Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Set one month after the murder of Nate Lahey Sr., “I Got Played” threads the needle for the first half of How To Get Away With Murder’s fifth season, crucially bringing several storylines to a head ahead of next week’s midseason finale. And while, as usual, there’s a lot happening, this particular jam-packed episode never loses control. It’s full of compelling character moments and genuinely shocks in ways that don’t feel manipulative. This is How To Get Away With Murder at its finest—twisty, soapy, dark, and a little unhinged.

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The first scene fills in the blanks regarding Nate Sr.’s shocking death at the very end of last week’s episode. A medical examiner rattles off a bunch of words that sound very familiar: Nate Sr. became agitated and violent, and as as result, an officer shot and killed him. Even before she gets to the parts about the cameras at the prison malfunctioning and the supposed evidence that Nate Sr. was off his meds, the narrative she presents sounds like bullshit. The officers are blatantly covering up what they did. Other characters watch the story unfold on the news, simmering with the kind of rage and disgust that never really ceases these days for any of us paying even a little bit of attention to what’s happening in the world.

That feeling—of existential dread at how bad things seem all the time always—pulses through this episode of How To Get Away With Murder. Oliver convinces the gang that they need a night out, not to ignore reality but just to step away from it for even just a moment. And even their little escape takes a dark turn that makes it clear that they can’t ever escape the bad of the world completely. Oliver and Connor kiss outside the bar, and it’s a great kiss, passionate and slow and even tinged with a little bit of the nervousness that comes with kissing someone for the first time, even though they’re two people about to be married. It’s easy to get swept up in the moment with the characters, making the blow of what comes next all the more visceral. A man passing them calls them a slur, and Connor fights back, resulting in an all-out street brawl that Oliver has to stop.

It’s rare that How To Get Away With Murder has time for a big scene like this that doesn’t technically have anything to do with the ongoing storylines and mysteries it’s unraveling. This is more about conveying a specific mood, making the uneasiness that all these characters are feeling extra palpable. Connor and Oliver’s love for each other is a beacon in the ocean of bad things. And to see that love attacked is devastating. Yeah, How To Get Away With Murder is bleak. But it’s bleak in a way that feels extremely in tune with the world and what it feels like to live in a constant barrage of increasingly bad news.

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How To Get Away With Murder might make practicing law and covering up murders and blackmail and political conspiracy all seem a lot splashier and more fun than they really are, but the show has always been starkly realistic and grim in its portrayal of just how fucked up the racist, patriarchal, punitive, violent, discriminatory U.S. criminal justice system is. Here’s Annalise Keating, by all counts an attorney of superhero proportions. She wins impossible cases. She gets away with behavior in court that no one could get away with. She won a massive Supreme Court case for criminal justice reform last season, and she had another huge victory with Nate Sr. And yet...he still died. An officer killed him, and she got away with it because the system is on her side. Even Annalise’s impassioned speech to the jury doesn’t sway them. The racism, the narrative that the medical examiner peddles are too embedded in the very DNA of the courtroom where the jury sits. Annalise wins battles, but the war wages on.

And predictably, her latest ally turns on her. The governor pulls the plug on the criminal justice reform project that she used to lure Annalise into working with her. It all did seem too good to be true, and it never really made sense that a Republican governor was willing to work with Annalise on her goals. But Annalise sees this as a bigger conspiracy, even becomes convinced that the governor had Nate Sr. killed as a way to punish her and keep her out of the fight. While Annalise is right to distrust the governor and question her motives and while an ultra-evil politician ordering hits on prisoners isn’t exactly outside of the purview of this show, it’s more interesting that this is not what’s happening this time. Instead, Annalise’s frenetic paranoia points at something deeper and darker, at something I probably should have seen coming and yet didn’t.

The biggest shock of the episode, after all, is that Annalise is drinking again. It shouldn’t necessarily be shocking. We’ve seen how much stress she’s under. She has gotten sober only to relapse before. Addiction is a constant struggle. We were never given any explicit reason to doubt Annalise’s sobriety before this, and that speaks to how well How To Get Away With Murder handles addiction. We didn’t see any signs, because other characters didn’t see any signs, because Annalise didn’t want them to. Even as Bonnie’s tearing through Annalise’s apartment looking for bottles, Annalise continues to insist she hasn’t been drinking, tries to turn it on Bonnie by threatening to throw her out, gaslighting her.

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But Bonnie finds them, the pile of half-empty vodka bottles stashed at the bottom of the trash, the intentionality of their concealment betraying Annalise’s words. When she tells Frank Annalise is drinking again, his face falls, that contradictory mixture of surprise and a sense of inevitability hitting him at once. And when Bonnie enables Annalise by pouring her a drink, the unnerving feeling evoked by watching Annalise throw back a glass of vodka reiterates just how well and convincingly the writers have written her addiction.

Especially now that he knows she’s drinking again, Frank continues to withhold the truth about Gabriel from Annalise, telling Laurel that Gabriel is Annalise’s “worst nightmare.” We still don’t know what that truth is, because Frank’s conversation with Laurel a couple episodes back happened off screen, heightening some of the suspense surrounding Gabriel’s identity. Laurel is clearly disturbed by Gabriel’s sudden attempts to get with Michaela, and it’s the first time Gabriel has seemed shady. It seems like the second Laurel cut him off from getting close to her, he just moved on to someone else in the group. And now he’s gunning rather aggressively for an invite to Connor and Oliver’s wedding.

The episode drops a few more hints at who he could be, this time teasing an adoption in Annalise’s past, something that the governor dug up in a background check. The obvious implication is that Gabriel could be a kid Annalise put up for adoption, but it wouldn’t be quite like this show to go the obvious route in one of its central mysteries. But right now, the Gabriel Maddox mystery still doesn’t carry a lot of weight. Sure, Frank says he’s Annalise’s worst nightmare, but when we’re kept so in the dark for so long, those just sound like empty words. The rest of the episode is so strong, so focused-in on these characters and what they’re feeling and on the underlying sense of doom and despair that they collectively share. Gabriel, meanwhile, is more concept than character. His storyline hinges on us knowing nothing about him, but that creates a hard-to-reconcile paradox: Because we know nothing about him, why should we care?

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Stray observations

  • I love how much the show has leaned into Michaela’s very obvious crush on Tegan.
  • Tegan is a wonderful character, and it doesn’t always seem like the show knows how to use her.
  • “You’re BASIC.”
  • “‘They grabbed my gun’ is what cops say when they’re covering their ass.”
  • I may have actually liked Miller in this episode?

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