According to Annalise Keating, we’ve all begun “How To Get Away With Murder: The Second Semester, when things get even harder than the first.”

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Marcia Gay Harden showed up in the final seconds of last week’s episode, and tonight we get to learn a little more about her character: Sam’s sister Hannah. Annalise is immediately thrown off by Hannah—who Annalise believes has always disliked her—coming to town, and she has the students spooked, too. For the most part, Hannah just seems to be looking for answers to Sam’s disappearance, and it’s unclear whether she poses an actual threat to Annalise. In any case, I hope the character is here to stay for a while, because Harden’s performance this week makes it clear just how badly How To Get Away With Murder needs her. Up until this point, no one has come even close to holding a candle to Viola Davis, and the huge gap between Davis and literally everyone else sometimes gives an awkward tone to the series. Marcia Gay Harden, however, matches Davis’s powerhouse acting abilities, and the scene between the two of them at episode’s end is one of the best moments, even if we don’t really learn anything we didn’t already know.

This week, Murder uses another rather odd narrative framing device by visiting most of the characters, in flashback, over their Christmas breaks. The episode opens with Annalise’s Christmas, which she spends doing the same things she subsequently does every day from December 26 through New Years: drinking a lot of vodka alone in a hotel room. I get the impression that we’re starting to see Annalise unravel at the ends, and the way it’s happening is a little more nuanced than, say, the over-the-top downfall of Michaela Pratt, who spends Christmas getting a little too champagne drunk and then getting dumped by her fiance. All of these characters underwent serious trauma on the night of Sam’s death, but the way that trauma is manifesting on the show can sometimes read as melodramatic and empty, instead of being grounded in the psychological underpinnings of these characters. Wes is also falling apart, as we learn from his Christmas flashback that he’s having nightmares. He himself thinks he could be going crazy, and that’s all very believable, but don’t yet believe that Alfred Enoch can deliver the kind of performance that’s required to make it convincing. He’s got the puppy look on lock, but anything beyond that has been way less satisfying.

Murder bites off a little more than it can chew with its Case Of The Week as well. Annalise’s new client Jackie has been complicit in her husband’s abuse of two young girls who he keeps locked in their basement. She’s finally turning herself and her husband in so that she can try to save one of the girl’s unborn baby. Initially, the plot sets itself up to say some smart, piercing things about cycles of abuse and the psychology of victims. But the show turns on Jackie, painting her as a deranged woman who stole one of the girl’s babies and raised her herself and refuses to tell Annalise where the child is hidden. If there is a way to pull off this storyline without it seeming ridiculous, the Murder writers don’t quite figure it out. The writers never even really give us a chance to figure out if we’re supposed to sympathize with the client or regard her as a monster. She’s the victim of abuse, but she also straight up stole a child, and the fact that she comes to a lawyer when she decides she wants to suggests she had the agency to do so all along. It’s all just a little tough to swallow. “People don’t make sense,” Annalise says to Hannah at one point in the episode. She’s talking about Sam, but it also just seems to be the show’s general philosophy on humans, which can be really frustrating as a viewer. There’s morally gray and then there’s just straight-up morally all the fuck over the place.

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I do believe in this show’s ability to be both soapy and smart, which are by no means mutually exclusive descriptions. I’ve seen it done on The Good Wife and on its Shondaland associate Scandal. Murder just hasn’t really found the right balance yet, and the show seems to spend too much time on things that don’t really matter—or, at least, things that are hard to care about. The Christmas flashbacks attempt to give some long overdue context to the characters but do so in a very clunky way and ultimately don’t accomplish enough to seem necessary.

Stray observations:

  • The nature of Bonnie’s relationship with Sam—and with Annalise, for that matter—becomes increasingly more confusing, with Hannah this week saying to her: “I know how special you were to Sam.”
  • Asher claims he doesn’t want to work on the case from a moral perspective, but then turns right around and threatens Bonnie with a sexual harassment lawsuit because his feelings were hurt.
  • As much as I’d like to see Hannah and Annalise to go toe-to-toe, I think it could be more interesting to see the two characters come together and work alongside each other. I’m not really sure how that could happen, but it would subvert expectations a bit. And this show could stand to be a little more surprising.
  • Rebecca waking up Wes from his nightmares reminds me a lot of Katniss and Peeta, but like if Katniss and Peeta had zero chemistry.
  • For a second there, Connor was reaching Cary Agos levels of delusion about Oliver being his boyfriend. Boys, don’t we think Oliver and Kalinda should have a say in all of this?
  • The show is clearly planning on doing something with this whole Rudy thing…my money’s on Rebecca being a psycho killer and having killed him.
  • Of course Asher calls Annalise “AK” when she’s not around.
  • Laurel’s Christmas flashback is one of my favorites, if only because I hardcore relate to her family nagging her about dating. “I am by the way. Two guys at the same time.” Also the shade in that “feliz navidad” was palpable. I think this was one of the first times I really bought everything Laurel was saying and doing.
  • Sam’s body was found because of course it was. You should have burned it, you tiny idiots!

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