‘How to Get Away With Murder’ Needs More Viola Davis, Less of Everything Else

If you want to know how to get away with murder, you’ll have to keep waiting for a while — who knows how these idiotic law students will fare come the end of the season? — but if you want to know how to get away with creating an addictive hit out of a mediocre story, then look no further than the first nine episodes of How to Get Away With Murder. (Hint: Just add Shonda Rhimes’ name to it.) This might sound harsher than I intend: I actually love How to Get Away With Murder, even though I recognize how frustratingly average it is, how boring any given case-of-the-week can be, how some of the characters fall into lazy boxes (but others, it should be said, are amazingly well written), and how the show focuses way more on steamy sex and rampant infidelity than, well, murder and justice. That said, I’m still completely on board with Murder, terrible plotting, laughable “twists,” and all. Spoilers ahead, of course.

Last night’s midseason finale, “Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me,” finally answered the question of who killed Sam. Ahem, #WhoKilledSam. It’s been the central mystery of Murder since the cliffhanger in the pilot episode, with multiple possible suspects hinted at throughout the course of the season, usually in flashback jump cuts. The reveal is somehow both shocking and not. It’s no surprise that the murderer is a student — that much was clear from the beginning — but it’s a slight surprise that it’s good ol’ waitlisted Wes. Then again, who else would’ve made this plot more compelling? Well, OK, Michaela definitely would have, but we need her for other things (namely being the best-written student on the show and as a way for the other characters to reveal their true nature, in their interactions with her). There is a pretty cool horror-movie-like twist in which we think Sam is dead after Michaela pushes him off the balcony, but then he springs back to life, desperately trying to choke Rebecca to death before Wes whacks him with that ridiculous trophy.

But the reveal doesn’t land with a thud — more like a “Sure, whatever.” What does land heavily is the secondary reveal, a later flashback in which we see Wes return to the scene of the crime and — dun, dun, dun — Annalise is sitting calmly at the desk, looking at her husband’s dead body. She knows.

In retrospect, of course she knows. She’s Annalise Keating! And there is no way Wes would’ve suddenly become an expert in covering up murders all by himself; of course Annalise is guiding him from beginning to end. That much is great. Everything else in the episode — as well as much of the season so far as a whole — is less than great. See, the driving force of How to Get Away With Murder is not actually Sam’s murder, regardless of the hashtags. It’s actually Viola Davis’ performance as Annalise that keeps me coming back week after week. She is flawless and mesmerizing, whether she’s confronting Sam, standing straight against the wall with his hands around her neck and daring him to kill her, or just looking quietly powerful as she sits in her room and slowly removes her makeup and wig while staring at her true self in the mirror. She is even able to utter such ridiculous and hilarious lines as, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” with actual gravitas.

VIOLA DAVISYet this is also the biggest problem with How to Get Away With Murder. Viola Davis is just not in the series enough. When she does appear, you can’t tear your eyes away from her because she acts circles around everyone else in the room and even sells it when the material is beneath her (see: all of her scenes in last night’s episode). Unfortunately, her character doesn’t appear nearly as much as the Keating Five. (By the way, the Keating Five have their own problem: It’s become so apparent that they are the only five students in this large lecture hall who ever get called on, the five students who regularly leave with Keating when she just ups and cuts class short to work on some other case, that it’s gone from funny to just distracting. I mean, this class is basically paying for the worst education ever, huh?)

The side characters, particularly Wes and surprisingly Asher, are occasionally interesting enough to hold their own when the show explores their illuminating backstories (though HtGAWM would much prefer to explore their sex lives, especially their cheating sex lives, because just about everyone on this show cheats at some point or another) or when they prove their worth by helping Annalise get a win in court. But for law students, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they aren’t very smart. I mean, there isn’t much explanation as to why they are all caught up in this murder and why they so blindly follow Wes (a guy that they usually just make fun of). There is surface explanation about how they are all incriminated in one way or another, since they were all at Sam’s house — but it’s also pretty clear that this was self-defense, and that Sam is a potential murderer, and so on and so on.

Getting any kind of enjoyment out of How to Get Away With Murder demands suspension of disbelief (and ignorance of most basic legal strategies). You have to turn off your brains, to borrow a suggestion from one of the students in last night’s episode, in order for the show to work. And it does work, sort of, in that I’ll watch it until the very end — even if I’ll groan all the way through.