Two murders set Shondaland's new thriller in motion, and everybody's a suspect. Class is now in session!

By Marc Snetiker
Updated September 26, 2014 at 03:01 AM EDT
Nicole Rivelli/ABC

How to Get Away With Murder

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“I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma’s out of balance to get assigned my class. I’m Professor Annalise Keating and this is Criminal Law 100, or as I prefer to call it, How to Get Away with Murder.” HEY-O! ANNALISE KEATING HAS SPOKEN.

Now, first things first—if you don’t immediately know how to pronounce the phrase How to Get Away with Murder, then you probably didn’t watch the show. Viola Davis says the phrase approximately three and a half times in the pilot and each utterance is more dramatic and eerie and fabulous than the last. If you don’t know how to pronounce the phrase, then you may not recognize that HTGAWM is meant to be your newest guilty pleasure roller-coaster ride, custom built for you to enjoy on Thursday nights paired with an entire pint of ice cream, a well-assembled cheese board, or your favorite toasted artisan crackers and Sauvignon Blanc (twist-cap only). And if you still don’t know how to perfectly over-pronounce “HOW to get a-WAY with MUR-der,” then you clearly aren’t buckled in for what’s going to become your new favorite legal thriller/Shondaland drama/time-wasting watercooler theory-fest.

As my colleague Melissa Maerz writes, the show is campy and colorful and solely intended to send you flying into a world of escape, which entails wild cliffhangers, unrealistic legal procedures, and shocking developments likely to spur a host of all-caps tweeting. True Detective this is not; I like to think #HTGAWM is a juicy mix of Pretty Little Liars (“We have to hide this body, girls!”) and Legally Blonde (“FOUR of you will come join me at my firm!”) with just a little hint of A Few Good Men to keep things classy.

And so, with those descriptions in mind, it’s my honor to be guiding you through these weekly recaps wherein we’ll laugh, cry, reveal our deepest fears and crippling insecurities, and try to unravel a few answers to the two major mysteries that were introduced in the pilot. Sometimes we’ll move chronologically and I’ll give you a solid play-by-play. For this jam-packed pilot, I think the best approach is to lay out exactly what we’re dealing with.

Season 1 will chart two murders—college student Lila Stangard and professor Sam Keating—and they’re cases which, I’d wager, are undeniably connected. And that’s about the extent to which I will wager anything from here on out because, much like visits to Taco Bell, you simply must plan for twists.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LILA STANGARD

FACTS: Looming over the episode is the disappearance of a popular, pretty sorority girl named Lila Stangard who, according to flyers trumpeted all over campus in a very uncreative font, was last seen at a Kappa Kappa Theta party on August 30. The campus mourns and holds a vigil—in which her athlete boyfriend Griffin delivers a heartfelt speech—but shortly after her disappearance, Lila’s body is found floating in the water tank on the roof of her sorority house. (Fact: Sorority houses apparently have water tanks on their roofs.)

SUSPECT #1: Annalise Keating (Viola Davis)

Shocked? Our main conduit into the world of How to Get Away with Murder is Professor Keating, a fiercely terrifying yet wildly intelligent law professor who exercises sketchy moral ambiguity in the courtroom and a sick sense of humor about her awful reputation in the classroom. (Being so brilliant, you might wonder why she’s spending her time teaching a 100-level course, but she’s probably one of those teachers who gets her kicks frightening the young’uns at an early age to instill a proper threshold of fear, like a George Bluthian tiger mom.)

Now, I don’t believe that Annalise killed Lila, but I do think Annalise killed her husband Sam and Lila is the reason why. At the end of the episode, the news report announcing the discovery of Lila’s body appeared to distress Mr. Keating, but it left Annalise relatively blank-faced. (The wistful, vague Guess-My-Emotion expressions are a staple in Shondaland.) So, Lila is clearly a touchy subject in the Keating household. Was she Sam’s mistress, and Annalise found out and did something about it? Or will she take her vengeance out on Sam himself? Or, as Michaela foreshadows when she’s presenting a case defense in class, “What better way to get revenge than to kill your cheating husband and pin it on his mistress?” (Watch out, Bonnie?)

