Photo: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Unsurprisingly, the penultimate episode of How To Get Away With Murder’s fourth season has a lot going on. “The Day Before He Died” tries to attack all of the long-term storylines at once. Isaac is in the hospital recovering from overdosing. Simon’s in the hospital, too, but now he’s awake and gradually remembering things. He has hired Tegan as a lawyer, and she wants to bring Annalise and the whole crew down. Frank and Laurel visit mommy to confront her about meeting with Wes. Flashbacks show us Wes’s last day alive. Asher figures out that Michaela cheated on him with Marcus in D.C. Bonnie’s trying to recover the Antares hard drive.

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These plotlines all intersect to be sure, and they interplay in a way that builds momentum and tension throughout the episode. And yet there’s too much to get through for any of it to really pack a punch. It’s a table-setting episode, which in the case of How To Get Away With Murder ends up being more of a bomb-setting episode. The show is getting ready to blow everything up, and it even starts setting off a few story bombs here, blowing up Michaela and Asher’s relationship for one. That explosion isn’t nearly as powerful as it’s played. Even Annalise is like “we don’t have time for this.” For being such a big emotional moment for both characters, it falls flat and feels contrived. Too much of “The Day Before He Died” is just going through the motions instead of weaving a compelling thriller.

Even Simon waking up doesn’t hit as hard as it should. There’s some suspense to the way he starts to remember things, but it builds unevenly and very predictably. Simon doesn’t remember anything! And then suddenly remembers just enough to shift the blame to them! And then they find a way to silence him!

Perhaps the most surprising part of all of this is that that silencing doesn’t involve actual murder. “No more dead people,” Laurel says in this episode, which is honestly good advice for not just the characters but the show itself. We’re still preoccupied with Wes’s murder, and adding more dead bodies to the mix just compounds the show’s increasingly out-of-control pacing. “The Day Before He Died” confirms that both Laurel’s parents are ultimately responsible for Wes’ death. Her mom called her dad to tell him Wes was going to the police. He probably gave Dominic the orders, but she’s certainly complicit. Her motive isn’t entirely clear, although Laurel suggests it was all for money. So did we even learn anything new from this revelation? It doesn’t really feel like it. None of it is shocking. None of it has gravity.

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There’s a similar weightlessness to the Isaac of it all. Few things have been more confusing about this show than Isaac’s arc. His dynamic with Annalise is one of the most wildly inconsistent character relationships on the show. As good as Jimmy Smits is, he just seems like he was wedged into the show with little thought as to how Isaac would actually fit into the narrative as a character. His scene with Annalise isn’t terrible. Smits and Viola Davis are great together. And yet, it’s hollow. It’s forced. Even they’re just going through the motions, and it distracts from the rest of what’s happening in the episode. Even though “The Day Before He Died” doesn’t spin too far out of control, maintaining a tight structure and making sure each storyline gets touched on in equal measure, it’s almost too meticulously constructed. The emotional moments of the episode are overshadowed by the plot maneuvering. Nothing has enough room to breathe.

This season of How To Get Away With Murder has uncharacteristically struggled in the character department. Laurel’s parents, Isaac, and Denver have all been crucial players in the main narrative, and yet they all feel like afterthoughts, like clumsy plot devices shoved into a show with otherwise well developed character dynamics. Bonnie uncovers that Denver is playing both sides. He’s the one who stole the Antares hard drive, but he also works for/with Jorge. As if Denver weren’t already a hazy character, now he literally has no clear allegiances or goals? His goal, perhaps, is just power. But it still is just such a cop out to have him playing both sides. Denver is the ultimate cipher, even more so than Nate and Frank who similarly struggle to make sense in their actions a lot of the time.

Maybe the finale can bring it all together. How To Get Away With Murder has a tendency to stick the landing. But this episode shines a light on the season’s greatest weaknesses. And “The Day Before He Died” isn’t so much messy as it is lifeless. When the show enters this mechanical place, the thrills and twists get diluted.

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Stray observations

  • If Bonnie is dead, I am going to be very upset. Liza Weil is a very underrated actor, and Bonnie has gradually become one of my favorite characters on the show.
  • I would like to watch Tegan and Annalise fight more, please! And then maybe kiss?
  • I miss Eve.
  • Connor is a little too chill with the idea of killing Simon, and that seems very out of character?
  • Laurel threatening to kill her mom is perhaps the most compelling part of the episode.

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