March 18, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “How To Get Away With Murder”


HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER is an edifice built on two foundations:  the acting of Viola Davis as the show’s brilliant and complex criminal attorney Annalise Keating, and the ability of series creator Peter Nowalk and his writing/producing staff to come up with compelling non-stop plot twists.  In Season 2, Davis as usual delivered admirably, but Nowalk and company were less successful.

By tonight’s season finale, written by Nowalk and directed by Bill D’Elia, the show was barely even pretending to care about what was supposed to be the season’s central mystery, the identity of the killer of the rich parents of adopted twins Caleb (Kendrick Sampson) and Catherine (Amy Okuda).  The episode wrapped up that entire storyline within the back half of the night’s next-to-last act, speeding in about five minutes flat through the reveals that Caleb, and not secret cousin Philip (Jefferson White), was the sociopathic killer, that Caleb and Catherine had been (more or less) incestuous lovers, and that Caleb had promptly committed suicide to wrap things up with a neat bow.  The various loveless romances that dot the show–intern Laurel (Karla Souza) with paralegal Frank (Charlie Weber), intern Michaela (Aja Naomi King) with Caleb and then with fellow intern Asher (Matt McGorry), etc.–felt at all times like they existed for plot purposes only.  And the lip service Murder pays to the idea that the interns are all attending law school and that Annalise is one of their professors is becoming an unintentional joke.

Instead, the season increasingly focused on its flashback storyline set 10 years ago, which explained through the violent death of her unborn son a bit about how Annalise became the enigma that she is, equal parts brutal calculation and wild emotion, and how her life intersected with favored intern Wes (Alfred Enoch), who was a child at the time.  We learned that Annalise was somewhat responsible for the suicide of Wes’s mother, when she pressured the woman, at the orders of her client’s wealthy father Wallace Mahoney (Adam Arkin), to falsely testify for his son.  Things got more tangled, as Frank betrayed Annalise by planting a bug in her hotel room for money, leading to the car accident Mahoney ordered that resulted in Annalise’s baby’s death (which retroactively paid off as the reason Frank killed the girlfriend of Annalise’s husband in Season 1, since he knew Frank’s secret), and with the reveal that Mahoney was Wes’s biological father.  The set-up for Season 3 was Mahoney’s murder in front of Wes, perhaps at the hands of Frank.

As that summary suggests, this plotline was hardly great drama either.  It did, however, give Davis the opportunity to act up a storm, often stunningly, and the finale gave itself over to that function for much of its length, featuring a visit by the strung-out Annalise to her family home in Memphis, where we observed her uneasy relationships with her relatives, and best of all with her mother, played in a return appearance by Cicely Tyson, one of the few actresses capable of going emotional punch-for-punch with Viola Davis.  Their scenes together, especially when Annalise’s mother assisted her daughter in putting the baby’s death behind her by burying a piece of paper with his name, were the stuff of a much deeper, less gimmicky drama than How To Get Away With Murder will ever be.  All too soon, Annalise was packing her bags and going back to the murder plot.

Murder‘s ratings dropped alarmingly in Season 2, although they were still above-average, easily meriting the Season 3 order the show has already received.  One has to wonder, though, how much longevity there is to this format.  After 2 seasons, Annalise remains the only memorable character, and Davis the only breakout performer.  The round-robin of characters betraying each other gets less interesting with each iteration.  The procedural storylines are if anything, duller.  The idea of a Season 3 built around the killing of Wallace Mahoney is far from exciting.  It may be that Nowalk (and presiding Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes) need to re-think the series before things go from OK to dreary.  With Davis in the lead, How To Get Away With Murder will always be watchable, but it needs to match her fire if it’s to be truly gripping.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."