If her cavalier attitude toward guilty clients and her ambiguous moral compass don’t already suggest Annalise’s willingness to break bad, her dubious motives were, to me, on major display at the Dean’s cocktail party. Remember when she corners Wes in the bathroom? When she cries and confesses that she and her husband have been trying for a baby? When she rubs Wes’ chest and shoulders and arms in that slightly creepy, horny weeping willow way? I submit to you that it’s all an act, a calculated effort by Annalise to paint herself as a lonely married woman who fell victim to cheating in a moment of weakness—a helpful portrait for Annalise should Wes ever find himself talking about her to someone important. Granted, I could be wrong about whether those tears and that story are fake—but I believe Annalise had something to do with one of the murders. Because, like, let’s all just be up front and admit that on a show called How to Get Away with Murder, the main character is proooobably getting away with murder.

NEXT: Suspects #2-#7

SUSPECT #2: Sam Keating (Tom Verica)

It’s not clear whether Lila’s teacher/Annalise’s husband/Pennsylvania’s hottest psychology professor had a sexual relationship with Lila that was a little less Mr. Feeny and a little more Mary Kay Letourneau, but anybody who’s ever watched a TV show can assume that Sam and Lila were probably bumping fuzzies. When Sam is watching the news report, Annalise remarks, “I bet the boyfriend did it.” And ooooh, those are fighting words. It’s such a loaded statement with such specific intonation that it could suggest a dozen different options for interpretation, but namely that Annalise just might suspect her probably philandering, definitely hunky husband of non-hunky murder—which is the worst kind of murder.

SUSPECT #3: Griffin O’Reilly (Lenny Platt)

The obvious suspect in the case is Lila’s boyfriend, football star and future jawline model Griffin. We know he has a temper, as evidenced by his secret douchebusive visits to Wes’ neighbor Rebecca. Griffin seemed particularly stressed out when the police found Lila’s body, which is definitely not the right reaction when someone finds your beloved girlfriend’s vanished corpse. It doesn’t seem likely that Griffin alone murdered Lila—this is a Shondaland show and that’s easier than a joke about Mysteries of Laura—but for now, Griff will probably lead them to their first suspects, cheekbones notwithstanding.

SUSPECT #4: Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay)

What about Wes’s mysterious neighbor Rebecca, the surly but beautiful bartender (with a heart of gold, probs) who comes and goes at late hours, steals booze from her bar, and wears more eyeliner than Billie Joe Armstrong cosplaying as Jack Sparrow? The Crying Girl in Apartment #3 seems to represent everything Lila isn’t—based on the single photo that I saw of Lila and my own stereotypes about Thetas from my fraternity days—but more importantly, Rebecca has a surreptitious connection to Griffin which could certainly come back to haunt her if people find out she’s “the other woman.” Really cute hoodies, though.

SUSPECT #5: Bonnie Winterbottom (Liza Weil)

Take a second to cheer at the name Bonnie Winterbottom—a whimsical moniker almost Narnian in its simple mystique—and then recall the exact moment when Annalise’s top lady-dog raised eyebrows: She looked visibly disgusted at the sight of Mrs. Keating kissing Mr. Keating, suggesting that Bonnie is super jealous of at least one of them.

My theory is that Bonnie either killed Lila in a fit of jealous rage, OR she killed Sam in a fit of jealous rage of equal or greater value (but not to be used with another fit of jealous rage, limit one per household, restrictions may apply). Bonnie may look sweet and innocent, but that typically suggests there is a whole weave of crazy hiding under that cheeky blonde bob. If not this murder, then when?! (Plus, I have to shout out to possible suspect Frank, suspicious because Bonnie outed him for constantly sleeping with his students and because his beard looks pretty murderer-y.)

