Pete Nowalk of 'How To Get Away...' on crafting season 1's finale
By now, we all know how to get away with murder. First, you discredit the witness. Then you introduce a new suspect—and finally, you bury the evidence. But the real challenge How to Get Away with Murder boss Pete Nowalk faced as the ABC drama’s first season came to a close was figuring out how to create a second Murder Night—and it wasn’t as simple as the three steps listed above.
Below, the showrunner runs EW through creating Murder Night 2.0 for the show’s finale, which airs Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. The two-hour closer will flash back to the night of Lila Stangard’s murder and finally reveal who did the deed. Was it No. 1 suspect Sam (Tom Verica)? Or has Rebecca (Katie Findlay) been playing Wes (Alfred Enoch) all along?
Step 1: Don’t be afraid to write yourself into a corner
Nowalk will be the first to admit that he didn’t have every answer plotted out when the series kicked off with its first Murder Night. But he was following his mentor Shonda Rhimes’ lead: “She says she writes herself into a corner and she sees what happens,” he says. “If she hadn’t shown me that’s possible, I would’ve thought I needed to know everything.”
His big game-time decisions while shooting the pilot included Michaela’s (Aja Naomi King) missing engagement ring—”Did I know where that was going to be or what we were going to do with that storyline? Not at all”—and putting blood spatter on Wes. “We didn’t have time to question ourselves, we just had to put the blood on the shirt,” he says. “It’s actually very liberating in a way, because it gives you a goal.”
Step 2: Bask in the glow of original Murder Night
Figuring out who killed Sam kept viewers coming back, but it wasn’t so easy for the writers to get to that midseason finale reveal. “I’m proud of how Murder Night came out, because that was a leap—to put that puzzle together and to get to a place where everyone wasn’t going to throw their remotes at the TV, like, ‘This is ridiculous!'” Nowalk says. “A lot of the time in the writers’ room, I was pulling my hair out, saying, ‘This is ridiculous!’ We set up this mystery puzzle, and I was really nervous about it airing and how people were going to react. When people went along with that ride and seemed to want more, I was proud of that—that we were able to not go too far and not go too small, and still make it feel real and believable. Basically, I feel like we dodged a bullet. It’s given me the courage to keep writing the episodes.”
Step 3: Figure out what to do after the original Murder Night
The biggest challenge, Nowalk says, was figuring out what happens next: “Coming up with the show, what it would look like after that, and letting go of this flash-forward device and also this really easy mystery: Who killed Sam? It was such a simple question. The second half of the season didn’t have that, so we had to create that very quickly—and also take a leap in terms of, the show might feel stylistically different than the first few episodes, which moved really fast, were really frenetic and had this Murder Night frenzy vibe to all of them. To leave that behind and try to create something new, it was like the second season, really, and creating a completely different vibe. That was the hardest thing. I hope that it’s just as interesting, or interesting in a different way.”
Step 4: Answer leftover questions from the original Murder Night
The mystery of who killed Lila went unsolved. Worse, audiences noticed unintentional enigmas and demanded answers. For instance: Why were the justice statue’s scales missing? “The scales on the trophy prop fall off very easily,” Nowalk says. “Through shooting—it’s all in the gag reel—Viola [Davis] would be holding up that trophy in the living room and they would fall off, and she’d be like, ‘Goddamn these scales!’ So, there was no way that him running around with the scales [would work]. If the scales on the prop fall off, then the scales on the trophy on the show can fall off at some point too. I love that people pick up on all these details. I will give the audience credit for making us all realize, ‘Oh crap, we have to really tell them where the scales are.’ It makes you pay attention to detail.”
Step 5: Write multiple endings for the second Murder Night
Though it had long been their plan to show Lila’s murder in the finale, Nowalk says the events of how it all comes together have changed. “In fact, up until two days before our read-through, I kept changing things and was a little paralyzed with what the decision was,” Nowalk says. “I will say three different versions were written of that. Big changes.” How big? The identity of her killer “has not always been the same,” Nowalk says.
Step 6: Don’t give your characters all the answers
The audience will be one step ahead of the Keating Five this time around. “We, the audience, can see it where the characters cannot,” Nowalk teases. “We’re flashing back to Murder Night as certain characters are delving into what happened as much as they can, like going through evidence—looking Rebecca’s confession tape and looking at Sam’s whereabouts. It’s trying to piece the puzzle together.”
Step 7: Set a new tone for the Murder Night sequel
Nowalk hints that the new Murder Night is the exact opposite of the original, which he calls “frenetic and action packed.” “This is more internal and psychological and quiet,” he says. “I like that it feels quiet and a little more internal and a character study versus action-packed. A lot of things happen and there are a lot of twists, but it’s palpable, quiet tension.”
Step 8: Distract the characters from the task at hand with personal problems
Figuring out who killed Lila does take up a bulk of the finale, but the characters will have their own issues to deal with as well. “We’ll watch Annalise struggle with ways to help Nate [Billy Brown] and protect him, and also struggle with whether she should even protect him because, of course, it puts her and everyone in that house in danger,” Nowalk says. “Connor [Jack Falahee] and Oliver [Conrad Ricamora] are trying to take the next step in their relationship. Laurel [Karla Souza] and Wes now have this secret knowledge about Rudy and the mental institution, so they’re really on that track of trying to figure out what happened there with Rudy. And Michaela has to deal with someone from her past.” The finale will also definitively answer what happened to her missing engagement ring.
Step 9: Use the lovable dummy
Though some viewers probably don’t look at Asher (Matt McGorry) as lovable, they may sympathize with his plight during the finale. Still the only member of the Keating Five unaware of the truth, Asher also faces increasing pressure now that Frank (Charlie Weber) knows he slept with Bonnie (Liza Weil). “Asher plays a pivotal part,” Nowalk says. “His role in the house as the one person who doesn’t know anything will become quite important.”
Step 10: Don’t be afraid of murder
Will everyone make it out of season 1 alive? For this question, the showrunner plays coy: “I’ll take the fifth on that one.”
How to Get Away with Murder‘s season finale airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
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