How To Get Away With Murder has two speeds: full-on wild, twisty murder party and slow, intense character drama about trauma. Blending those has always been the show’s greatest challenge, and most attempts to combine both speeds in the confines of one episode lead to narrative whiplash. The episodes that tend to go all in on one of the other tend to be the most enjoyable—or at least the most memorable. How To Get Away With Murder’s fourth season begins mere months after Wes’ death, the tragedy that has upended all of the characters’ lives, reducing the Keating Five to the Keating Four and sending Annalise Keating on a redemption tour. It’s a strange but ultimately satisfying premiere, standing out from the show’s past premieres by going the slow character drama route rather than murder party. In fact, there’s no murder at all and barely any courtroom drama or major event (until the requisite flashforward at the end).
As a quick refresher, after spinning the mystery of Wes’ death last season, How To Get Away With Murder landed on the lukewarm reveal that Laurel’s evil dad hired a goon—who Laurel knows as her family friend Dominic—to kill Wes. Why? Unclear. All we know is that Laurel’s father is a bad dad and all around bad guy, something that the series has alluded to over time but that hasn’t really been too significant until now. Denver, the DA, was also somehow involved in Wes’ death, but his motivations remain a little hazy, too. We know the players involved in Wes’ death, but we don’t really know the why. That puts How To Get Away With Murder in a tricky place. There is, of course, the mystery introduced in the final scene, which I’ll get to, but for the most part, the action and suspense of this new season hinges on what has already happened. Keeping the mystery of the circumstances surrounding Wes’ death alive is a tall order, threatening to bog the show down in tedious conspiracy spinning.
At least the premiere wastes no time revealing Laurel knows that her father was behind Wes’ death. In the scene with her dad at the beginning, there’s palpable, cringe-worthy suspense, especially since we’re made to believe that Laurel remains in the dark. Her father’s eagerness to support Laurel and make sure she’s alright after she tells him she had an abortion is unsettling given what we know about him. Thanks to strong music cues and a subtle but affecting performance from Karla Souza, the shot of them posing for a father-daughter picture unnerves. Later, it’s revealed that not only did Laurel lie to her father about getting an abortion, but she knows more than she’s letting on. When her dad texts her the picture, she writes “Why did you kill Wes?” only to then delete the message and send back an innocuous, fake “love you, too!” While Annalise is on her path toward redemption, Laurel appears to be on a path toward revenge, though whatever plan she might have is unspooling with great restraint.
The premiere does, uncharacteristically for season premieres with this show, exercise a lot of restraint. It wouldn’t be How To Get Away With Murder without some time jumping, and the premiere starts with Annalise rounding up her soldiers for an ominous dinner before flashing back to the recent past to show how we got here. Connor still hasn’t said yes to Oliver’s marriage proposal, later explaining that he wants their engagement to come from a place of normalcy rather than fear. Frank’s trying to get back into Annalise’s good graces by showing Bonnie a potential new office space they can all rent together. Asher and Michaela are mattress shopping, still attempting to be a power couple. When they get Annalise’s invitation to dinner, Michaela shoots down Asher’s naive suggestion that she misses them, saying rather matter-of-factly that Annalise is dead inside. “Why does she have to ruin everything?” she muses.
The contrast between the monster Michaela describes and the Annalise that we see in the bulk of these flashbacks to one week prior is powerful. Here, we see Annalise traveling to Memphis to see her sister and mother. In place of big, loud twists, the premiere plays with expectations in smaller, more character-driven ways. At the start of the flashbacks, there’s a close-up of someone pouring alcohol into a glass, and it’s natural to assume it’s Annalise falling off the wagon yet again. But when we pull back, we see it’s actually someone next to her on the plane. Annalise eyes the drink, and he seizes the opportunity to flirt. Desmond, playing by Viola Davis’ real-life husband Julius Tennon, has easy chemistry with Annalise. And later in the episode, when it seems like she might slip up and drink, she indulges in her other coping mechanism—sex—with him.
Annalise really does seem in control of her drinking, even as she has to deal with the tragedy of her mother’s rapid decline. Annalise came to Memphis to tell her mother that she wants to put her in a home for people with dementia, offering to pay with the money she’s getting from the insurance company after the fire (that money, however, might not be coming after all, since Sam’s sister Hannah is suing for the house). No matter how off-the-rails How To Get Away With Murder ever gets, episodes that bring in Cicely Tyson act as almost a recentering for the show. We don’t deserve Tyson and Davis on screen together, giving awards-worthy performances at every turn. The scene of Annalise and her mother singing together enthralls completely. The Memphis scenes grapple with the sadness, frustration, denial, and exhaustion that come with having to care for and make decisions for an elderly parent. We see the parts of Annalise that Michaela doesn’t believe exist. But who can blame the Keating Four for hating her? After all they’ve been through as her interns—and yes, I die every time I’m reminded that “interns” was their official job title—they can only see her as one thing. But Annalise’s contradictions and complexities have always been at the forefront of the show.
When it finally comes time for the big dinner—the last supper, as Michaela calls it—the strange, sometimes disturbing, nature of the character dynamics on this show come to the surface. Annalise reveals that she has brought them all here to fire them, offering letters of recommendation that highlight all their most defining qualities. Michaela puts it in explicit terms: They’re all in a relationship, and she doesn’t just get to decide when it’s over. Given the way she was talking about Annalise earlier in the episode, you’d think she’d be thrilled to be free of Annalise’s grip (Connor certainly is!). But it isn’t that simple. She’s bound to Annalise just like the others. Their shared trauma holds them together. The idea of a toxic relationship between not just a couple but between seven coworkers is fascinating. Bonnie, Frank, Annalise, Laurel, Connor, Michaela, and Asher aren’t really coworkers at all. And they aren’t just family either. They’re some weird, fucked-up mix of co-dependent family and lovers all at once, and now Annalise is dumping them. How To Get Away With Murder’s hard-to-define character dynamics sometimes get too messy, but they’re also one of the most consistently captivating parts of the show. The fact that these people keep finding their ways back to each other despite their attempts to break free is compelling, underscoring the lasting effects of trauma.
The last supper comparison suggests they are her disciples and also hints at the potential for betrayal. Indeed, when Bonnie wrongfully assumes she’s exempt from Annalise’s mass firing, we get a glimpse at a potential Judas. Annalise’s words about how unwaveringly loyal Bonnie is in her letter of recommendation play in voiceover as Bonnie breaks away from the loyalty by showing up at DA Denver’s office for a meeting with the man who has made it his life’s mission (for some reason) to destroy Annalise.
Even the final reveal is disparate from previous midseason mysteries for the show. Instead of a murder, we flash forward to a possible kidnapping. Three months into the future, Laurel wakes up in a hospital to Frank smiling at her creepily and her baby gone. Instead of a whodunnit (or “who’s dead?”), the question for now is just where? It’s not the most suspenseful note to end on, but Laurel’s panic is certainly gut-wrenching.
- Welcome back to my favorite show about the fact that pretty much anyone can be a murderer!
- Bonnie’s new bangs are bad, and I hate them.
- Laurel’s due in five months, but the flashforward takes place three months in the future, so did Laurel lose the baby or did she have it early and then someone (Annalise?) took it?
- Michaela bellowing “beast mode” over and over means Michaela is definitely going off the deep end this season right?
- Since I am a firm believer that Michaela and Laurel are endgame (or at least that they should be), I love that Michaela’s first reaction to finding out that Laurel is keeping the baby is to make sure that she gets to help pick a name.