SUSPECT #6: Nate Leahy (Billy Brown)

If Annalise can blackmail her sexy detective boyfriend to commit perjury, then what’s to say he wouldn’t do other dirty work for her? What other non-policemanly things will be done by the man with a penchant for black undies and a likely future knee problem? And since Nate seems to be an interesting but perhaps non-essential character, how long until this lawman gets in someone’s way and brings the body count to three? (Everyone loves a trilogy.)

SUSPECT #7: Mysterious Maintenance Man

No maintenance man in the history of maintenance men has ever been a good thing on a legal thriller—especially one who shows up seemingly uninvited to a sorority house. (Still, as certifiably creepy as he is, he seems to be the one to call in the discovery of Lila’s body, which either suggests that he’s innocent or one of those brilliant criminals you see in the pictures.)

***

Phew. So, that’s my list of suspects for the Lila Stangard case. FOR NOW. I’m not including any of the four main heroes, but their names can definitely be added to the mix as the weeks go by. (I see you with those crazy Jennifer Connelly eyes, Laurel.) The big takeaway here is this: Everyone seems as if they could be guilty of something. Moral ambiguity is a big theme here, and many of the motivations behind the characters could place them as a suspect on my Lila List or Sam List or CraigsList or whatever! Nobody’s a saint. With that, let’s move on to the other big mystery—that woodsy burial of a certain strapping psychology professor in a certain decorative rug by a certain frantic group of attractive twentysomethings.

NEXT: THE MURDER OF SAM KEATING

THE MURDER OF SAM KEATING

The other storyline to which we’ll be flashing forward all season long is that of the dead body being buried by our four main students—sexy playboy Connor, ambitious whiz Michaela, shy introvert Laurel, and naïve puppy Wes. (Conspicuously missing is their fifth cohort at Annalise’s firm, the jerky ascot-wearing WASP Asher.) Let’s call them Murder Inc., since they remind me oh so much of Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy. I’d like to approach the Sam Keating murder a little more chronologically, since every episode will fill in flash-forward gaps that could suggest clues not only about how Sam died and who killed him, but about screw-ups the foursome leaves behind as they try to get rid of the body and cover up the murder they may or may not have even committed.

The setting: It’s Middleton’s big celebratory bonfire in December, the school’s busiest night of the year, but rather than rallying pep and watching cheerleaders fly and seeing bottles of Smirnoff empty themselves at alarming rates, our four heroes of Murder Inc. find themselves down in a ditch in the woods, arguing about what to do with the murder weapon that Wes has “gone back for” and produced from a backpack: the bloody trophy of Lady Justice that Connor won for his work in the case-of-the-week. [CONNOR WALSH: Certifiable know-it-all, man-eating heartbreaker, willing to do illegal things to get illegal things, gay and impossibly gorgeous.]

The first decision Murder Inc. has to make: whether to keep the weapon, or to clean it and put it back. The second decision: whether to leave Sam’s body where it is—back at Annalise’s office, the ostensible location of the murder—or dispose of it in the frozen woods. Ultimately, Wes flips a coin, and off they go to Annalise’s to transport a corpse across campus. (And suddenly a walk of shame doesn’t seem so bad, DOES IT.)

At the office, Laurel has bleached the trophy and the sink while the boys roll the body up in Annalise’s gorgeous Aladdin on Broadway souvenir carpet. Michaela sort of just frowns in the corner, which again gives credence to my comparison that she’s “the Daphne” of the group. [MICHAELA PRATT: Ambitious overachiever, liked it so she put a ring on it, eager to impress, frontrunner candidate for Best Use of Tear Ducts in season 1.] She reluctantly helps lift the body and the four clamber out of the office, but not without bumping the Keating Carpet Corpse (© 2014) into the doorjamb—a scuff of DNA that you know is going to come back to haunt them. Other loose ends that could haunt them include:

–The cop who sees them outside the building thanks to Connor’s poorly parked car, forcing Michaela to fake a phone call to Annalise (what would have happened had she actually called?) before the cop became too overwhelmed with drunken college lunatics stealing lawn ornaments anyway to pay much attention.

