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Aja Naomi King shines in a grim How To Get Away With Murder

Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
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In honor of this show, which has so often gone off the rails over the years, let’s let this review go a little off the rails too by starting with a question: Is Annalise Keating actually dead? Having a whole ass funeral in which she is named and also pictured seems like a pretty strong indicator that she is, and while this show dabbles in fantasy sequences, that isn’t really its primary schtick. But this show also likes to tease, likes to mess with viewers.

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Unfortunately, the truest answer is that it doesn’t matter whether Annalise is dead or not, because How To Get Away With Murder has a frustrating tendency to twist and tease until its flashforwards are a mess of gruesome, foreboding images. Suspense is the only point a lot of the time, so its always hard to parse out these jumps in time. Maybe Annalise is dead; maybe she isn’t. From a story perspective, I honestly hope that she is! It’s honestly a natural conclusion for the show, one that makes sense both on a plot level and also an emotional one.

ABC is getting a lot of mileage out of its #WhoKilledAnnalise hashtag, which is also why it’d be frustrating if this is a fakeout. So let’s assume for now that it isn’t, that How To Get Away With Murder is going out with a bang by killing off its own protagonist. “We can’t keep hurting people and not expect them to hurt us back,” Annalise says in this episode. It’s true. She also says in this episode that she has never killed anyone in her life, and that’s actually true. For all her knowledge on how to get away with murder, she has never murdered outright. Still, she has participated in so many cover-ups and inflicted plenty of harm on others.

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At the peak of her addiction, Annalise ignored the consequences of her actions. Now, she’s a little more measured in her actions, because she has a better grasp on consequences. She even goes so far as to tell Tegan that she trusts her and warns Bonnie against breaking rules. She seems almost resolved to her fate in this episode. “They’re coming for us Bonnie,” she says. After the hellish web she has spun of lies and manipulations, even if Annalise is on a path toward better choices, her downfall really does feel like an inevitability, and How To Get Away With Murder is marching toward it solemnly. And that means that the show already feels like more a bummer than usual. If it maintains that tone, it’s going to be hard to make this final season feel alive.

The darkness that’s coming that Annalise is talking about is, of course, the FBI, which is gradually building its case against her and the others in the shadows. In actuality, the threat is more likely coming from within the house. Everyone is genuinely a suspect in Annalise’s murder, because who hasn’t had a motive at some point over the course of the series? That’s the most thrilling suspense underneath the surface of the season right now, the feeling that anyone could snap.

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“Vivian’s Here” grapples with, as its title suggests, the arrival of Vivian—Gabriel’s mom and Sam’s ex-wife who Sam cheated on with Annalise. She spooks Annalise, and rightfully so. Vivian still carries a lot of anger toward Annalise, and unexpected visitors on this show are almost always a harbinger. The episode is a bit disjointed, taking on a lot at once, including Michaela going on a journey to meet her birth father and Frank visiting Laurel’s father in prison. But it also takes the time to connect a lot of these threads together, folding Vivian into the narrative in cogent ways. Everyone’s fates are tied on this show.

On the periphery of the episode, there’s a case of the week involving an 8-year-old boy named Hector who is caught up in an immigration case. How To Get Away With Murder is clear in where it stands here, comparing ICE to gang violence and shining light on the horrors of conditions for children detained by ICE. It functions well as a case of the week, and the only real downside is that there’s too much going on in the episode for it to get the attention it really deserves.

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Despite taking on a lot, this episode is anchored by a few consistent strengths, including that case of the week. Another is Aja Naomi King. It’s not a Michaela-centric episode necessarily, although her search for her father is an important part of the episode’s emotional core. But King is electric throughout. She kills it on multiple levels here, delivering a performance that is in turns hilarious and gutting. She goes toe-to-toe with Viola Davis with ease, and her comedic timing in some of the lighter moments, like when she has to face Vivian, is delightful. It’s a plot heavy episode, and since Annalise is more or less checked out of things emotionally at the moment, King owns some of the biggest character moments this week.

Even though we’ve only just met her, Vivian is already a compelling character. Her final monologue here about how her life has not improved in the time since Sam left does a lot of different things at once. Her wrath toward Annalise is rooted in something real, but they also have a lot in common, including the way they both were so utterly taken by Sam: “giving over everything to a man who sees us in a world who doesn’t,” as Annalise puts it. New characters aren’t always introduced to this show gracefully, but Vivian doesn’t seem like mere plot device, connecting with Annalise on an internal level that gives stakes to her role in the story. The way that her relationship with Gabriel is starting to take shape as a throughline for the season touches on some of the show’s recurring themes of family, betrayal, and what it means to hurt loved ones. “Vivian’s Here” suffers from a lack of focus, as many episodes of this show do, but it also gets to the guts of what drives the series.

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Stray observations

  • Do we think it’s still possible that Tegan killed Emmett? The season premiere hinted that it’s a possibility, but I just don’t really see that in Tegan. She’s also so desperate for Annalise’s friendship in a way that feels genuine.
  • Laurel’s father suggests that she’s the evil mastermind in everything. We do know now that she’s alive, but his rant sounded mostly just sexist.
  • Seriously though Aja Naomi King is giving an awards-worthy performance!
  • In the final flashforward, we see that Michaela is the prime suspect, which duh.
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