’re the demographic that everyone is looking at. Now I’m not saying that people are not looking at the demographic of Black people; there are movies out there — but they’re lower budget movies and the making of money and the comfort that people want to be in, we’re thrown under the bus. We’re thrown under the bus in terms of characters; we’re reduced to metaphors,” Davis says. Now, she is striving to depict “the kind of narratives that show our full pathology as Black people: people of color, people within the LGBTQ community. They’re just different, and it’s not just genre; it’s in characters. That’s really what I’m dedicating my life to.”
Adds King: “We’ve accomplished so much in these six seasons, just in terms of visibility and what we’ve been able to give our audience. There’s been so much diversity in the storytelling and the faces you see on the screen, and that’s a tremendous part of what our legacy is: It’s a show that says, ‘We see you; we hear you; you are being reflected in these characters because your stories are as varied and beautiful as everyone else’s.’”