–The drunk couple in the woods who scurry away after hearing Laurel’s phone go off (thanks to a call from Annalise’s associate Frank, showing one very well-placed nipple in the photo that Laurel has set to appear) [LAUREL CASTILLO: Quiet thinker, possibly undercover crazy, sleeping with her T.A. and smitten enough to actually program a sexy photo of him into her phone contacts.]

–The time spent at the gas station, assuming that Wes did at least five careless and idiotic things during his time buying lighter fluid and candy that were no doubt caught by the convenience store’s surveillance (but who’s to say that footage can’t be doctored?).

And so, back in the forest, with the carpet unrolled and the body in the woods and a standing reservation at Applebee’s waiting when they’re done, Murder Inc. is prepared to light a bonfire of their own and trash the body for good. “Okay, last chance—either we all agree, or we stop right now,” says Wes, raising his voice because he’s super stressed. [WES GIBBINS: Naïve outsider, Middleton wait-lister, outside-the-box thinker, friend to Harry Potter even though they definitely lost touch after the third movie.] Nobody disagrees with Wes, and so the lighter fluid is poured and the match is lit and BOOM—Mr. Keating is now just kindling.

So, who killed Sam? Was it one of kids? Or was it Annalise? Could it have been Bonnie or Nate, both of whom could be jealous lovers with a stake in the Keatings’ relationship? What about the absent Asher? Or Rebecca, who may have had more to do with Sam than Lila? And what about the Mysterious Maintenance Man!? Does he not entertain you!?

Finally, I’ll leave you with some random thoughts:

–If you knew what mens rea meant because of Legally Blonde, you are not alone.

–Witness/suspect/evidence. It’s the new Gym/Tan/Laundry, a 2014 answer to Aaron Samuels/”Hot” Body/Army of Skanks. We’ll be seeing a lot of Annalise’s simple WSE outline, and hopefully all future lawsuits of the week are handled with as much excitement as the montage in which Murder Inc. cracks the case by following her simple steps.

–Why are there bite marks on the headboard of Wes’ bed? Scratches, sure, but bite marks? Rebecca mentions that the former tenant was a law student who had “lab rabbit sex and a nervous breakdown.” Color me intrigued. And speaking of Wes’ bed, I can accept that he doesn’t have any furniture yet, but I simply can’t accept that he didn’t have bedsheets for the first week. That’s a Bed Bath & Beyond-related crime I just can’t get behind.

–What’s the story with Frank and Laurel? How did they meet, when did they start sleeping together, and does he own a used car lot or no?

–Jack Falahee is already my heartthrob of the year. When he raises an eyebrow, America swoons. Plus, that beauty mark. Not since Cindy Crawford has a beauty mark been so important. Not since Cindy Crawford.

–Is Annalise giving Wes special treatment for a reason?

–How long before Wes and Rebecca shuck off their preconceptions and get carnal?

–What is the tip of Bonnie’s iceberg and how crazy will she really get? My guess is “very.”

–When will another dead body turn up, and why is it probably Frank or Nate?

–Michaela was smart to stop Wes from talking to her in class. I would hold up my engagement ring if someone tried to tell me their goals for the year while I was highlighting a syllabus. Also, who’s her fiance!?

–Is a practicing defense attorney allowed to turn her open cases into school assignments? Do the university’s other professors and administrators sign off on that? I’m going to turn the other cheek because you know mama loves a good legal loophole, but something about that whole process doesn’t seem totally kosher.

And that’s it for our first week of Murder! Hopefully my theories aren’t too off the wall—let me know if they are—or sound off in the comments and list your own guesses, wild or realistic, about who killed Lila, who killed Sam, and whether Annalise could fashionably pull off maroon leather!

Episode Recaps

How to Get Away With Murder

Viola Davis stars as a law professor where she teaches, wait for it, how to get away with murder.

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