How to Get Away With Murder creator breaks down series finale, Annalise's death reveal
Pete Nowalk explains the decisions behind all the biggest spoilers in the series finale.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the How to Get Away With Murder series finale, "Stay."
After six seasons of betrayal, manipulation, and sacrifice, it's all come to this. Leaving quite the body count in its wake, How to Get Away With Murder wrapped up its run on ABC Thursday night with a final episode full of the unexpected twists and tragedy we've come to expect.
The biggest surprise? After years of dogged persecution, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) won her trial. Despite the efforts of the FBI and Governor Birkhead (Laura Innes) to frame Annalise, Nate (Billy Brown) came through in the end, saying he believed he was set up by Hannah Keating (Marcia Gay Harden) and blamed the FBI for the death of Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry). Annalise gave the closing remarks of a lifetime, declaring herself a "survivor" and taking off the metaphorical mask she's struggled to wear for years.
And it worked -- the jury found her not guilty on every count, allowing her to go free. Meanwhile, the Keating Four tried to make peace with their choices. When Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) negotiated a new deal for Connor (Jack Falahee) to avoid any jail time, it brought the couple to the brink of divorce. Ultimately, Connor felt it necessary to go to prison to atone for his sins, leaving Oliver on his own and heartbroken. But he wasn't the only one left out in the cold -- after choosing her ambition over what was right, Michaela (Aja Naomi King) was also left to fend for herself, excommunicated by her former law school friends.
After coming unglued at the news that he was the product of incest, Frank (Charlie Weber) became determined to set things right, which by his standards is always violent. He left Bonnie (Liza Weil) and told Gabriel (Rome Flynn) the truth about Sam. Just when it seemed like peace might be on the horizon for everyone, Frank broke from the crowd on the courthouse steps after the final verdict in Annalise's case and assassinated the governor.
Realizing what he was doing, Bonnie tried to stop him and got caught in the crossfire with the governor's security detail. Bonnie cradled Frank's body while he bled out, before Annalise rushed to them, only to discover Bonnie had been fatally shot as well, dying in Annalise's arms.
As for Annalise? That funeral we've been seeing flash-forwards of all season was actually years in the future when she had died of natural causes at a ripe old age. We got a glimpse of everyone's future: Michaela chased her dream (alone) of becoming a lawyer and a judge; Nate opened a Justice Center in his father's name; and Connor and Oliver reunited and were together at Annalise's funeral. The boy we'd been led to believe was Wes (Alfred Enoch) was actually Christopher, Laurel (Karla Souza) and Wes's son. He grew up to become a lawyer, mentored by Annalise, and we close the series with a bookend to the pilot: Christopher on his first day of class teaching, what else? How to Get Away With Murder.
In the wake of the series finale, we called up creator Pete Nowalk to talk about everything from writing Annalise's final speech to the tragic martyrdom of Frank and Bonnie and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We saw some version of an ending for every character here. We see something definitive for Nate with the Justice Center, but a lot more gaps in other’s lives, for instance Michaela or Connor? How did you decide who would get a more vague versus concrete resolution?
It's funny because I feel like [Nate's] ending is as definitive as Michaela's. I wanted to give everyone just a glimpse of what happened to the characters and where they ended up and they would be able to fill in the rest. It's like a breadcrumb that will lead them to create a story in their head if they want.
Annalise’s final courtroom speech; that is such a pure distillation of her character and the journey we’ve taken with her. Can you tell me more about writing that? Was it an arduous process?
I don't remember it being a process. I just finally wanted to say what the show was about for me and what it became. A lot that is also in what that character became for Viola. It was very important to me that we were clear, that we actually said what we meant, and we put those words in her mouth. I think when it came to writing, it took me like 30 minutes. It was really easy because I knew the character so well and I knew what she had been through and I knew what she stood for. From the beginning, Viola and I talked about the mask that Annalise wears. I was ready for Viola to have a million thoughts and make it deeper and better. [But at] the read through, she just turned to me and she goes, "I love that speech." I've never heard her continuously tell me she loves something so much. Every time I'd go to her she's like," I love that speech." It's one of those instances where it just came together really easily, I think because we've been talking about these ideas for seven years together.
