Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Rendering a Verdict: Annalise Keating of “How to Get Away with Murder”

Spoiler Alert:  Plot points from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder discussed herein.

In the previous post, I touched briefly on the subject of character arcs.  An arc is the personal transformation or catharsis a character undergoes—almost always against his will—over the course of a story:  In fulfilling his obligation to get outlaw Russell Crowe on board the titular 3:10 to Yuma when everyone else bails on the dangerous endeavor, rancher Christian Bale learns at long last to have dignity; in the process of uncovering who framed him for murder in Minority Report, PreCrime detective Tom Cruise comes to terms with the devastating loss of his son some years earlier (excellent movies both).

Arcs are what give a story its emotional resonance.  Take Dirty Dancing:  It could’ve easily been one of a thousand 1980s teen-romance movies all but forgotten here in 2015.  But, it became a worldwide phenomenon—and lasting cinematic classic—because not one, not two, but five characters experience profound transformational arcs in that film:  Baby, Johnny, Penny, Lisa, and Mr. Houseman.  That’s rich storytelling—deceptively so.

Transformational arcs are designed to force a character to confront his so-called “fatal flaw”—a psychic wound that’s been haunting him, that’s been holding him back, since incited by some trauma in the backstory.  (So, in 3:10 to Yuma, the traumatic catalyst would be Bale’s shameful cowardice on the battlefield; in Minority Report, it was the unsolved kidnapping of Cruise’s son that led to his personal downward spiral).  There are exceptions to this design—Luke Skywalker, for instance, has a very powerful arc that spans three movies, no less, yet he bears no fatal flaw when we first meet him on Tatooine (for reasons we’ll perhaps discuss on another occasion)—but, by and large, protagonists typically suffer from some measure of psychic scarring that makes the events of the plot emotionally difficult for them, forcing personal growth in the process.

 

REVISITING THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

Such an emotional deficiency is an Achilles heel, and is often kept hidden from view for as long as the character is capable of concealing it (Rambo certainly didn’t go around advertising his PTSD; it was prodded to the surface by a sheriff’s department that foolishly let the genie out of the bottle).  So, when we met Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) last fall in the pilot to the smash-hit series How to Get Away with Murder, I noted in my morning-after analysis that she was the mystery that most fascinated me.  (I should briefly mention here that character arcs play out across several seasons of an open-ended television series, as opposed to the compact, self-contained narrative of a feature film, but the same principle applies to both modes of storytelling with respect to fatal flaws:  A protagonist is endowed with a psychic wound that has a habit of “getting in his way” throughout the story.)  What a humdinger of a personal shortcoming, we concluded from the first episode of Murder, Annalise must’ve been hiding!  Here’s a refresher of her trait breakdown from the pilot:

  • Brilliant, keenly perceptive legal mind/strategist
  • Intense/direct/no-nonsense
  • FATAL FLAW:  Unknown (it was impossible to determine from the pilot alone)
  • CONSCIOUS MANIFESTATION OF HER FLAW:  Unscrupulously manipulative and shrewd
  • UNCONSCIOUS FAÇADE:  Inscrutable

We knew this woman was damaged goods because she was working so damn hard to mask it behind that enigmatic visage, and I suspected her unethical legal tactics were an expression of that deficiency, as well; fatal flaws tend to beget negative defensive traits (though 24’s Jack Bauer is an exception to this “rule,” proving that there are endless variations on character design).  There was just no telling, based on the pilot, what this woman was hiding beneath the surface; it was buried—and sufficiently protected.  She was going to make us work for the psychological insight we craved, and I was excited to see the layers of this particular mystery—Annalise Keating herself—incrementally peeled away week after week.

 

THE JURY IS IN

So, you can imagine my disappointment when not only was Annalise’s fatal flaw made manifest by the second episode, it was often the only trait she exhibited with any regularity from that point forward!  (And Davis delivered a reliably tour de force performance throughout the season, but, after a while—and fault the producers for this—it simply started to feel like Emmy bait.)

