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How To Get Away With Murder struggles with its usual focus problems

Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
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“Do You Think I’m A Bad Man?” hits the ground running with a breakneck opening sequence. I always love when an episode of How To Get Away With Murder jumps right into its case of the week, because it usually means that it’s going to be the main narrative hook of the episode, and that often means a sharper focus than the episodes that get so bogged down in the larger mysteries at play. That’s admittedly not typical of a legal procedural. Usually the more serialized storytelling is more compelling. But How To Get Away With Murder so often becomes convoluted in its long-term storytelling that the more zoomed-in stories are actually often better written and allow for more layered character work.

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In the case of “Do You Think I’m A Bad Man?,” the case of the week—centered on a woman named Brandy whose husband was killed by police during a robbery—is the perfect vehicle for character development for Michaela but also touches on the kind of social issue that this show is smart and nuanced about. At the surface, it’s a story about the way the criminal justice system punishes poor people and keeps them in a cycle of poverty. There are intersectional issues at play, too, including the systemic racism of police brutality.

And then underneath, there’s more to the story, which touches on Michaela’s strengths and insecurities. In the wake of learning about her biological father’s death, she’s desperate for a win. She has long modeled herself off of Annalise, but without the proper experience, Annalise’s tactics become reckless. Michaela’s heart is technically in the right place in trying to get the restitution dropped from Brandy, but her motivation is also admittedly self-serving. She wants to prove herself, and she wants to stick it to Annalise.

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Paranoia is a persistent theme on this show, and because everyone is so busy betraying people on this show, everyone has trust issues. Bonnie, freshly fired from the DA’s office, goes to Tegan for a job, and of course Tegan immediately thinks Nate has sent her as a spy. It’s a fair assumption, and paranoia is poison on this show. It makes it impossible for the characters to know what’s real and for us as viewers to know what’s real, too. That can be a tricky place to create drama from though, because it’s hard to give stakes to anything when those stakes can just be upended by a reveal at any moment. For the most part though, this episode makes cogent and meaningful plot and character choices. Everyone is pretty transparently working in their own self interests in a way that’s believable.

The episode suffers from the same narrative sprawl that often plagues this show, its characters spread so thin that it’s hard for any one storyline to really reach its full potential. Connor continues to work on Hector’s immigration case with assistance from Tegan. At first, I welcomed the continuation of last week’s case of the week, because it meant that it was more than just a timely grab at immigration issues. I still think it’s important that How To Get Away With Murder continues to tell this story, but in this episode, it’s so focused on Connor and his own emotional experience with this case rather than the clients themselves and the issue at hand. Then the storyline also becomes a means for Bonnie to prove her loyalty to Tegan. Then Tegan’s surprise wife gets involved, too, and the plotting is just so muddled that the weight of its message gets lost.

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Meanwhile, Frank is still looking for Laurel, who supposedly emptied her own security deposit box and therefore is probably responsible for her own disappearance. I thought the missing Laurel of it all would carry more narrative power this season, but now it’s just a peripheral puzzle...despite being the major cliffhanger of last season. Because there are so many narrative threads, it’s impossible for How To Get Away With Murder to put all its conviction behind any one of its ongoing storylines, so instead, it spreads itself thin. The FBI’s case against Annalise and the others is technically the umbrella story under which the rest of this season is pressure-cooking, but it’s unfolding in such broad strokes and also mostly just in vague dialogue that the threat is more conceptual than anything right now.

The case of the week here really is the strongest part of the episode, especially toward the end when Annalise forces Michaela to remember Sam, drawing parallels between this death and that one. Vivian picking up on Michaela having experience accidentally killing a man, however, is a stretch. It makes sense from a plot perspective in the sense that it puts more pressure on Annalise to keep hiding something that—as Michaela points out—doesn’t even necessarily serve her to hide. But it’s also too convenient of a conclusion, and Vivian does function more like a plot device in this episode.

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The episode delivers some last minute reveals, including that Michaela’s father wasn’t the client in Annalise’s past case but rather the lawyer and that Tegan was right to suspect Bonnie, who is indeed working with Nate. The FBI also pulls Nate into their plan to bring down Annalise and her associates, and a flashforward reveals that the FBI also considers Connor a murder suspect, which sends him into shock. These reveals are all pretty disparate, though they’re connected by the central theme of...lies. Lies breed more lies on this show, and again, it’s tough to take anything at face value when these characters don’t know what to believe and also intentionally manipulate one another so often. That can make for a thrilling story, but it can make for an exhausting one, too.


Stray observations

  • “I’m a damn unicorn.” Yes, Tegan!!! I love when this show is explicit about its own placement of Black women and women of color in positions of power.
  • “Zero dollars is our ask.” Gotta give props to Michaela for straight-talking in court in a way usually Annalise is only capable of.
  • “I don’t need a second chair.” I’m not surprised
  • Gabriel and Vivian’s scene in the parking garage is excellent on its own, but it’s ultimately swallowed up by the rest of the episode. Gabriel’s character development has been interesting, because compared to the others, he really does seem more empathetic and concerned with “being good.” But this season has struggled to figure out how exactly to factor him in now that he’s no longer the big mystery.
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