Sunday night, I finally finished season one of How to Get Away with Murder. Although I love Shonda Rhimes, I don’t usually watch a whole lot of shows that fall into the law-and-order genre. I have six lawyers in my family, so it’s often difficult for me to take these shows seriously; I can’t just watch them, I have to fact-check them as well. HTGAWM started out this way for me—some of the show’s story-lines are just the right amount of absurd, and others step right over that line into the totally unbelievable. But I realized early on that the plausibility of the show’s plotlines was something I would just have to get over if I wanted to enjoy it. With that out of the way, I found myself under the enchantment of Viola Davis, and not just because I think she’s wonderful in every way and we should all try harder to be more like her (watch her win her first Emmy for reference and try not to cry). The nuance of her character, Annalise Keating, is something admirable; not only do we, as viewers, have the opportunity to cheer her on for the bad-ass attorney she is, but we’re also invited to witness her (and still celebrate her) in moments of vulnerability as well.
Still from How to Get Away With Murder, “Let’s Get to Scooping” (Season 1, Episode 4, 2014.) Image from http://sinnerscreek.com/2014/10/recapreview-how-to-get-away-with-murder-s1-e4/.
It’s not only refreshing but also inspiring to see a female character dominate so successfully in what is typically seen as a man’s world (i.e. law). But often times it seems like TV shows fall into a trend of pigeonholing female leads into “either/or” categories that don’t acknowledge them as complex characters with the capacity to evolve or share more than one story. HTGAWM is different. We see Annalise Keating as a go-getter attorney capable of shutting it DOWN in a courtroom, a woman who acknowledges (and actually fulfills!) her sexual needs/desires, a woman who finds herself emotionally altered and trapped by the actions of her cheating husband, a woman who struggles deeply with her own personal insecurities, etc. One of the most poignant scenes of the season is at the very end of episode four, in which Keating removes her makeup, takes off her wig, and calmly delivers the most damning line to her husband: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” Watching her remove her makeup/wig (representing the removal of both a literal and figurative mask) before such a critical question was compelling. What makes it even better is that this idea was suggested by Viola Davis herself. Allowing Keating to present herself as an authentic human being makes her character and, consequently the show, feel more realistic.
Such a multifaceted presentation of womanhood is both significant and important. She’s not just the “powerhouse attorney”, the “unhappy wife”, the “intimidating professor”- she’s all of that, and more. It adds dimensions that are both relatable and human. Allowing Annalise to move beyond overused tropes makes the show worth watching, even if some of the story lines feel like a stretch. So, how do you get away with outrageous plot-lines? You ensure that the characters within them come across as realistic, multidimensional and unapologetically themselves. In other words, just put Viola Davis at the helm and let her do what she does best.