In “Anna Mae,” the season two finale of How To Get Away With Murder, Annalise returns home to Memphis, Tennessee to stay with her mother Ophelia (Cicely Tyson). She goes home to escape, well, everything. When there, she tells her mother about the baby she lost. Ophelia wakes Annalise in the middle of the night, hands her paper and a pencil and tells her to write to her baby boy so that they can lay him to rest. It’s a nearly silent scene. All we hear are Annalise’s gasping breaths as she cries and the scratches of her pencil scrawling out her love, her grief. A more hokey show would reveal what Annalise is writing through some lazy convention like a voiceover. Instead, How To Get Away With Murder keeps the moment private and, as a result, maintains its power. It’d be a tough scene to pull off if not for the acting powerhouse duo of Tyson and Viola Davis, who remind us at every turn in “Anna Mae” that they are the best of the best.

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Seriously, there are not enough words to express just how dynamic, heartbreaking, captivating, and natural Davis and Tyson are on screen. Almost every review I’ve ever written of this show in the past two seasons have included some note about Davis’ performance, but just because it’s so consistently great doesn’t mean I should stop highlighting it. I don’t care if I have become redundant: Viola Davis gives the best performance on television, week after week. In “Anna Mae,” she’s especially spectacular because of the subtlety in what she’s given. There is a lot of weight to the material, but it isn’t excessive, it isn’t melodramatic. How To Get Away With Murder almost always gets carried away, doing too much and then doing even more. But it’s telling that in that moment in her mother’s backyard, the show never once does too much. It does just enough—just enough to make us see Annalise’s pain, see her first steps toward healing. How To Get Away With Murder exercises restraint in the moments that matter.

“Anna Mae” trades blood and twists for raw emotions, for quiet family moments, for small character shifts that say a lot without feeling overly explanatory. Okay, so there’s still blood. In the final minutes of the episode, there’s a bathtub full of it, and blood splatters all over Wes when Mahoney is shot in the head by an unknown gunman just inches away from the perpetually wounded puppy. There are twists, too. Twists that reach all the way back to season one. We now know why Frank killed Lila, why he owed Sam, why he kept it a secret all this time. We know the truth about Caleb and Catherine Hapstall, about Philip. But these twists, especially the non-Hapstall ones, are grounded in the emotional backbone of the episode. They’re not even necessarily the focus. So much of the episode unfolds in Annalise’s childhood home in Memphis, between Annalise, her mother, her sister, and the life she left behind, a life that still informs who she is no matter how hard she tries to make herself believe it doesn’t. The scenes in Memphis unfold like a play, stripped of a lot of the stylization and heightened drama that marks so much of the show. I thought it would be difficult to top the intense sadness of the season’s penultimate episode, but the finale does just that and then some.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, showrunner Peter Nowalk acknowledged that he wanted the season to be more about motivation than action, understanding that viewers want “to know the characters as much as they want to get surprised.” That shift has been apparent in the second season, which has zoomed in a lot more on the psychological underpinnings of these characters. Annalise’s relationship with Bonnie; Laurel’s daddy issues; Annalise’s intense and dark maternal bond with Wes. A lot of these relationship dynamics and character traits are no longer big question marks. They have come bubbling to the surface. How To Get Away With Murder is often at its most exciting in its quieter, slower moments. Oliver deleting Connor’s Stanford acceptance email and lying to him isn’t necessarily some jaw-dropping moment. It’s not like the guy killed someone. But it’s still a huge character moment, an indication that Connor’s worst fears are coming true: Oliver is becoming more like Annalise, Bonnie, Frank, and the Keating Five because of his proximity to them. Their toxicity is contagious. No one is safe.

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“Anna Mae” is an episode full of these small but powerful moments. Other than all of the stuff in Memphis, the scene that stood out the most to me was the once between Annalise and Bonnie at episode’s end, when Bonnie tries to have Frank’s back. “Why do you do that?” Annalise asks Bonnie. “What?” she replies, earnestly. “Believe what men tell you.” It’s a sad and striking statement, especially since we know so much more about Bonnie and her past than we did last season. The scene is written with a lot of ambiguity, which I assume was purposeful. Annalise tells Bonnie that Frank needs to be taken care of, and even though it’s generally safe to assume that everyone on this show is always talking about murder, nothing about the scene is too clearly defined. But that’s what makes it great. The scene relies on Liza Weil and Davis’ acting, on their reading of the lines to convey the drama and tension instead of the script just spelling it all out for us.

In that same interview, Nowalk also notes that the writers room doesn’t always have all the pieces figured out too far in advance. There’s a make-it-up-as-we-go element to the way the show’s plotlines get mapped out. That’s not to say that a lot of thought doesn’t go into certain story choices, but sometimes the fact that the writers don’t have all the answers ahead of time does become a glaring flaw. There are certain episodes where I can tell the writers are more or less throwing things out there to see what sticks. Twist now, explanation later. It doesn’t always work. But “Anna Mae” manages to put a lot of coherent meaning behind these characters’ actions—their actions within the episode and past actions throughout the season. None of what happens in the finale feels random or out of character. It’s all focused through visceral emotions unearthed throughout the episode through solid writing and performances that elevate that writing. Charlie Weber gives his best performance to date, showing the vulnerable, stupid, guilt-ridden Frank of the past and making the character more than just some lackey. There’s so much more to How To Get Away With Murder than murder and shock value. Like Annalise briefly becoming Anna Mae again, the finale allows the show to get back to its roots.

Stray observations

  • How To Get Away With Murder has already been renewed for a third season, so see you next year, folks!
  • Michaela shut down Asher…hopefully for good! There is still plenty of room for a Michaela/Laurel love story next season. I’ll be waiting.
  • Other things on my season three HTGAWM wishlist: The return of Eve, Oliver slipping further into the darkside, did I already mention Michaela/Laurel?
  • The obvious theory for what happened in that final twist is that Frank shot Mahoney as a way to avenge the death of Annalise’s baby…which is why I kind of doubt that’s the direction the show will go in.
  • The Hapstall case gets solved in a way that’s a little too convenient, but you know what, I’m okay with it. It served its purpose, and it was a pretty small part of the episode, so it didn’t really distract from all the good shit that was going down.
  • Annalise’s mother and sister lusting for Nate was perfect.
  • Annalise may be sad as hell, but that doesn’t stop her from turning up at the family gathering.
  • Davis looks flawless throughout the episode, but that first sleeveless outfit she wears to the family reunion is particularly excellent.

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