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At the beginning of the end, How To Get Away With Murder plays to its strengths

Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
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How To Get Away With Murder has always excelled with beginnings and not so much endings. It relishes in setting up intricate mysteries, unspooling in reverse with its endless, flashy flashforwards. But the show so often pours all its emotional and plot-building energy into setting shit up that by the time it’s time to bring it all together, it’s like trying to reconnect a spider web that has been slashed with a blade. Sometimes the show salvages its own spiraling stories by way of huge character moments that lean entirely on the weight of its actors—Viola Davis in particular, but also Liza Weil, Karla Souza, and other members of the ensemble cast who have risen to the occasion of acting in proximity to a great like Davis.

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How To Get Away With Murder has always excelled with beginnings, and here we are at the beginning of the end for the series. In typical fashion for the show, this premiere bounces between timelines and teases out new secrets and sins that have been born of the secrets and sins of the past. It’s a thrilling beginning, but will How To Get Away With Murder fall into its same old pattern of peaking too soon and then crumbling under the weight of its intentionally convoluted approach to mystery-building?

As usual, I hope not! I’ve rooted for the show to stick the landing over and over and over again since the early days of its free-spinning cheerleader. Because when How To Get Away With Murder is good, it’s great. And sometimes that even applies to its more chaotic episodes. The over-the-top twists and turns work best when they’re grounded in cogent character stakes. How To Get Away With Murder’s plot inconsistencies are sometimes more forgiveable than its character ones. It’s easier to swallow story holes when the characters are at least acting in a way that makes sense for them and their pasts. Trauma and violence play such a strong role in this show, and those are forces that have lasting, often multiplying effects on people. This premiere shows those lasting effects right off the bat, literally starting with a fantasy sequence of Annalise visualizing her funeral. It’s excessive, but it’s believable, too. Because this is exactly how Annalise envisions her demise. Extreme and dire. Lonely. An explosive culmination of her bad deeds.

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From there, the show picks up the threads of the last season’s ending. There’s the disappearance of Laurel and Christopher to grapple with along with the most pressing loose ends for Tegan, Connor, Bonnie, Nate, and Gabriel. But mostly How To Get Away With Murder spends time with this rehab group Annalise has joined, using it as a framework to explore Annalise’s current psyche as well as the show’s central themes regarding trauma, addiction, and violence. These scenes are effective, especially since they provide a little respite from the more complicated plot-building that’s going on. Admittedly a lot of the conversations in the episode feel tedious in how hard they’re trying to catch us up on the events of last season and fill in some of the blanks.

Scenes like just watching Annalise down liquor and drunkenly dance and do drugs do more to set the tone of the premiere than some of these more plot-driven conversations. They’re stylized in a way that works well on this show, and they carry emotional weight, too, because of how tied they are to Annalise’s arc as a person at constant risk of slipping off the edge. Certain relationship dynamics have time to percolate in the episode, too, like that between Frank and Bonnie, which has been one of the more complicated relationships over the course of the show. Complicated relationships are the name of the game on this show, and even the scenes that drag out in the premiere usually do something interesting on a relationship level.

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How To Get Away With Murder is also often important television, delving into stories about prison reform and white supremacy and sexual violence with nuance and specifically centering people of color in those conversations. Even the way it deals with mental health in the scenes of Annalise at the program is important. Annalise’s big emotional moment at the end touches on all her issues, which in addition to playing into her upbringing are rooted in sexism and racism. Her insecurities are unearthed powerfully and in a way that feels specific and meaningful. And then the other characters airing out their own grievances against theirselves makes for a compelling and disturbing ending.

It’s a surprisingly measured premiere when all’s said and done, even though it has some very dramatic moments. It would make sense for How To Get Away With Murder to go fully off the rails one last time in its final season, especially as it attempts to weave together every story that’s still open. But maybe this will finally be the season that the show doesn’t lose itself in its own madness. Then again, it literally ends by teasing that our tragic protagonist is going to die.

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Stray observations

  • “Open your computer hacking program.” I don’t think that’s how it works, Frank.
  • Asher getting aggressive with Gabriel is very annoying but also very Asher.
  • Bonnie is still always coming to Annalise’s rescue.
  • Oliver and Connor are still such an important couple on television.
  • It goes without saying at this point, but Viola Davis is so goddamn good.
  • The final few minutes of the episode are honestly incredible.
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