I didn’t grow up binge-watching shows. I grew up waiting for the final episode of M*A*S*H* and speculating over an entire summer about Who Shot JR? But in a day and age when there are hundreds of shows, both current and past, and with libraries helpfully stocking entire seasons and series, it is a distinct and guilty pleasure to watch an entire season. When a courtroom/ detective show bucks, twists, and turns like a raft down the Colorado River, it almost has to be watched in a handful of sittings. At least, that was my sense from enjoying the first season of How to Get Away With Murder.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
–Stanley Kunitz, The Testing Tree
Why murder mysteries? We humans have such a penchant for mysteries with all the books, movies, and television shows! I believe I’ve been shown more dead bodies over the years than your average homicide detective. Lucky for me, I’ve never seen a real murder in person. Knock wood, let’s keep it that way. We need our escapist entertainment. This was a particularly good week to divert attention and keep the mind off giant hurricanes barreling towards family members.
Before going further, it must be said, How to Get Away with Murder is a flawed show. Every episode included close-ups of characters ripping their clothes off — not just euphemistically — but literally pulling down pants and whatnot. I like a good lusty heyho as much as the next person, but not every half hour and not when it gets in the way of the dead bodies falling. Plus, nearly always in public? What’s up with that? “How did you know we were having an affair?” various characters ask. Well, gee, the parking lot, your car on the street, the pub’s bathroom…how could I not know?
That is the beauty of binge-watching, though. Fast forward and move on. And suspend your disbelief. Forget that these are law students and lawyers committing acts of legal foolishness or relying on rules that don’t occur in the real legal world. I object, Your Honor, law school students wouldn’t be working on current real cases or be told to miss other classes in order to watch one teacher in court. Fast forward and move on. Suspend your disbelief. As Henry James said, “Grant them their donnee.” Take the premise that this is a juicy potboiler of a murder mystery. You’re going to have some ridiculous conversations and plot twists. Move on.
This was made on a high-speed train with people throwing hammers at us. It’s a miracle it makes any sense at all.
—Peter Nowalk on writing HTGAWM
Not As the Writer Intended??
Arguably, the writers of a television series would want you to view one episode at a time. Is it a violation of their intent to watch three at a time or all of them in a week? Perhaps. You do lose the sense of suspense of having to wait a week for the next plot reveal. But with a cliffhanger show like this one, the feeling of absurdity from being left hanging every week would have been annoying for me. Watched together, I wasn’t annoyed and, ultimately, I just remembered the BIG cliffhangers, and the BIGGEST reveals. Three or four of those were plenty.
Besides, the writer writes the whole show. Nowalk says he only envisioned up through episode nine before starting the show, but even the tightness of that body of episodes is revealed when watching them in a group. The frenetic energy of the characters after that point seem natural, like a longbow that shoots eight arrows at once. They’re all gonna fly and all gonna land somewhere. Much easier to follow watched in a five night span.
What I really appreciated – even writing this five days later and still thinking about it – were the two plot devices that stood as metaphors for the entire show: the unmasking and the flashback plot that chased its tail.
One of the most famous scenes in the first season of this show is one I’ll call the UnMasking. At a pivotal point in the plot, our slick defense lawyer/charismatic teacher/adulterous and cuckolded wife Annalise Keating, the woman in the thousand dollar leather jacket, takes off her makeup. It’s not just that she’s seen without make-up, but she slowly and deliberately removes it. In the first place, this is a scene unlike any I can remember on television. Can you imagine Joan Collins doing that in Dynasty? Would the ice queen Alicia Florrick have done it on The Good Wife? The idea of a 49-year old actress in Hollywood having the ovaries to do it is a miracle in itself.
The layers to that scene go further. It was a pivotal moment for an older, African-American woman playing a powerful character in a series, and the enthusiastic reaction by people writing about it shows how well it works for her character. But, beyond that, the specific plot and specific moment is significant to the show. This is the moment before Annalise turns and confronts her cheating white husband, and when the plot starts to corkscrew very clearly beyond Defendant of the Week.