Bonnie and Frank have such a violent end. Did you always know that would go down that way? Any thought of sparing one of them?
I definitely knew going into the season that Frank would sacrifice himself to fix the situation, especially when we came up with this idea of finding out who he was. Frank has always wanted to fix things and be the hero because for so much of his life, he hated himself, and he knew there was bad instincts in him and he wanted to turn them into good. In a sick way, that's what he thinks he was doing in that last moment. Bonnie was a big debate. Obviously, a lot of people are going to be mad about it because she suffered so much in her lifetime. But my instinct was this was a show about really messy situations. They all did horrible things, and I didn't want to give an ending, not just to Bonnie, but in general on the show, that was happy. Tragedy begets tragedy and that means some people had to die even if it was a complete accident. That's the tragedy of it to me because she did deserve better. She and Frank really did truly love each other. There was something very Romeo and Juliet about them dying together.
Tell me more about filming that day. It seems like such an emotional way for Liza and Charlie to go out, but was it cathartic in any way?
I was there for the beginning just because I really wanted to make sure our director put the people in the places where I pictured them. I knew I wanted a courthouse steps shooting and the chaos of that, and I had a very clear picture. Then, I actually left before they shot that last scene. I didn't want to be prepared. People told me, "It's even worse than you would expect." And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." But then when I watched it, I actually got the chills and was in awe of where Viola took it. It's really violent. It was real and raw. I still get sick to my stomach watching it.
Why do you think Connor needed to choose jail? Why was that the only option for him?
Connor since the beginning has felt more guilty and more self-loathing than any other students. Really any of the other characters. He had the hardest time compartmentalizing, and I think that's actually true because his life and his background was really nice compared to the rest of them. Michaela gives that speech about how she grew up and why she feels like she's suffered enough and why she's able to think that she deserves happiness. I don't think he thinks that's true for him. I really understand it. I think I would probably want to do the same thing. I grew up Catholic so there's something in me that you need to be punished for your sins in order to come out the other side. I think for him that was a really brave choice and true to him, giving himself the gift of needing to pay the price. Obviously, people are going to be upset about that, but you have another scene with them and you can create another story that's much more happy.
About that happier story — can you tell us if Oliver was by his side throughout jail or if they didn't reconnect until later in life? Or would you rather fans decide that for themselves?
The latter. I really am kind of handing it over to the fans and the viewers. People who love Connor and Oliver the most can make that story whatever they want it to be. I know my version in my head, but I didn't get to tell it, so I'm happy for other people to tell that story for themselves.
Was there ever a time or a version you hoped to tell it?
No. One of my goals with this was to give answers but also to allow for imagination. One of the finales that I always think about, that made me really angry in the moment was The Sopranos. But I think about it all the time and that's why I think it's genius. There's so much room to interpret what happened.
Laurel and Annalise were at odds for so much of this, and yet, it does appear that Christopher became very close to her, calling her a mentor. Why did you decide Laurel would allow that relationship between them
I think Laurel is the most misunderstood character in the show. Laurel from the beginning was very Team Annalise and hated her father. I think Laurel could have easily become the third part of the murder spree with Bonnie. Laurel, if she didn't have a baby, would have become a lot more hardened and a little more reckless and would have done whatever she needed to do to take down her father and her family. But once Christopher was thrown into the picture, she had to protect him. Even if that meant hurting everyone around her. He was the most important thing to her. But I don't think Laurel hated Annalise. I think they were just completely in conflict. They both loved Wes, and Christopher is obviously a part of Wes. Annalise saved the baby. They both loved that boy so much, so whatever their differences, they could come together over Christopher.
You have perfectly bookended the opening and closing of this series. Did a part of you always have that in mind or how did it come to be?
