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How to Get Away with Murder creator on how that death changes everything

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ABC/Nicole Wilder

Warning: This story contains major spoilers from Thursday’s episode of How to Get Away with Murder. Read at your own risk!

The dreaded moment has arrived: How to Get Away with Murder pulled back the sheet to reveal which character died in the house fire during the winter finale.

It turns out, that recent flash forward that indicated that Wes (Alfred Enoch) was actually alive, but becoming the star witness for the D.A., took place earlier in the night — Wes was indeed revealed to be the deceased person under the sheet. Of course, there was still a twist along the way: He was actually dead before the house fire.

EW was on set for Wes’ death episode, which was filmed in October, so be sure to pick up next week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly to get a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came to be. In the meantime, executive producer Pete Nowalk talks his decision to kill off Wes and what’s coming next. (Read our postmortem with Alfred Enoch here.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came with the decision to kill off Wes?

PETE NOWALK: I have to take all the responsibility for it. It was a horrible decision to have to make, because everyone really loves their job here, and I love them all doing their job. When it comes down to why I made the decision is because he is the heart of the show, and really I wanted to do something that felt impactful, and it impacts every character. That’s why it killed me to make the decision, but also why I made it, is because it really spins out everyone, and I really wanted something to change the DNA of the show.

It wasn’t easy to make. I switched my mind a million times, and I really just didn’t make a decision, and I was like, “I’ll make it when I have to,” and “I’ll make it when I have to,” and then eventually it was episode 7, and I had to make a decision. It was the least fun aspect of this job that I’ve had so far. I’ve had to make hard decisions, but this one… we’re just a happy family really, and I love Wes. I love how Alfie portrays Wes. I’m really terrified actually what the show would look like without him, but I think Shonda [Rhimes] taught me something: It’s like, “Go toward the terror.” It was a hard decision, but it’s just going to be visceral for all the characters, and I think that’s what I was looking for.

Did you have an inkling at least at the beginning of the season that it was going to be Wes?

No. It makes me either really lazy or it’s my creative process, I can’t tell. It’s really easy over the hiatus to be like, “Okay, what’s the hook of the show going to be? Oh, someone’s under a sheet.” That’s really easy for me and fun and you make that decision without really thinking of the future decision you have to make. So, no. I really put it off. It’s like having homework. There’s nothing fun about it or satisfying, even writing the episode 10 right now, we’re working on it. It’s really hard because it’s sad.

RELATED: Shondaland’s Most Shocking Deaths

Were there other possibilities that you leaned into?

Everyone was a possibility except for Annalise. Still people are like, “Maybe she’s a ghost looking down at herself.” But no. Everyone was a possibility. That’s part of having to surprise yourself is you consider all the options, and I was waiting for the thing that made me feel sick to my stomach. Also, around episode 7, where I was leaning toward Wes, just for a few days I kept waiting for something to make me feel better and ultimately nothing did. That’s what I did tell all the actors at the beginning of the season, because it’s been a brutal process for them. It’s been kind of mean, I think. In retrospect, I didn’t realize that going in, being like, “I don’t know who it is, one of you is going to be revealed each episode. That’s awkward and hard for you,” but I did promise them I would tell them who it was the minute I had made up my mind, so it’s probably only a day or two that I was 90 percent sure it was Alfie before I sat him down. He was the most gracious, lovely person ever. Because, you know, on this show, everyone comes back in one form or another. I don’t know, maybe we’ll show a flashback five years next season. I never know.

Did you have the cast bugging you for an answer?

No, they did not bug me, but I just knew it was making it hard for them to come to work every day and do their job without any sort of knowledge of what was going to happen to their character. Either they’re very careful and they don’t want to bug me, or they just know not to bug me. In a lot of ways, they protect me, but that’s when you feel like a jerk if you’re in my position, because you want to tell people, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen to you and this is what’s not,” and because I couldn’t make a decision, I couldn’t.

The second half of the season will include flashbacks with Wes, correct?

Yes. So, we’re going to see Wes for sure, alive, in the rest of the season sporadically. Obviously the big mystery is who killed him? What happened to Wes? We will be flashing back to what happened to him as well as — I don’t want to give away anything, but we’re going to see him in flashbacks in a way that I hope feels very cathartic.

But moving forward, he likely would not be a series regular next season?

I haven’t decided. Betsy [Beers] is always like, “You don’t know in your show. It’s crazy with your timeline.” And that’s the truth. I don’t know. Who knows if we’ll have a next season? I don’t really even think about it beyond this season.

Was there a part of you that felt like you really needed to kill someone big to make sure that that stakes would continue to be high?

I was open to it not being someone big. Obviously, it needed to be someone who impacted Annalise emotionally. I didn’t want that to be a performance that she was giving. We’ve seen her murder people and get away with it and perform, right? So, I wanted that to be an authentic moment. I watched it the first time, the season premiere, and I was like, “Whoa. It’s someone big.” I don’t think you want to just lead people on for nine episodes of “Who’s under the sheet?” and then give them Simon, who is a new character. I would throw my remote at the TV if that was me watching.

What does it say about the show that the person with the biggest moral compass is the one being killed off?

Other people have said that to me. I would question whether Wes has the biggest moral compass at this point. He did kill Sam — in defense of Rebecca. I think if you believe that, if that’s your point of view, I think that also speaks a lot about the horrible world the characters are living in, that they lose the most pure one. There are other pure characters on the show like Oliver. I think Nate’s pretty pure at this point. So, it depends how you look at it.

Annalise had invited everyone to the house before it exploded. Are some of the characters going to suspect that she had a hand in this?