Annalise’s emotional deficiency, it turns out, was not one of the many mysteries series creator Peter Nowalk established in his plot-packed pilot; it was, at that point, still clearly a mystery to him.  But, sometime between finishing the pilot and commencing work on the regular series—which consists of a period of months as a given show’s producers wait to find out if they’ve been picked up for the fall slate—he figured it out.

The protagonist herself was one of the many mysteries established in the series pilot

The protagonist herself was one of the many mysteries established in the series pilot

Annalise is pathologically insecure.

She sees herself as a “piece of garbage,” unworthy of love, nothing more than “window dressing”—the token black woman on her white husband’s arm.  In an effort to reinvent herself, she even rejected her given name on the grounds that “Anna Mae belonged in a hand-me-down box.”  She is incapable of a healthy relationship, hence her dysfunctional marriage and ongoing extramarital affair.

And there’s no way Nowalk knew this when the pilot was produced; there’s absolutely no indication in the premiere episode of any foreknowledge of Annalise’s fatal flaw on his part.  He even teed us up with that key dramatic passage I previously cited—her impassioned plea to Wes to “join my firm and become someone you actually like—that, we know now, never paid off in any way whatsoever, and, when considered in the context of the season in its totality, doesn’t even make much sense.  That, to me, suggests Annalise was retrofitted once the show “went to series,” as they say.  And there’s further evidence that Annalise was tweaked post factum, as well.

 

EXHIBIT A

Starting with the second episode, the trait I’d identified in the pilot as the conscious manifestation of her fatal flaw, “unscrupulously manipulative,” disappeared without a trace.  Weird, right?  It was such a key component of her character in that introductory show, yet was dropped from her psych profile right off the bat.  It was replaced with an altogether different defense mechanism (more on that in a minute).

Empty promises: That devious, knowing tease of a smile amounted to absolutely nothing

Empty promises: That devious, knowing tease of a smile amounted to absolutely nothing

Why was unscrupulously manipulative jettisoned?  I suspect that happened because it no longer fit her revised psych profile; it simply wasn’t a logical outgrowth of the fatal flaw Nowalk and his writers would later come to settle upon:  pathologically insecure (the origins of which, as revealed in the thirteenth episode, could be traced to a sexual assault Annalise suffered as a child at the hands of her uncle, a crime she suspects her mother knew about at the time but ignored, leading Annalise to feel unnurtured, uncared for, unprotected, unloved).

So, unscrupulously manipulative was supplanted with distrustful.  Annalise simply doesn’t trust anyone—a more probable extension of insecurity, given her particular psychic baggage.  (Her unscrupulously manipulative instincts did somewhat atavistically resurface after Sam’s death, but by then they’d been out of play for so long, their invocation felt convenient and jarringly inconsistent with her character as depicted from the second episode onward.)

 

EXHIBIT B

The other defense mechanism, the unconscious façade—inscrutable—wasn’t altogether expunged, but it was unquestionably softened.  In the revised iteration, Annalise became composed and guarded, only dropping that veneer in the private presence of her husband, Sam, and her lover, Nate—the two people who knew it was bullshit to begin with.  (Characters will often lower their emotional defenses in the company of those who know them well enough to see through their “public fronts,” as I illustrated with Frank Underwood.)

What may’ve happened—pure speculation on my part—was this:  The producers or network execs or both worried that “manipulative” and “inscrutable” rendered Annalise emotionally inaccessible to the audience.  So, in an effort to humanize her—and capitalize on their Oscar-nominated leading lady’s acting chops, to boot—a fatal flaw was established:  deeply insecure.  Once that was exposed to the audience, however, Annalise seemed notably less inscrutable, so that trait got dialed down to “publicly composed.”