It came to be when I had the idea to bring back Alfie over the last hiatus. I had a lot of people be like, "How fun would it be if Annalise was dead in the last season?" I didn't like the idea of her getting a tragic end that way -- an early death...I also wanted to give Annalise somewhat of a happy ending. I could never have murdered her, but I wanted to play with everyone thinking that we murdered her because obviously there’s a lot of people with motives...Literally I just woke up one day and was like, "Oh, I can make it feel like Annalise died early and use Alfie again in this way that was odd but surprising." That was my big a-ha moment. Right after I came up with that, I was like, "He has to teach the class." From the beginning of the season, I knew that was how we were gonna end. Honestly, that's why I've always been saying, "I think it's time we end the show; I know how it's gonna end; I feel good about it." I never deviated from it. It was really that image that made me feel at peace the whole time.
That hand-holding montage, it seems like Annalise did go with Tegan for at least a time. Obviously, Eve still means a lot to her. Can we assume she had some romantic happiness in the intervening years?
I don't know if they can assume. They can watch the hands over and over again. There's a few different hands. They can look at them however they want and whether one of those is Eve's, whether one of those is someone we've never met. Again, that's another thing I just want people to dream what they want to dream.
Bonnie and Frank were a great loss for her, but in some ways, does their death free her?
I think losing Bonnie was devastating for Annalise. Ultimately, I just feel like she failed at protecting her. Connor felt so guilty about everything they did. Annalise has always felt so horrible about how she met Bonnie and how she took her down on the stand that day. They understood each other like no one else, so failing to protect Bonnie or not seeing Bonnie go on and live a life of happiness I think probably is something Annalise never got over. How she came out of it is she probably felt she had to live for the both of them.
People, yourself included, have joked for years that Annalise should end up on a beach relaxing somewhere, so what appealed to you about that final tropical image of her?
It's so funny because I don't even know if Annalise liked the beach. It's symbolic of some peace and quiet and that she got to see things other than the darkness of Philadelphia and all the blood and trauma she's experienced. Also, it turns to bright white light very quickly in that shot. You can see that paradise as whatever you want to see it as.
Was there anyone you wished you got to write more about?
Tegan is a character that we said a lot about her backstory, but didn't get to show it and didn't really get to fill in the spaces. That's a character that I think has a lot of question marks left that may frustrate people. But our original people's stories, I owed to it to those characters to spend more time with them. What actually happened to Laurel's mom? I feel like we kind of have said it, but we haven't shown it. There were a bunch of things like that, that I would have loved to explain but I also feel like it's not that entertaining just to have things explained for you. I wanted it to also be moving forward. I didn't want it to be like we end and now we explain everything for 25 minutes. That's not how the show works; it always ends on a climax. The closure we were giving people was all we could afford to give. Believe me, every second counted in this finale. Sometimes I feel like it's way too rushed, but it is what it is.
Was there any kind of J.K. Rowling situation of "I always intended for this character to die and changed my mind when writing?"
So many of the seasons we changed our minds and someone dies that we didn't want to die. I was open to it. It's really tragic what happens now. I didn't want anyone else to suffer that end. But I did want to make sure that not everyone was just like, one big happy family and they all got away with it and there's no repercussions because that's just not true. One of the real things I wanted to get to was in real life, people would betray each other in this situation. I just believe that. Ultimately, like, when push comes to shove, you have to decide do I choose myself or do I choose the other person? We saw everyone make that decision.
The show's final words are a speech about forgiveness and empathy. What do you hope audiences take away from the series?
I want us all to look at each other and see past the parts we don't like to try to understand where they come from. In Eve's final speech, she said something to the effect of when she was mad or blamed Annalise or felt angry at her she would remember the little girl in Memphis and forgive her for everything. My wish is that we all try to remember the little kids that we were and rather than hold on to the hate, we try to understand why people are the way they are. And then be a little bit more compassionate.
Lastly, reboots, spinoffs, etc. are all the rage. Would you ever consider returning, whether it was a movie or a spinoff about Christopher or anything and everything in between?
Definitely. It's not top of mind for me right now. Crazily, I'm giving a preliminary pitch on something else on Friday. I don't know how that happened, but I'm doing it. But I love this world. I love these characters. There's so much TV right now, I just wouldn't ever want to do something that nobody wanted to see. I really would want it to be a show that can exist on its own, meaning even if you haven't watched How to Get Away With Murder, you could watch the new thing. Right now, I want to write about something else, not law. But never say never. I love my writers and I think we could definitely do it. I just would want it to feel unique.