Image: How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

How To Get Away With Murder returned for its fifth season opening, as is tradition, with a violent crime. In its season premiere, the Shondaland crime drama leans on its most fundamental strengths, namely the dynamic presence of its star, Viola Davis compelling at every turn even without much of the intense emotional work this show often dives into. It’s a straightforward premiere that lays the groundwork for the season, and it exercises a bit of restraint in doing so, teasing just enough to be suspenseful without trying to bite off more than it can chew (yet). There’s a clear narrative hook and nothing’s too out of control.

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The opening sequence relies on the show’s flashforward narrative device, taking place in the near future at Connor and Oliver’s wedding reception. But the show shakes things up a bit with a new device by placing the viewer literally in the perspective of the murder victim. We see their blood falling onto the snow as if it’s our own, the camera’s perspective mimicking slow blinking as we collapse on the ground.

When we flash-forward three months, this framing device lingers for a moment before pulling back to reveal we’re seeing campus from the perspective of “the kid,” the mysterious newbie who showed up at the end of last season’s finale whose arrival seemed to spook Frank. This is Gabriel Maddox (Rome Flynn), the charming transfer student who wants to abolish the U.S. prison system and whose connection to the other characters remains a mystery, one of the central mysteries of this season according to Peter Nowalk. Given the transition, it seems implied that he’s the victim in the flashforward, but HTGAWM is of course holding its hand close to its chest when it comes to confirming that. And maybe the transition is one of the show’s frequent red herrings. After all, the framing device is used once more in the episode to place us in the point of view of Laurel’s baby Christopher as he’s getting baptized, so it isn’t necessarily being applied consistently to just one character.

Some of the ghosts of previous seasons live on. Laurel’s occasionally haunted by the mysterious scars on her arms that hint at some dark, ugly truth yet to be fully revealed that leaves the door open on some of the drama with her parents. Bonnie’s busy playing the interim DA in hopes of figuring out if Denver showed anyone else the revealing files on everyone before his death. Nate’s still investigating Bonnie and orders a new DNA test, which also brings around his new love interest (because of course this premiere involves HTGAWM second favorite activity behind murder: sex). The impact of Michaela’s decision to have Simon deported in order to protect herself and her friends reverberates, the others—Oliver in particular—holding it firmly against her. Tegan’s back and looking very nervous about Annalise joining her firm.

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But at the same time, the premiere manages to do more forward moving than just recapping or living in the past. The arrival of Maddox creates a small but discernible rift. Relationship dynamics continue to evolve: Bonnie turns down Annalise’s job offer in one of the premiere’s quieter, more nuanced scenes. And Laurel has to stop herself from continuing to use Frank for sex and childcare. Asher struggles to get over Michaela, while she shoots her shot with Marcus and gets rejected. At least Connor and Oliver are still getting married.

Some sequences admittedly drag on too long, as with Annalise’s job hunt that bounces between firms as she tries to strike a perfect deal. HTGAWM does these flashy, bouncy montages a lot, and while they’re stylistically cool, they don’t always add much substance, and this premiere has one too many montage that makes it feel a little less grounded and urgent. It admittedly isn’t the most exciting episode of the series, but by not going off the rails just yet, HTGAWM creates a bit of suspense and intrigue. Because it will surely go off the rails; it always does. It’s part of the show’s devilish charm and, sometimes, its undoing. But for now, HTGAWM lines up the pieces, gently hinting at the fact that it will soon knock them all down.


Stray observations

  • I am very thankful for the very first scene featuring Viola Davis dancing her heart out on the dance floor. What a nice image before we jump back into murder.
  • An important excerpt from my notes: “LAUREL’S BABY IN A BUCKET HAT.”
  • “You’re wrong.” “Mm mm, that never happens.”
  • Did Frank...did Frank really think Laurel would agree to marry him? When did Frank go from broody henchman to the saddest/most pathetic person on this show? Is it time to start referring to him as Poor Frank?
  • Michaela and Laurel take a vow of “fabstinence,” but only after Laurel squeezes in one more sexy time with Poor Frank.
  • Laurel’s mother is alive because, according to Laurel, she’s the only person who could have mailed her old baptism gown.

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