So, the Annalise we met back in September was, it turns out, still very much a work-in-progress.  And I don’t take issue with that; few TV shows, even and especially the brilliant ones, are born fully formed—most need time to take shape and find their voice.  That’s what’s exciting about television versus a movie:  We get to watch it grow.  That said, I was disappointed that the Annalise initially presented in the pilot evolved into an altogether new permutation—only 40 percent similar to the one we’d been promised—by episode two:

  • A shrewd, brilliant, keenly perceptive legal mind/strategist
  • Intense/direct/no-nonsense
  • FATAL FLAW:  Pathologically insecure
  • CONSCIOUS MANIFESTATION:  Distrustful
  • UNCONSCIOUS FAÇADE:  Publicly composed and guarded

 

BALANCING THE SCALES

Now, there was much discussion on the talk-show circuit this past winter from Davis and others involved with the show that Annalise should be raw and messy and damaged, and, boy, was she ever.  But, in their zeal to deliver on that—once established, her pathological insecurity become her dominant characteristic—she became a very hard protagonist with which to empathize.  Because it isn’t enough to be “damaged,” to suffer from a fatal flaw—the audience has to care.  And it’s hard as hell to care once a character goes from credibly damaged to hopeless basket case, no matter how well-performed by an actor.

Take Olivia Pope—I love that woman.  There’s a take-charge Superhero if ever there was one.  But, Scandal has been testing my patience this year, as Olivia has spent much of the season moping about, guzzling Shiraz alone in her dimly lit apartment, trawling the bar scene for anonymous sex, and generally feeling sorry for herself with no end in sight.

Olivia Mope

Olivia Mope

A little of that goes a long way—agreed?  (Bella Swan, anyone?)  Heroes can—and should—have low moments, but they need to push past them, too, and get on with the task at hand.  Mellie hit a low point at the beginning of Scandal’s current season, still reeling from the death of her son, but she found purpose again, having launched a senatorial campaign in a long-game bid for the White House (she has arguably evolved into the series’ most emotionally complex, empathetic character).  After Marion’s apparent death in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones indulges in single moment of self-pity before he’s resumed his epic crusade.  Upon fatally shooting a teenage gangbanger in Lethal Weapon 3, Murtaugh is given a powerful dark night of the soul in a scene that takes Danny Glover and Mel Gibson through an affecting, emotional rollercoaster of an exchange, alternatingly sad and touching and funny (the coda is a particularly effective piece of comic relief), before he emerges more determined than ever to crack the case.

"We're in the middle of a case... of Scotch."

“We’re in the middle of a case… of Scotch.”

The fourth episode of How to Get Away with Murder ended on perhaps the most buzzed-about remark of the season—“Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”—but it was really the moments leading up to that line that represented, in retrospect, an unfortunate turning point for the series.  Annalise comes home and, before both her mirror and the audience, methodically removes her “mask,” both literal—her wig and makeup—and emotional—her composed and guarded façade.  It’s a powerful moment in the series that took a real act of courage on Davis’ part; this is what they mean when they talk about “brave performances.”

But, once the producers had a baseline for just how far Davis would go as a performer in service to her character, any and every opportunity to showcase the “vulnerable” Annalise was exploited, needed or not.  Her weakness was exposed to us over and over and over again—Annalise’s tearful pleas to Nate; Annalise holed up in a hotel room raiding the minibar—until it became fatiguing.  In Viola Davis, the producers had a powerful weapon, but they bludgeoned us with her; they did a disservice to both the character and the story by engineering every possible moment to serve as an awards-show clip, veering so far from the promise of the pilot into a hopeless morass of melodrama.  By insisting that we never for a moment lose sight of just how profoundly damaged this character was, they didn’t make her deep—they rendered her unlikable.  (For more on the perils of saddling your hero with too much baggage, see the subsection titled Lead of Kristen Lamb’s excellent, just-published blog post.)  If you’ve ever had a friend who couldn’t snap out of a funk, you know what I’m talking about:  At some point, sympathy gives way to “Get your shit together.”  Same goes for fictional characters:  We’re willing to feel your hero’s pain—we want to share in her catharsis—but we will grow anesthetized to it with prolonged, uninterrupted exposure.