I think yes. In the immediate aftermath, when everyone finds out it’s Wes, they’re going to instantly wonder if it’s her. Obviously we’ll answer that question for our characters really early after the fact.

Wes is basically the closest thing that Annalise has to family. Is this going to cause her to spiral?

I think that’s one of the reasons why I made the decision is I was fascinated to see how she would react. She’s worked really hard to try to keep Wes safe. I think she’s projected a lot of her healing onto him. What we’ve watched is that the two of them really helped heal each other. I don’t want to give away how she’s going to react. Is she going to fall apart and grieve and lie in bed or in her jail cell? Or how is she going to fight this, especially when she’s been completely stripped of all her power?

Will her mom (Cicely Tyson) need to come to town?

I think her mom will need to come to town. You know, at one point, I really wanted to have the mom and dad come to town before, as like a mislead, that it was going to be Cicely under the sheet, but it just didn’t fit with our timeline. But I think yes, that’s going to be a heartbreaking moment when her mother finds her daughter in jail.

Is there anything you can tease about who’s responsible for Wes’ death?

Everyone’s a fair suspect, our characters as well as guest characters that we’ve seen throughout, as well as I guess characters we haven’t seen. That’s the fun of the six episodes. You’re not going to have to wait that long to find out, but we will show it. It’s very similar to who killed Lila. That was still the question hanging over the back half of season 1, so this feels really similar to me. There will be surprises about who’s done it, and there will be elements that aren’t surprising. I don’t actually know everything yet, is the truth, so that’s what I figure out along the way.

Since the beginning of the series, the stories of How to Get Away with Murder have really been on the shoulders of Annalise and Wes. How much does that scare you losing one half of that dynamic?

I think it’s one of the things that I’m excited about. In real life, if you lose the people closest to you, how do you fill that void? I’m fascinated to delve into Annalise’s personal relationship with everyone else as well. Does it bond them in a way that we haven’t seen yet? There’s just a lot of territory to explore, so as much as it scares me, also I get excited by what’s new.

Let’s talk about that Bonnie and Annalise kiss…

A kiss can mean a lot of things, but Annalise is at rock bottom in episode 9, even before she finds out her house has been burned down and Wes has been killed inside. She’s desperate and she’s drunk and she’s alone. She’s as alone as we’ve seen her, which says a lot, and in a moment of drunkenness, she needs to feel close to someone. So, yes, there’s a kiss between her and Bonnie. I think what I love about the show and the characters is they’re really messy and they cross boundaries they shouldn’t have crossed.

Laurel is pregnant and it seems like Wes may be the baby daddy. How will his death affect her?

This makes Laurel grow up in a major way. I think she’s devastated. She has a real dilemma now being pregnant with what is probably his baby. She feels like she has to be the keeper of his integrity. I don’t know if she trusts anyone. I don’t know if she thinks Frank did this. Does she think Bonnie does it? Does she think Annalise did it? I think she knows that she’s the keeper of his purity in a way and needs to avenge it.

Is Wes the father of her child?

I don’t want to confirm, because we’re going to confirm it on the show when we come back, so people won’t have to wait that long.

In the midseason premiere?

Yes. We’re not doing Bridget Jones’s Baby.

Each season has followed a different structure. Can you talk about how that might change in the back half and why you like to keep kind of switching it up?

Well, it’s funny because I feel like the first season was a structure, and then we’ve always done flash forwards. Obviously I’m trying to do less, just bookend them so people aren’t as confused, and also just to follow the set piece that we’re doing. We tried to keep them simpler this year. How we end the ninth episode always tells me where the back half of the season has to go. So, this back half of the season won’t have as many flashbacks as last year did.

I definitely take in constructive criticism I get of there’s too much going on, or the back-and-forth hurt people’s heads, and I don’t always understand exactly what people mean, because sometimes I’m like, “Is that what they meant? Or did they like this and not like that?” But I think for this one, we’re just going to keep it really simple, and we will flash back, but obviously not to 10 years ago or something. It’s just going to be about what happened to Wes in those hours between when he left the police station and when he died.

How much longer do you think you can keep using the murder conceit without everyone just saying, “Why don’t we just leave this town?!”

I think it’s like a mob show. A real mob goes on for 20 or 30 years killing people, being watched by the FBI, and that’s real life. The conceit can last as long as people keep watching and if they want to stop watching, then the network will be like, “You’re done.” I don’t worry about it that much, because I have no control over it. I’m not trying to wait to do anything. I’m not going to be like, “You know what? Season 5 we’ll put someone under the sheet!” If I have an idea, I just have to do it now. I’d rather us burn out bright than just linger on and dwindle into boringness.

If you had carte blanche and could do anything, what would you want to do?

Make like five episodes a year. This is what I’ll say, and I’m really spoiled: I think a lot of times as a showrunner, you’re like, “Oh, I want to do this thing, but I don’t know if the actor can pull that off.” I think a lot of times you’re just writing toward your actors, and on this show, with each of them, they can be funny, they can be sad, they can be grounded, they can be high drama. I’m not handcuffed at all by my actors. Instead, it’s kind of terrifying, because you’re like, “Oh, I can do anything. Am I going to make the right decisions?” So, I can do anything. No one’s telling me I can’t, except to make less episodes, but then I wouldn’t have a job. Sometimes you wish you could make less. It’s the question you’ve been asking me since the beginning. “How long can this go on?” I don’t know. Someone else will make that decision, which is nice.

Pick up next week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Wes’ death episode, with scoop from the cast and Nowalk.

How to Get Away with Murder will return Thursday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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