Not only was the scene a pivotal moment for a single actress on a television show – an Emmy-winning moment if you will – but it was also a neat metaphor for the entire series. There is a group of students and lawyers that form the ensemble cast. At the show’s beginning, these ambitious little twits play their first-year law student games of Gotcha like scenes out of Ally McBeal. But they all have secrets, and, steadily and inexorably, those secrets are revealed. Secrets about what they did – together and alone – and about who they are and where they come from come bubbling up out of the murk until the series has turned into August: Osage County.
I know as a viewer that there is more to come, more we don’t know about some of the characters. Spoilers from seasons 2-4 are rampant in headlines about the show, so be cautious if you google. I can just imagine, which is the beauty of a series like this one.
The Plot Ouroboros
Yet though the plot turns on character interaction, there’s also a complex overlay of time travel through continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. As a science fiction devotee, I loved it, even though it was hard to follow at times. This is where it worked better seeing the series as a whole than if the episodes had bled out (ha!ha!) one week at a time. The writing relies on these movements back and forth to a dizzying degree. Watching the show three per night made those shifts much easier to follow, which is important because, like the unmasking, they are also pivotal to the way the show works.
For example, in the first camera shot, Season One-Episode One, a cheerleader is thrown in the air like a marker to a certain kind of “present.” Something, we find out, has just happened before this cheerleader is tossed up, before this bonfire, before this football rally in a college town gets into full swing. Things happen right after that in sequence, but we don’t find all of them out in the first or second or even ninth episode. The actions of individual characters on that night are repeated but played out like markers on a fishing line, which goes deeper and deeper into the water until it finally snags the truth at the depths of the ocean.
The first nine episodes take that Present and go backwards nine weeks, then eight weeks, then seven weeks, until mid-series converges on that Happening. Then, the final six episodes move forward past the dead body in a mockery of a standard mystery story. You think you’re getting towards some kind of truth, like the detectives pursuing the evidence, but it won’t be satisfactory. It doesn’t matter. It’s not that kind of mystery. There will be maneuvering in court, then more confrontation, betrayal, and fallout among the thieves as the characters hop around increasingly hot coals. Just when you think the plot will start moving in a straight line towards the end, it turns again, and there is one of those moments where you jump off the couch, saying, “What?!?!?!?” And you press rewind and watch it again.
Ultimately, that’s the nature of this show, whose design is like the worm eating its tail. The characters act, then cover up the act, and the betrayal turns on itself so many times that viewers can’t necessarily keep up. But that’s what deception is all about. Once you start covering up, you lose track of who you lied to, and the betrayals spread like a virus across all the characters. What starts out as a writing device – telling a story through flashback and flashforward– becomes a theme for the show.
And I didn’t even mention Cicely Tyson!
Don’t you know a VIP when you see one? Your boss came out of my v and her daddy’s p.
—Cicely Tyson on HTGAWM
Deception and Fear are the Ties that Bind
The consensus I’ve heard is that in subsequent seasons the twists and turns get tiresome and that plot solutions become either more convoluted or pack less of a dramatic punch. That has to be the case. Even in Season One, I don’t know if the finale had as much a payoff as earlier reveals. But, by season’s end, I didn’t need any more Giant Reveal. In Shakespearean tragedy, the climax is in the middle, and the plot races on a downhill slope towards a resolution, not another Ta-Da! That works for me. There is a resolution at the end, but it doesn’t have the punch of Annalise removing her makeup in episode five, which was fine. I was getting surprise-weary. There were some at the end, and they were interesting and pushed me to think about Season Two.
One friend said Season Two isn’t as good but Season Three was better. Another that none of the seasons reached the quality of the first one. We can all judge. I can’t even imagine taking a plot like this and developing it into more seasons. We’re going to end up with a Faulkner novel.
At some point, all of this murder and betrayal will catch up with all of the characters, of that I am sure. If this is like a Shakespearean tragedy, everyone will end up dead. They just started Season Four, and Wikipedia starts the Episode One description with “Murder, deception, fear and guilt are the ties that bind…” Can’t wait!
Thank goodness my county library system has Season Two available. Pass the popcorn.