Were you paying close attention for clues during last night’s anticipated series premiere of How to Get Away with Murder? Did you manage to catch writer/creator Peter Nowalk’s object lesson in the simple art of murder?
It was easy enough to overlook. After all, Nowalk skillfully introduced multiple characters and mysteries in short order, creating—and holding his viewers in—the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that is the hallmark of the Whydunit genre (so modified from “Whodunit” because who, per Blake Snyder, is merely a conventional formality and ephemeral revelation—it’s the why that gives us the lasting insight into the dark side of human nature we crave from these stories). But, for students of the craft of screenwriting, consider yourself enrolled in How to Create a Fertile, Provocative Premise 101.
I mean, you could’ve sold this show right off the pitch (and maybe they did): The soapy, legal-thriller intrigue of Scandal (Shonda Rhimes serves as an executive producer on How to Get Away with Murder) crossed with the in-over-our-heads, youth-centric mystery of Pretty Little Liars. You certainly don’t need Rhimes’ pedigree to sell that—it’s got the magic criterion to prick up the ears of any half-attentive creative exec: familiar-but-different. Once you land on that, from there it’s all about execution. And televisional storytelling—even the high-concept kind, as I’ve discussed—is predicated, above all, on character.
To that end, Nowalk and Rhimes have stuck to the playbook that’s served them so well on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal by arranging their new series’ attractive ensemble cast around a magnetic, multidimensional lead: criminal-defense attorney and university professor Annalise Keating, portrayed by Oscar-nominated Viola Davis. Now, if you weren’t quite sure what to make of Annalise after last night’s formal introduction, be certain this was by deliberate design. More on that in a moment…
BUILDING A CASE: HOW TO PROFILE A PROTAGONIST
Since television characters change over time—sometimes as a response to the overarching events of the series (The Walking Dead), in other instances owed to inconsistent writing and performance (Charmed)—I thought we’d conduct a little experiment: Let’s deconstruct Annalise based solely on what was presented in last night’s pilot. Then we’ll reconvene here at the end of the season and see if any adjustments were implemented along the way.
Previously on the blog, I’ve examined long-running franchise protagonists like Jack Bauer, Frank Underwood, and John Rambo, and thusly had the benefit of abundant source material from which to reverse-engineer a complete psychological profile. But, the fact that we’re only studying a single episode here isn’t what makes Annalise such a challenge to deconstruct; one really shouldn’t need more than a few scenes to find evidence of all her different personality facets. The consistency of a character’s traits is what makes her recognizably her in episode after episode; the uncommon and/or incongruous pairing of those traits is what keeps her interesting—unpredictable, even—long after familiarity has set it.
So, without benefit of prior acquaintance, what do first impressions tell us about Annalise Keating? Well, she didn’t feel obliged to greet her new crop of students with a warm introduction, and we, by extension, weren’t paid the courtesy of one, either. That’s all right—even a curt first encounter with a series protagonist tells us something about her (volumes, sometimes). The less Annalise seemed to want me to know about her, the more interested I was. So I took a hard look…
CROSS-EXAMINATION: PUTTING ANNALISE ON THE STAND
What makes Annalise such a tough nut to crack is that one of her five governing traits—bear in mind that this is one of her chief attributes—is “inscrutable.” She is hard to read by her own subconscious design! But, what she hides from the other characters—and even from herself—she can’t keep forever from the viewer. So, based on what we see in the pilot, we can determine that Annalise is:
- a brilliant, keenly perceptive legal mind/strategist
- unscrupulously manipulative and shrewd
There you have her, by way of at-a-glance “character blueprinting” as innovated by David Freeman. Now, go take a second look at the pilot with the above breakdown at the ready. Covers everything Annalise says and does, doesn’t it? That’s Annalise Keating—case closed.
Only I did promise five traits, didn’t I? I didn’t miscount—I just haven’t yet put my finger on one of them. So, how, then, do I know I’m missing a trait that I can’t even see?
Because—look at how hard she’s working to hide it. Annalise prides herself on being able to see through characters’ “false fronts” (keenly perceptive), but, as a student of Beyond Structure, so do I.
