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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How To Get Away With Murder backs itself into a corner

Illustration for article titled How To Get Away With Murder backs itself into a corner

It’s getting increasingly difficult to separate the good from the bad when it comes to How To Get Away With Murder. When it comes to really small details, this show can be incredibly smart and subversive, allowing its characters to talk about race, sexuality, and gender in a way that makes the conversation personal. Most legal dramas only touch on issues of identity in broad strokes, making them more like plot devices than just reflections of the characters and their experiences. The Good Wife, for example, is stuck in a hiring discrimination storyline this season that carries very little weight. How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t treat racism like a storyline. It makes it a lived reality for its characters, allows racism to insidiously sneak into different corners of the show in a way that reflects real life. A flashback in tonight’s “It’s A Trap” shows an older white man telling Annalise he only hired her because he thought having a woman of color represent his son would be the best way to swing the jury. He cautions her against losing: “Don’t give your people a bad name.” The moment doesn’t really have a major impact on the actual plot (ahem, plots, so many plots) of the episode, but it’s a very honest depiction of the burden placed on people of color to be representatives of their entire race. In the client’s mind, if Annalise fails, it means all Black women who are lawyers fail. It’s fucked up, and How To Get Away With Murder never shies away from harsh truths when it comes to sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Too bad that’s just one small moment in one mess of an episode.

How To Get Away With Murder so often shows and says things that no other show on network television shows or says. But when it comes to the show’s actual storytelling, to the structure of its serialized plots, there are just too many holes and a consistent lack of focus. How To Get Away With Murder is great at showing messy, unjust parts of the judicial system and society in general. But it struggles with plotting, creating story messes that become too big to fix. Even though a lot happens in every episode, this season has been losing its steam. The reveals have come weaker, and the stakes barely exist.

“It’s A Trap” should be a much more exciting episode than it is. It starts with a threat from Philip—a serial killer, as characters remind us throughout the episode, perhaps because they want to make a very clear distinction between him and them, who are just your average everyday murderers, not serial killers. Philip instructs Annalise and co. to deposit $1 million in a bank account or he’ll send the video of them at the mansion on the night of the shooting to the police. There we have it: a classic setup for a race-against-the-clock episode. And yet, “It’s A Trap” never feels like a race. Philip’s threat doesn’t seem urgent at all. Philip in general doesn’t seem like a real threat. The way characters talk about him make it sound like he’s technically the season’s Big Bad, but is he? Philip is too distant, too much of a caricature of a villain. Even Annalise points out that he’s just a bitter boy who felt unloved by his parents, and he’s taking it out on them. When the blackmail countdown gets to zero, nothing happens for several seconds, leading to a hollow energy that most of the episode has. Then Philip reveals he’s stalking him, and that doesn’t even feel like much of a blow.

How To Get Away With Murder’s character development gets buried under plot too often. There are some strong character moments just beneath the surface of “It’s A Trap,” especially when it comes to Laurel. Ever since Laurel went home for Christmas last season, the writers have been dropping little hints about Laurel’s past—her father, in particular. We’ve heard from both Laurel and Frank that her dad is a bad dude, but we don’t really have the details. I’m less interested in the specifics of those details and more interested in their significance for Laurel’s arc. As she explains to Wes tonight, her upbringing is the reason why she hasn’t reacted as strongly as the others to all of the fucked up stuff they’ve gone through since becoming the Keating Five. It’s refreshing to see the episode ascribe meaning to a character’s actions, because that’s not always something we get with this show. Motive and emotion get lost in the need for more plot, more twists, more explosive moments that the show has built its what-the-fuck reputation on. But those twists hit much harder when there’s character work that supports them, when there are emotional stakes to the storytelling.

“It’s A Trap” reveals that How To Get Away With Murder has trapped itself. The fact that the Keating Five are so bound to Annalise is what keeps the story going. They tried to quit last week, but with the emergence of the video, they need “mommy” again. They’re stuck with her. But the thing that keeps the story moving is the same thing that makes it all feel so stagnant. Connor can talk about transferring to Stanford all he likes, but it’s hard to take the news seriously when we know he’ll inevitably remain stuck in the Murder Club. The only real way out on this show is to die. How To Get Away With Murder has pushed its story to such extremes that it’s trapped in a corner. At this point, the only thing that would really make sense for most of these characters would be to pack their bags or “let it burn,” as Bonnie puts it. But then there wouldn’t be a show. So they march on. Their arcs right now are circular, and that can be incredibly frustrating to watch.

This week’s jaw-dropping reveal? Wes killed his mom, apparently. Over…television? Just kidding…sort of. I don’t actually believe that’s what the episode was trying to say, but I wouldn’t even really put it past this show to try and make us believe 12-year-old Wes killed his mom because he didn’t want to go to sleep. “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Nate tells Annalise during their 75th reconciliation meeting (hey—at least she gets some this time!) tonight. Girl, same. How To Get Away With Murder has built such a trust-no-bitch atmosphere that even something as insane as Wes killing his own mother seems somewhat plausible. One of the points the show tries to hit over and over again is that just about anyone is capable of murder. Maybe that includes baby Wes! Next week promises to reveal the truth behind Rose’s death, but the fact that it’s hard to care about that is a pretty big sign that this season’s biggest mysteries haven’t been well executed. If only the writers could put as much careful attention to detail in the story beats of the show as they do into some of the smaller character moments. Then we’d have a much more thrilling thriller on our hands. Because right now, How To Get Away With Murder’s thrills just feel cheap.


Stray observations

  • Laurel’s phone background is a shirtless
  • I don’t really trust Nate, but I think this show has just conditioned me to believe no one can be trusted.
  • Eve has to show up at some point in these flashbacks, right? I mean, other than the “what did we do?” moment that we’ve seen multiple times.
  • “You’re the horniest person I know.”
  • The Caleb and Catherine stuff here is all pretty nonessential.