 

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

That was where Murder went wrong.  After a tantalizingly mysterious start, too much of Annalise was revealed too soon (and too often); the supporting players, on the other end of the characterization spectrum, never really evolved beyond their perfunctory, one-note parts.  The five students had consistent and identifiable traits, but I don’t know that any of them—with the possible exception of Laurel (I didn’t really care enough to give it deeper examination)—ever broke out of their one-dimensional, archetypal roles; they could pretty much be counted on to say the same things every week.  Additionally, the writers failed to get under Bonnie’s skin:  She was a cold fish—no-nonsense and inscrutable; in short, she was “Annalise Lite.”  What Bonnie’s character offers is a wrongheaded lesson in How to Get Away with Inadequate Characterization:  If a character’s traits have not been established, simply make her “hard to read” and that will cover all manner of sin.  That’s what we got in the pilot—an inscrutable Annalise—and the remainder of the season only confirmed that less was most certainly more.  Davis’ bravura was routinely capitalized on to overcompensate for the lackluster ensemble, but at the cost of the best thing the show had going for it:  Annalise’s mystique.  They cashed in on it—all too soon—but they never really paid it off.

Not to worry—Bonnie only LOOKS like she's hiding something

Not to worry—Bonnie only LOOKS like she’s hiding something

So, when all was said and done, was it really any great surprise that Frank was revealed as Lila Stangard’s murderer?  It had to have been a character with whom we the audience were previously acquainted—if not intimately familiar—and once you run down the list of suspects, it wasn’t hard to venture a guess.  Sam was clearly a misdirection—he was the presumed suspect from the start—and neither any of the law students nor Annalise herself could’ve been the killer, as that would’ve rendered many if not most of their actions throughout the season paradoxical.  So, that pretty much left us with Bonnie—an enigma—and Frank—the lapdog thug.  (Of the two, Bonnie might have been the more surprising choice, but, like Annalise and the students, I don’t know that her culpability in the crime would have been compatible with her behavior throughout the season.)  Granted, Frank’s motivation for killing Lila is still in question—a plot thread to follow into next season!—but I don’t care much about him, I don’t know Bonnie from a hole in the wall, and I can’t be subjected to any more of Annalise’s emotionally taxing pathological insecurity.  Even if Nowalk reconfigures her psych profile once again—and I imagine he’ll have to, to some extent, given that her backstory is now all used up—she lost me soon after “hello.”

In short, I thought the character work was all over the map, ranging from squandered opportunity (Annalise) to archetypal cliché (the students) to blank slate (Bonnie), and I don’t know that even a brilliant revelation to the central mystery—and I found Murder’s resolution far from satisfying—could have redeemed it.  (And was anyone else bothered by the way the depiction of the actual murder was simply revealed to the audience via flashback—for no other reason than it was the last episode of the season—rather than coming to light as a hard-earned, well-reasoned deduction on the part of one of the characters?  The mystery wasn’t solved, it was merely ceded—with all the anticlimactic letdown of a host-provided answer to a timed-out stumper of a game-show question.)

The crop of recent freshman whodunits that have really stuck to me—notice I wrote to and not with—long after their mysteries were resolved are the ones populated by deeply flawed but endlessly fascinating characters with empathetic plights:  Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in True Detective; Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller in Broadchurch; Lester Nygaard, Lorne Malvo, and Molly Solverson in FargoHow to Get Away with Murder was, it would seem, exactly what its emptily provocative title promised:  a clinical exercise devoid of authentic emotional engagement.  Characters need to be well-developed, consistent, and empathetic; it’s not enough to rely week in, week out on a performer who can skillfully crush whatever’s been scripted for her.  Actors of the caliber of Matthew McConaughey, Billy Bob Thornton, and Viola Davis can only build upon—can only bring texture to—what’s already on the page.  Davis carried Murder through its first season despite the limitations of the writing, and now the question remains:  Can Nowalk get away with murder a second time, or has Annalise Keating burned the jury’s goodwill?

6 Comments

  1. This is obviously your field and not mine (though I enjoy reading and learn a lot each time I do, as well as thinking new thoughts). However, I do often wonder in certain series if there is actual audience feedback between episodes, much like I understand happens with pilot viewings. If this is the case — that feedback is collected from viewers (or gleaned from online public opinion) — it might account for the corners producers and writers back themselves into. Caring too much what others will think or how they will respond to story can become a diversion rather than a beneficial guiding force. Considering what I THINK viewer/reader response will be is one thing; but actually changing course every time people suggest they’d prefer Y to X … well, it just seems like a mistake.