As Freeman teaches, and as I’ve illustrated in previous analyses, a character’s “fatal flaw” can be hard to see—she “protects” it from view behind behavioral contrivances so prevalent they serve as de facto personality traits. (I don’t love the term “fatal flaw,” by the way, but it is generally accepted screenwriting argot. I prefer “emotional deficiency.”) With a little deductive reasoning, you can identify the precise nature of the deficiency—the puzzle piece you don’t have—by arranging the pieces you do: the catalyzing trauma (if available) that gave rise to it, and the aforementioned protective artifices. So, what evidence do we have that Annalise is hiding something?
Let’s look again at the blueprint above. Number three: She’s unscrupulously manipulative and shrewd—not unlike House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. That is a conscious manifestation of Frank’s lust for power (his fatal flaw), and so it is with Annalise; she knows perfectly well what she’s doing when she enlists her students as unpaid hands, publicly exposes ill-gotten evidence—not presented at discovery, as procedural protocol mandates—in open court, beguiles her impressionable pupil Wes (Alfred Enoch) into maintaining silence about her infidelity, and coerces her own lover to perjure himself on the stand. It’s all too self-conscious to be a genuine trait—it’s a calculated contrivance. It’s concealing her Achilles heel, for sure. And it’s not the only facet of her personality devised to do so.
Number four: Annalise is inscrutable—guarded and maddeningly difficult to read. That’s an unconscious façade. It’s a delphic and off-putting quality—exactly the kind of disguisement intended to obscure the root emotional deficiency she doesn’t want others to see. And, as of yet, I can’t quite see it myself. That’s not unusual for a fictional character, particularly a serialized one—the fatal flaw and its traumatic catalyst become as much of an enticing mystery as the bodies that pile up in a thriller like this. There’s really only one exchange in the episode—near the end—that makes me think we’re perhaps catching a fleeting peek at some underlying issue, when Annalise makes her final, impromptu pitch to Wes to reconsider her job offer:
“Think carefully—everything after this moment will not only determine your career, but life. You can spend it in a corporate office drafting contracts and hitting on chubby paralegals before finally putting a gun in your mouth… or you can join my firm and become someone you actually like. So, decide: Do you want the job or not?”
Does Annalise not like herself—is that the emotional deficiency? Mmm—could be. Or is it perhaps that she fears an ordinary, mundane, predictable life? Did you catch that sly grin—the only genuine look of delight she publicly indulged in the course of the episode—upon uttering the series’ seductive title to her Criminal Law 100 class? Maybe she’s an adrenaline junkie, who gets her high from acts of unscrupulous manipulation, and cloaks her true nature by way of a poker-faced posture?
Well, whatever the psychic damage, like Annalise herself, it’s all a little too (intentionally) abstruse at present to know for certain. The exchange with Wes above could be a breadcrumb that will be expounded upon in episodes to come… or merely more evidence of Annalise’s cunning manipulation—a red herring designed to distract from the true “fatal flaw.” Either way, I suspect as the season goes on, more clues to the root deficiency, and the traumatic experience that birthed it, will come to light as the mysteries—including that of Annalise herself—deepen. (And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Annalise’s backstory ends up having direct or indirect bearing on present events; in a Whydunit, old skeletons have a way of begetting new ones…)
COURT’S ADJOURNED—TILL SPRING
It’s a clever strategy, after all, to make the protagonist of your Whydunit as tantalizingly enigmatic as the plotlines themselves; it creates layers of mysteries that the audience will want resolved. Like so much about How to Get Away with Murder, it isn’t novel—but it is expertly rendered. The same ploy was attempted with disappointing results during the second season of Desperate Housewives: Emmy Award–winner Alfre Woodard was cast to play the mysterious new resident on the block… and was given nothing to do (at least so far as I can recall) but look cryptically pensive. A lot. Maybe the writers thought that if she seemed suspicious enough, we’d be invested in whatever it was she was hiding. Or perhaps they were merely buying themselves time to figure out the character or mysterious backstory or both.
I can’t speak to what was going on behind-the-scenes ten years ago on Housewives, but last night’s first glimpse of Murder left no question about this: Nowalk has skillfully laid a solid foundation for several (interconnected?) mysteries, and endowed his central protagonist with a sufficiently well-rounded psychological constitution—inscrutable is just one of five characteristics (the keystone “fatal flaw” still TBD)—to keep us intrigued as those storylines unfold. The jury’s still out on exactly what makes Annalise tick, but we’re in for a lively deliberation.