How to Get Away With Murder cast and creator reflect on the show's legacy
As a piece of culture comes to an end, it can be hard to suss out just what it's legacy might be. Often that comes with time and consideration.
But with How to Get Away With Murder ending its six-season run on ABC on Thursday night, we couldn't resist asking the cast and creator Pete Nowalk to weigh in on what they hope the show will be remembered for and what they'll miss most from their time at Middleton University. Catching up with them in their final days of shooting, they were reflective and wistful, reluctant to nail down any one thing as the show's legacy, but hopeful certain elements would endure.
For his part, Nowalk hopes the show's legacy will be twofold in terms of its representation of black women on television and identity at large. "I hear that Viola's representation of Annalise has changed the world in terms of showing an African-American woman who's not perfect, and is actually really f—ed up, and that's freedom," he says, referring to series star Viola Davis. "If there is a legacy, I hope there's one of people choosing to live a life that's not so normal — getting out of the prison of what the world tells you you should be."
Nowalk is also dreading losing the cathartic experience of writing for the series and his cast. "You can process a lot of your angst in this show, so it's actually really therapeutic," he says. "I get angry about the world. There's so much darkness in it right now, and you can have Annalise or another character give a speech about it, and that's such a cathartic, therapeutic thing. I'll miss having a mouthpiece like Viola and all of the actors. They've elevated my writing."
Perhaps the series' most enduring creation is the character of Annalise Keating, an unapologetic, complicated lawyer and a role that earned Davis an Emmy in 2015. Annalise's impact can be viewed in miniature through her changing look. Over the course of six seasons, Annalise's hairstyle evolved from a short bob to a longer shag 'do to her wearing her natural hair. We've watched Annalise move from box braids as a protective style (in flashbacks) to a series of wigs to a return to her natural hair.
Davis has always viewed Annalise's look as a type of armor, and feels her style evolution to be a key part of her onscreen legacy. "So much of the armor of people of color, especially women of color, is to assimilate into what we see as feminine and what we see as womanhood, and it usually involves looking as white as possible," she says. "Now we’re being given permission to be absolutely who we are, culturally, as black women: strong, unapologetic, all the attributes we have. We’re joining our white female counterparts in womanhood."
The Emmy-, Tony-, and Oscar-winning actress also points to how the show shook up ensemble casting. "It's redefined the ensemble on network TV," she says. "A lot of times people of color are in the periphery, or they're in one-dimensional roles that are not realized. What Pete and Shonda [Rhimes, executive producer] have created is humanization; they have reflected multicultural life as it is." Alongside other shows in the Shondaland stable, How to Get Away With Murder has been at the forefront of pushing for diverse casts and story lines that reflect the complexities and humanities of people of color, the LGBTQ community, and more.
Amirah Vann, who plays attorney Tegan Price, echoes Davis, saying, "The legacy and beauty of this entire show was the diversity of story lines, characters, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. They did so many firsts on this show for network television. For people to be seeing different representations in a positive light, positive in their complexity and humanity, that's something I'm really proud to be part of."
Liza Weil also feels similarly, noting, "It normalized a lot of things, in terms of people being able to recognize themselves in a setting that wasn't really happening before." For Weil, it will be both a relief and a loss to not carry around the turmoil of a character like Bonnie, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, on a daily basis. "It's going be strange to not have her around," she reflects. "Playing Bonnie has helped me understand a lot of things about myself, and we've kind of grown up together, but there's also a lot of darkness and turmoil, so it will be nice to feel lighter."
Karla Souza (Laurel Castillo) also points to the legacy of the type of headline-worthy cases the show often tackled in the courtroom. "It's talked about so many hot topics and done it in a way that has changed network TV," she says. Matt McGorry (Asher Millstone) echoes this praise for the show's willingness to tackle issues of social justice, particularly over the final few seasons. "[It] highlighted and shined a spotlight on issues that are really prescient in our current political environment," he says. "Whether it's the episode about solitary confinement or the episode where Nate Sr. is killed by prison guards, it highlights real issues that are happening, which hopefully will shape the arc of social justice."
In addition to Annalise's character, How to Get Away With Murder broke barriers in LGBTQ representation, particularly in its depiction of sex and an HIV-positive character, Oliver Hampton. Conrad Ricamora, who portrays Oliver, feels the weight of the impact of his role. "Playing an HIV-positive gay Asian man on television, all of those different populations that are in this character that I'm playing are so underrepresented in media, [saying goodbye] feels like such a celebration and a mourning at the same time," he says. "Personally, as an Asian man, it's hard to find examples where we were able to be on screen without it being about our Asian-ness or without being the butt of jokes. I hope this has allowed other Asian men and boys across the world to see themselves as three-dimensional people and not just jokes or a stereotype."
Being able to provide that type of representation is what Ricamora will miss most. "I will miss being able to portray an interracial gay couple on network primetime television that has sex — that is a sexual couple and not just a comedic couple," he says. "Because I don't think that comes around very often. To show a gay couple having sex on prime-time TV is something people are still getting comfortable with, and the fact that we were able to show that is allowing people's mind to expand a little more and be more accepting."
That more inclusive view of sexuality applies to Annalise as well, who in the final season finally came out to herself and her family as a bisexual woman. "Very rarely are [black women] the adjectives of sociopathic, sexual, messy dark, and rarely are they the leading lady. I'm going to miss everything about that," Davis concludes. "I'm going to miss her being pansexual. I'm going to miss the whirling dervish aspect of playing Annalise because people hate the idea of being a woman and not likable. People have a very limited idea of who you are as a black woman, and a lot of that has been defined by the culture. I'm so glad that Shonda, Pete, Betsy [Beers, executive producer], and ABC had the bravery to just reject that."
How to Get Away With Murder may be over, but it's taught audiences and creators how to get away with a new level of representation and inclusivity on network television.
Viola Davis stars as a law professor where she teaches, wait for it, how to get away with murder.