Guilt and self-preservation are often at the surface of How To Get Away With Murder, and they often go hand in hand. “I Love Her” crucially delves into the background between Annalise and Bonnie, shedding light—and darkness—on their complex, often contradictory and boundaryless relationship. Bonnie, who is still lying to Jimmy Smits’ Isaac—going by Julie and referring to Annalise as “Mae”—at one point suggests that she fulfilled Annalise’s desire for a child. Later, she admits to loving her on a level that seems romantic and wildly co-dependent. Their relationship has always seemed slightly disturbing, so it’s no surprise that their origin story is disturbing.
We flashback to 2002, a simpler time when Annalise was happily married to Sam, undergoing hormone treatments in an attempt to get pregnant, and still drinking in excess. At the time, Annalise was working her way up the ladder of a prestigious law firm, determined to get her name on the door. So determined, in fact, that she was willing to go against everything she believed in to get what she wanted. Annalise was second chair on the defense team for a congressman accused of raping a 14-year-old. The victim accusing the congressman was Bonnie Winterbottom, a young woman who had by this point in her life been raped by many men, including her father, who was locked up. Annalise has to cross-examine Bonnie, and she victim-blames her, distorts her own reality, eviscerates her with ugly, selfish determination. She feels initially a little conflicted about it, expressing as much to Sam, saying that not everything about her life is because of her own trauma from sexual violence. But she still goes through with it, wants her name on the door badly enough to throw Bonnie under the bus. After, her guilt leads her to quit her job and offer Bonnie one. And so, their toxic relationship begins.
Theirs is a fascinating and frustrating relationship history. Annalise has done plenty of reprehensible things, but her condemnation of Bonnie is one of the worst things she has done in the show’s history. It almost feels like How To Get Away With Murder is just trying to push the envelope with its positioning of a rape victim as someone who is working against another rape victim. What exactly is the show trying to say here? Usually the show comments on how broken the system is, especially in its cases that deal with sexual violence. But by making Annalise the one perpetuating these dangerous, harmful ideas about sexual assault, it’s making her the villain, a part of the very system we usually see her fighting against.
What makes How To Get Away With Murder simultaneously so thrilling and so frustrating is that we almost never know why any character is doing something. Annalise’s motivations are particularly hard to parse out. Character motivation on this show is often blurry, unpredictable, inconsistent. Moral ambiguity sometimes gets pushed to the point of incoherence. Annalise’s turn from someone willing to throw Bonnie under the bus to then immediately regretting it after it has already been done is tricky. It shows that she can be both selfish and empathetic, that she’s not driven by just one thing but by many. But I just don’t totally buy her willingness to go through with it in the first place. It’s almost like the writers are being too emphatic in their characterization of her as morally gray.
There are several aspects of the courtroom proceedings that evoke reality, like the myriad ways the defense attempt to discredit Bonnie. Rape victims are often accused of making things up or being hysterical, especially when many years have passed since the assault occurred. The arguments Annalise leverages are way out of line, but they’re used in real-life cases all the time. But seeing Annalise be so morally reprehensible in these flashbacks recasts her supposed rehabilitation in the present in a new light: Is she really assembling the class action because it’s the right thing to do, or is there an underlying motive? Is she, like she was when she hired Bonnie, just acting on her guilt?
The episode is ultimately anchored by Liza Weil’s stunning performance. In the flashbacks, Bonnie is quiet, direct, unflinching. She’s a woman who has been beaten down by endless abuse, and she’s resolute, looking forward in a way that suggests she could never look back. She explains her history of abuse in court in an almost matter-of-fact tone that’s heartbreaking. In the present, Bonnie tells Isaac that she hates Annalise, that their relationship was emotionally abusive, that it was built on trauma not love. The flashback montage of critical Bonnie and Annalise moments from throughout the series toward the end of the episode reiterates what she’s saying; Annalise may have wanted to save Bonnie at first, but their relationship has always been toxic, co-dependent, and manipulative. Isaac forcing Bonnie to admit that she loves Annalise only reiterates how bad of a therapist he is, and it’s still unclear if he’s written as such. Throughout all of this, Weil is spectacular, her performance raw and wholly convincing.
Bonnie turning on Annalise is one of the most compelling narratives of the season so far, and the emphasis on it in “I Love Her” makes this episode a thrilling—if sometimes mind-numbingly perplexing—character study. Given everything that we learn from these flashbacks, it tracks that Annalise’s mass-firing would have the greatest impact on Bonnie. Bonnie and Annalise eventually confront in one of the episode’s best scenes, both hurling accusations at each other. Annalise tells Bonnie she ruined something good by undoing her class action efforts, and Bonnie says that everything she does is for herself. Again, it’s not quite clear if Bonnie’s right or not. Is Annalise doing this all for herself? She defends herself, even defends herself against the notion that she initially helped Bonnie out of guilt. By the end of the episode, Bonnie’s back to defending Annalise, worried that she derailed her efforts to actually change. But is that just her unwavering, unhealthy attachment to Annalise speaking? “I Love Her” leaves a lot of these questions unanswered, and that ambiguity is compelling rather than cheap, which can’t be said for a lot of the series’ uncertainty. Both Bonnie and Annalise’s perspectives in that final encounter seem valid. They’re reluctant enemies, and that makes it all the juicier.
The Keating Four have some stuff to do here, too, but their storylines are kept to a minimum, and it’s telling how welcome that is. Michaela gets a fresh pair of Louboutins from Tegan, so she seems a bit guilty about betraying her by hacking into one of the work computers with Oliver, but not guilty enough to abandon helping out Laurel in her revenge quest. Meanwhile, Asher becomes suspicious that Michaela is lying about working late, which isn’t as interesting as the fact that he might be the murder suspect in the flashforwards? I don’t know...these flashforwards are getting increasingly confusing and contradictory. The more details added, the more vague it all seems? It’s hard to care when every episode ends on a beat that seems solely intended to confound.
Laurel’s role this season is getting increasingly unclear, too. She’s still hooking up with Frank, and when he asks if he’s the father, she answers with such an aggressive no that it very much seems like the answer is actually yes. Flashbacks remind that she cheated on Wes with Frank, and she’s very clearly still feeling guilty about that, so she shuts down the idea that he could be the father completely. Guilt’s powerful and lasting, after all.
Connor has the best subplot of the Keating Four here, even though he barely gets any screen-time. He almost slips into his old habits, flirting with a guy on Humpr and agreeing to meet with him. Instead, he shows up at Annalise’s. He talks about all the bad things they’ve done, how they’re burned into his brain, how he still blames Annalise for everything that has happened. He feels guilty, and he also feels like he wants to die. And just like that, Annalise ropes him back into her world, asking him for help on her case. Connor’s the last of the crew that I expected to go back to her; he was the most content with getting fired by her at the last supper. But here at his weakest, he comes back to her, and she pulls him right back in, suggesting that Annalise really is the predatory person that Bonnie accuses her of being. She helps people, but it’s often to help herself. “I Love Her” shows her at her worst, casts doubts on the fact that she’s trying to change.
- Watching Isaac piece together the fact that Bonnie is talking about Annalise ends up being unintentionally hilarious, because it should have been obvious long before then? Sorry, but I hate Isaac. He’s the worst therapist on television.
- What game is Nate playing this season? He’s one of the most confusing characters when it comes to motivation.
- Liza Weil is so incredible. I just felt the need to reiterate that.
- Is it just me or are Tegan and Michaela…flirty?