    Again, you may know more about what actually goes on behind the scenes between episodes, Sean, and I’d welcome your thoughts!

    • Erik,

      There’s no question that social media has created a “feedback loop” between viewers and creators that didn’t exist even a few short years ago (note how many writers’ rooms, including that of HTGAWM, now have their own Twitter accounts), and producers can gauge audience reactions on the fly and adjust accordingly (Lost did this when they prematurely dispatched fan-despised characters Nikki and Paulo). As a content creator, you certainly don’t want to be tone deaf to the responses you’re evoking, but you also don’t want to let the viewership dictate the course of the narrative, either, so, like any type of critique, it has to be considered judiciously. (I briefly addressed the art of taking critical feedback in my Ghostbusters II follow-up piece.)

      In the case of Murder, however, I think the producers fell victim to a different kind of pitfall: They cast a great actor in a role that was at first inconsistent and then nonempathetic, and consequently over-relied on the performer to make up for those conceptual shortcomings. (An earlier ShondaLand show, Private Practice, did the same thing: The producers hired an outstanding cast to play characters that were nothing more than names on a page in the hope that those actors would then “find the personalities” through their performances. That didn’t happen, and a company of very good players was left high and dry with subpar material that never took shape. Watch any given scene from that show and try not to cringe as the cast works their damnedest to infuse life into their sketchily drawn roles.)

      Unlike novels and movies, which come to us as finished, polished entities, television is always a work-in-progress — it’s organic by nature. All sorts of factors can dictate the creative direction a series takes: budgetary constraints, the availability of a particular actor, and even audience feedback. That’s what makes it exciting as a medium. I’ve always been fascinated by how serialized characters evolve over time, like Jack Bauer, Rambo, and the Joker, and I thought there was a unique opportunity, when Murder premiered last fall, to size up Annalise based strictly on how she was presented in the pilot, then run a follow-up piece at the end of the season to see if any adjustments to her character’s psychological profile were made along the way. And, what I discovered was, in a season full of secrets and lies, she was most certainly not all she appeared to be from first impressions. So, should that be chalked up to natural evolution or creative failure? I’d certainly be interested to get the perspectives of other screenwriters who followed the series…

      Sean

      P.S. And thanks, as always, for following! The next scheduled post is a general rumination on the nature of narrative, less craft-centric and a little more accessible à la the Geddy Lee piece.

      • Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to be the invisible man in the corner, actually getting to hear the real conversations in the chain of events that led to such changes in a show?

        Thanks for your well-thought-out response, as always.

  2. Great read. You make excellent points

  3. Sean,

    I enjoyed this post. You summarized what I couldn’t identify as a viewer. I had so much hope for the show after the first episode that watching it derail was painful. I lasted till the end of the first season, but it was hard going.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, R.V.; I’ve been curious to get reactions from others who watched the entire season.

      I had high hopes for the series, as well, and when I set out to conduct this experimental, before-and-after study in characterization, I certainly wasn’t rooting for the show to crash and burn — quite the opposite. In addition to the problems I outlined above, I think, in some respects, HTGAWM was a series that was deliberately calculated to appeal to the widest possible swath of viewer tastes: It was a serialized whodunit but also a case-of-the-week procedural; it was a star vehicle but also an ensemble. However, in trying to be a little bit of all of those things, it didn’t emerge as an exemplar of any of them.

      I suspect the show will find itself on creatively shaky ground come next season, given that the new overarching mystery — Who killed Rebecca? — is predicated on the unsatisfactory resolution of the last mystery — Who killed Lila? — combined with the unfortunate fact that Annalise, the show’s central character, has no more secrets from the audience (Desperate Housewives ran into similar trouble after its stellar first season: All the backstory had been used up — which is why the producers finally had to resort to that ham-fisted five-year “time jump” at the start of the fifth season). But, any gimmicks the producers of HTGAWM employ to keep that train a-rollin’ will only be a diversion from the underlying problem: that the show was sold off a glitzy concept and the casting of an Oscar-nominated lead actress, but neither elegant plotting nor worthy characterization (the real hard work) was conceived to support — to deliver upon the promise of — either of those sexy selling points.

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