In the wake of the series finale, we look back on what made Viola Davis’ character so iconic.
After six seasons of nonstop juicy drama, Pete Nowalk’s legal thriller How to Get Away with Murder finally came to an end last Thursday, concluding on a satisfying and bittersweet note. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) gets the closure she deserves. The master manipulator who desperately wants to destroy Annalise finally meets their own demise, and the death promised for Annalise at the beginning of the season was revealed to be just a flash-forward after many other years of happiness. It was a lot for forty minutes. But everything was tied up beautifully.
When it first debuted in 2014, this Shonda Rhimes show looked just like another mainstream murder mystery, complete with a lot of insane twists and people doing selfish things for the sake of self-preservation. But as the story progressed and more layers about its lead character were revealed, the show evolved into something more compelling: a character study about human nature and redemption.
The complicated, over-the-top mysteries remain the big parts of the show’s overarching narrative. But underneath all of that, How to Get Away with Murder also succeeded at defying Hollywood norms and redefining what a leading lady is. This monumental achievement is what eventually becomes the show’s ultimate legacy.
Annalise is not exactly a complex character when we first meet her. We know that she’s an ambitious criminal defense attorney and a brilliant law professor at Middleton University. We also know that she will do nearly anything, including manipulating people, to make sure she’ll win in court. She’s smart and tough, taking no nonsense from other people — what we all think when we’re discussing a strong female lead.
But apart from being intimidating, there’s nothing compelling about this character. That is, until episode four arrives, and Davis utters nine words that would light up the Internet:
“Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”
What’s shocking about it isn’t the question per se, but the silent moment leading up to that scene. Before Annalise confronts her husband Sam (Tom Verica), she sits in front of her mirror and removes her wig. Then she wipes the makeup off her face. Seeing a dark-skinned woman like Davis showing her true self and natural hair is a powerful moment on TV. It’s raw, brave, intense, and moving altogether. But more importantly, this brief moment of honesty allows us to change our perspective of both the show and the character.
How to Get Away with Murder also succeeded at defying Hollywood norms and redefining what a leading lady is.
Annalise is not just a firebrand cleaning up other people’s messes anymore. Underneath her tough exterior is someone who is vulnerable, messy, and shouldering personal pain by herself, though her journey of accepting that vulnerability is far from easy.
For the most part, Annalise has been using the strong image she presents outside to fit in a world that doesn’t accept her for who she truly is. And this means that she has to bottle up a lot of her issues so that she won’t be seen as weak. But once she realizes that this facade she uses to protect herself only leads to more bad things like alcoholism and more murder, Annalise forces herself to finally embrace her flaws and be honest with herself. The road is not always pretty. In fact, it’s messy and painful. But isn’t that just how personal growth is?
Davis said in an interview with InStyle that rising from ashes is not as simple as what we often see in TV and movies. That’s why it’s important to make Annalise’s journey full of ups and downs. It’s through Annalise’s difficulties of owning her weakness that How to Get Away with Murder gets to morphs itself from just a show about getting away with murder into a show that portrays women dealing with real-life struggles.
Of course, other shows like Damages, The Good Wife, and the short-lived but brilliant Enlightened have all done the same marvelous job at portraying women in all her flaws and messiness. But it’s not until How to Get Away with Murder and its Shondaland predecessor Scandal that African-American actresses were given the same opportunities to play assertive, morally-grey female protagonists as Glenn Close or Laura Dern.
To say that How to Get Away with Murder has redefined the female lead, and even paved the way for black women to inhabit roles outside of the mammy or jezebel or angry black lady stereotype, is not too farfetched — because that’s what this show does.
In Shayla Martin’s interview with Melonie Pinder, the owner of Pinder Counseling, it’s said that “there’s this thought that black women can’t show signs of weakness to people outside the home.” And this thought has become the stereotype of black women in pop culture. But with Annalise, How to Get Away with Murder has helped to break this barrier, and give women of color a chance to portray a character that is real and complex.
Yes, until the last episode, Annalise is still far from perfect. Her moments of weakness don’t necessarily erase the fact that she’s done a lot of bad things. But this is what exactly makes her and the show all the more authentic. Annalise is not just allowed to be an antiheroine who is messy and vulnerable all at once, but also to be a real human.
Through this complicated portrayal of Annalise, How to Get Away with Murder shows women, especially women of color, that it’s okay to show your weakness when you feel weak, but also not afraid to be tough when it’s needed. And this is something that pop culture needs right now.
After this week, we may never get to see Annalise Keating on our screen every Thursday night. But we can always look back at the beautiful legacy the show has left. From Davis being the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama to paving the way for black women to have more complex role on TV, How to Get Away with Murder has left us plenty to cherish every day. It is a groundbreaking TV, and we should be grateful for it.