Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thoughts on Part 1 of the First Season of 'How to Get Away with Murder'

Annalise Keating is maddening. How does she frustrate me? Let me count the ways…

1. She's grumpy. She spends much of each episode of the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder in a foul mood.

2. She's a hypocrite. She blasts her white husband for screwing a white girl when she was doing the same with a hunky chocolate brother.

3. She's crooked. She not above breaking the rules -- and the law -- for the sake of winning a case, or saving her husband's ass, or her students', or her own.

4. She's a queen of artifice. For all her brutal candor, she's a bit of a fake. She's all steely armor, hiding behind a mask and under a wig that hides her fierce natural hair.

Annalise Keating might very well be the most infuriating woman who can be called the heroine of her own TV show right now.

But Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor who's never encountered a rule she wouldn't bend, is played by Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, which means it's impossible not to watch her. I can't take my eyes off her. I'd probably still be into How to Get Away with Murder if it was just one hour of tight shots of Viola's face.

The one scene that will probably secure her Emmy nomination next year is the one at the end of the fourth episode in which she removes her wig, pulls out her false eyelashes and wipes off all her make-up so that she's staring into the mirror, stark naked from the neck up. She then turns to her husband, and in a tone that's a mix of weary and threatening, she asks, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"


It's a shocking scene and not just because of the penis question. It's reminiscent of the sequence in the 1992 film Damage in which Miranda Richardson stands in front of Jeremy Irons totally nude and asks why she wasn't enough for him. Why did he have to have an affair with their son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche), leading to the son's death? Miranda wouldn't have scored her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination without that one climactic scene, but Viola is lucky enough to have so many other riveting moments besides the one with the penis question.

She's naturally the main reason to watch How to Get Away with Murder. I keep wondering what the show would have been like had its creator Shonda Rimes hired another actress to take the role. There's so much loaded subtext in that penis scene -- what it says about masks, vulnerability and black female beauty. I can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing it so note-perfectly.

I also can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing Annalise so perfectly. If I close my eyes, I can picture someone like Alfre Woodward filling in for Viola in pretty much any of Viola's big-screen roles and doing each one justice. But I couldn't see anyone else, not even Alfre, pulling off Annalise. What if the character had been white? Would Annalise have worked so well, as a comeback vehicle for, say, Oscar winner Geena Davis? My answer: only if the show's other ingredients were stronger… a lot stronger.

The cracks in Murder show when its MVP isn't onscreen. The supporting cast that plays Annalise's students is capable enough, but aside from Connor, the gay student who has never met a guy he wouldn't screw to secure evidence, the characters are all fairly vanilla, straight out of Felicity.

That's not a color call. The two black students are the plainest ones of all. I love the hint of sexual-ish tension between Annalise and Wes (Alfred Enoch, overdoing the wide-eyed in his character's innocent and tilting his head too awkwardly), but that has everything to do with Viola. She could create sexual sparks with a chalk board.

I've found myself more involved in each case of the week than I am in the murder mystery that's the season-long story thread and the show's main hook. The fallout from that particular murder -- actually, the two murders -- is far more interesting than the whodunit aspect. I kind of haven't cared who killed either of the victims or why. I've been sticking around to watch Viola -- I mean, Annalise -- react to the latest bit of damning evidence against her husband, and to see what sexual/social taboo Connor (Jack Falahee, growing on me more each episode) can shutter next.

My favorite scene of the entire series so far was probably the episode-nine showdown between Annalise and her husband Sam (Tom Verica, a good actor who can convincingly switch from staid and stand-up to calculating and creepy to vile and dangerous in a matter of moments). When Sam tells Annalise that she was always just a piece of ass to him, it speaks some uncomfortable and unfortunate truths about the nature of many interracial relationships. Cheers to the script for actually going there rather than white-washing things.

Cheers to Rimes for creating such vibrant, riveting and complex portraits of both black female sexuality and gay male sexuality. Television hasn't offered nearly enough of either. Some might argue that Connor is a dangerously negative representation of gay male sexuality, but anyone who lives in the real world or has logged on to Grindr realizes that his behavior, though exaggerated, is hardly unfathomable. If a female character can use sex to get what she wants, why can't a gay man play the femme fatale role for once?

When the show returns after the winter break, I'll be tuning in not to find out what happens next. I'll be tuning in to see what Viola does next, to see whom Connor screws next, and to see if they ever let Annalise permanently lose that wig so that Viola can be the beautiful natural black woman she was born to be onscreen. I love the show for at least giving us glimpses of her.
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