Photo: ABC

When I first heard about the How To Get Away With Murder/Scandal crossover event, I thought it was certainly a joke. It seemed like something Twitter had somehow breathed into existence, like the premise of fanfiction. But despite there was no real evidence all this time to suggest that Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating indeed exist in the same universe, the crossover was reality. Tonight, both parts of the How To Get Away With Scandal TGIT event aired. And to make room for Olivia Pope and the Supreme Court of the United States, How To Get Away With Murder thankfully placed some of its deadweight storylines on the backburner. As a result, it’s a lot more compelling than most of this back half of the season has been.

Both episodes are clearly written so that you don’t have to watch both shows for either episode to work. Scandal covers the fight to get the class action case before the Supreme Court, and How To Get Away With Murder picks up the story from there, covering the Supreme Court case itself. Each manages to maintain the show’s identity. Scandal looks and feels like an episode of Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder looks and feels like an episode of How To Get Away With Murder. Obviously for the purposes of this review, I’ll only really be writing about the latter. But even if you aren’t totally caught up on the former, it’s worth watching for the full crossover experience.

So the only thing that really makes “Lahey v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” different than any other episode of How To Get Away With Murder is that it mostly unfolds in Washington, D.C. and that Kerry Washington is here. Unsurprisingly, watching Washington and Davis act in scenes together feels nothing short of transcendent. It speaks to their acting how clearly defined the dynamic is between the two right away. How To Get Away With Murder works in enough lines for those who might not be super familiar with fixer extraordinaire Olivia Pope, like when she herself declares “I’m Olivia Pope; I don’t bluff.” But really it’s Washington’s performance that brings Olivia Pope to life instantly in the world of How To Get Away With Murder. And the dynamic between the two powerhouses is instantly convincing and electric. Annalise and Olivia are very successful, driven, and independent women.

But they’re different, too. And Davis and Washington make those distinctions clear. Both characters prove there isn’t just one way to be a complicated, powerful woman. The crossover doesn’t assume that Olivia and Annalise should automatically be rivals or friends; they’re somewhere in between, their dynamic as complex and nuanced as they are as individuals. It makes for riveting television, both characters pushing and pulling each other and building a specific partnership that’s instantly believable.

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The two strongest thematic throughlines on How To Get Away With Murder have consistently been how it looks at trauma and also how it portrays the U.S. criminal justice system as profoundly flawed. Both play a huge role in this episode. Fortunately, Isaac’s storyline gets sidelined a bit. It’s no coincidence that the scene involving Jacqueline—who informs Annalise that Isaac overdosed but is alive—is the worst of the episode. That storyline just isn’t working, and Jacqueline makes very little sense as a character. But that phone call does trigger Annalise’s trauma, making her spiral just as she’s about to head into the Supreme Court to argue the case she has been working so hard on. She even contemplates having a drink, going so far as to ask Olivia for vodka, which Olivia provides because she misguidedly thinks it’s the only way to handle the situation. Annalise doesn’t end up having that drink, but it’s an agonizing scene that proves how difficult it can be to work through your trauma when your addiction has become your coping mechanism.

What better setting than the Supreme Court of the United States for How To Get Away With Murder to stage its most comprehensive and pointed attack on the justice system to date? Throughout the episode, the space is treated with reverence and a touch of theatrics. Because there’s certainly an element of performance to the Supreme Court. Annalise’s excitement is palpable.

But that reverence for the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court is also tempered with appropriate skepticism. It’s a place where racist laws have been dismantled but also where they have been upheld. “Racism is built into the DNA of America,” Annalise says. It’s incredible to hear that and other indictments like “the promise of civil rights has never been fulfilled” and “Jim Crow is alive and kicking” come out of her mouth. As Oliver puts it when trying to convince Connor to come to D.C., it’s very exciting to watch Annalise yell at a bunch of old white dudes. But it’s also just genuinely striking to hear these words spoken on a network television show. As silly as How To Get Away With Murder can often get, is any other show on networking TV as critical of American institutions? Annalise directly compares prisons to slavery. This show is much smarter and more incisive than it’s often given credit for.

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And if watching Washington and Davis on screen together is transcendent, the fact that Cicely Tyson is also thrown into the mix, reprising her role as Annalise’s mother Ophelia, makes this episode three-way tour de force. Again, Washington and Tyson are able to craft a convincing dynamic between two characters who haven’t ever even met. Their scene in the bathroom together would play out as forced and disingenuous if not for their performances elevating the script.

The attempts to keep some of the other storylines going on the periphery do feel a bit like distractions. It’s hard to believe we’re still solving the mystery of Wes’s murder, which feels like it happened about a trillion years ago. Laurel’s mother’s involvement still feels too random to really have any impact. Simon waking up is sure to catalyze a whole new spiral of lies and manipulations, but that twist feels like a weak add-on at episode’s end, a very forced cliffhanger that has nothing to do with anything else in the episode.

Olivia Pope doesn’t quite fix How To Get Away With Murder completely, but the crossover’s premise provides a clear structure that gives the show a strong focus and a chance to up the urgency of one of the season’s central storylines. The class action lawsuit unfolded a little haphazardly when it was just introduced, but it finishes strong, hitting on the show’s overall ethos and politics. Perhaps most surprisingly, the episode never once feels like a gimmick or a tacky ploy for ratings that leans too confidently on the fact that people will watch just for the sake of the crossover. Olivia Pope is woven organically into Annalise Keating’s world. The episode has some fun with it, but it’s also not here just to play. It gets serious about institutionalized racism in a way that feels specific and personal while still tackling a lot at once. All in all, the crossover is a success.

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Stray observations

  • Annalise wears a yellow coat in the Scandal episode and a yellow dress in the HTGAWM episode, and I just want to say that Viola Davis looks absolutely stunning in yellow.
  • I’m glad that Fitz, one of my least favorite characters on television, does not show up here but also still proves he’s a clueless ass by sending Annalise, a known alcoholic, a bottle of champagne.
  • It really was so weird hearing someone say “President Fitzgerald Grant” on this show. I’m just so happy that there are now officially two television shows in which Mellie Grant is president.
  • Olivia: “It’s kill or be killed. You do know that.” Annalise: “I know it and I look forward to it.”
  • There’s a really brilliant scene in the Scandal episode that takes place at a hair salon and engages with the concept of colorism and Olivia’s relative privilege compared to Annalise.
  • Michaela hooking up with Marcus is hot but a little random? I’m kind of hoping it’s just a way to break up Michaela and Asher.

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