A single mother, under intense pressure, spends the day with her children: From the bratty, eager-to-please type A teenager and her depressed and flailing sister, to the loyal jokester trying desperately to climb out of his antics and into expressing something real. Shes’ even building bridges with her estranged and desperate eldest.
She drives all day, face bruised all to hell, visiting them one by one — even the honorary son, the one who reminds her so much of the ones she’s lost, the quiet programmer who’s held onto his innocence the longest. And finally, after losing her best friend — one she acquired incredibly recently, which makes it worse — she calls them all together, and offers the scariest and most poignant admission of all: She is too frightened to move.
“It’s War” (Feb. 16) is an outlier in a lot of ways: It’s the penultimate week in the season, leading to a two-parter finale Feb. 23, which is always strange since “HTGAWM” is such a doggedly structural show — a story that builds itself around flashbacks and twists and reveals and hashtags should not be this good at two-parters, but history shows that it is.
What’s even stranger is that the formal concerns of the show are what sets it apart from the other #TGIT shows it’s usually paired and matched with: “Grey’s” is a 20-year soap opera with only theme-expressing monologues separating its rush into bite-size pieces (never forget that the first five seasons of that show took place over a single year in show time!), and “Scandal” is a nonstop rush that ends each week with a nauseated exclamation point — even “The Catch” is less about its hidden procedural setup than the chemistry, of course, although it does seem to be rebooting a lot about itself for the Mar. 3 premiere.
“HTGAWM” is not just the only show of its kind right now — the almost-comparable “Quantico” becomes a single-timeline show soon — but different from its sisters in this way. We have seen in the past how it uses two-hour blocks so purposefully: Not just two episodes mashed together, but two parts of a single thing. We wouldn’t be surprised if, following the show’s previous patterns, Wes’ (Alfred Enoch) murder is cleared up well before the first-hour mark, leading into a fresh hell for the remainder.
What this episode does do is no less uncharacteristic: Reframing itself by repetitively pointing up the “family” aspects of the Keating 4-plus-1 has been the show’s mission all season, but this episode was a nonstop meditation on that idea, now that Annalise (Viola Davis) is back out of jail. We’ve definitely noticed the majority of the kids acting sketchy lately (“lately”) and it’s not only a nice breather but a necessary beat in the story, to have the show not just acknowledge that but investigate it:
This season’s sketchiest of all, poor Connor (Jack Falahee), is finally revealed in flashback to have discovered, and failed to resuscitate, Wes’ body before the fire. It really does explain his strange, insistent antipathy toward Annalise this season, both because he has personal memories and trauma relating to the crime scene, and because his futile CPR attempt means he feels guilty for the death. More explicitly, we learn that Michaela (Aja Naomi King) isn’t thriving in her bossy-boots big sister role, but crumbling — an honest surprise; Asher (Matt McGorry) talks in such goofy, self-protective irony that he finds it difficult to find the literal words to speak honestly about his loyalty and devotion to Annalise.
Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) seems almost conscious of the way Annalise is unconsciously grooming him to be her new Wes, which has been in the cards since his introduction to the show and family. No matter how many times he claims otherwise, this circumstance is clearly an opportunity for him to explore heretofore unknown aspects of himself — riding not only on the back of the six different kinds of personally illuminating hell Connor (Jack Falahee) has put him through, of course, nor just his reaction to his HIV diagnosis, but a seeming fascination with just how a regular person transforms into the kind of people he’s associating with. He needs to retain his innocence, as Annalise and Connor both know, but he also needs to lose it, to grow up — and nobody is going to back him up on that, so he has to do it all on his own.
Laurel (Karla Souza), after weeks of frighteningly deep depression, finally gets her cathartic moment to scream at everyone for ruining her life — and redefines that life in a couple of major ways: The first, of course, is giving in to her Castillo side by going rogue and hiring a PI. This impulse to surveil, to not just uncover but own secrets, is a natural response to the unanswerable question of grief. But with her family history, and the way she so often and so consciously and loudly repudiates it, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s also a comforting refuge. Since the beginning, the show has asked whether Laurel’s 1-L persona, the do-gooder tattletale, was just a stance or rebellion — and as she finds herself homing in on it, we see it was both. We hate what we are, first and foremost — and her only way through this one is with a support system she simply does not have.
Even more tricky and interesting is a scene with Bonnie (Liza Weil), who offers not just to arrange and facilitate an abortion — but offers to hide it from Annalise. While this is fascinating on its own as a Bonnie move — betraying Annalise to protect her is guaranteed to get you so much more wrath and trouble than it’s worth — it’s also a brilliant summation of the Bonnie of this season. She sees the pieces, she knows how they work, she wants to help, and in the end it’s her inability to understand other human beings that gets in the way. We’ve seen it with Frank and Annalise, of course, but it underlies even her past relationship with Asher — he is the most basic human, and that’s attractive. (Asher’s continued protective, respectful loyalty for Bonnie was joined this season by the same for Annalise and Oliver as, by far, the best thing about him.)
So Bonnie sees a lifetime ahead of sadness for Laurel, a constant reminder of this nightmare; and Bonnie sees an almost certainly dark future for the child; and Bonnie sees a way to save everybody — including Annalise’s absolutely certain obsession with this child, which will be bizarre and boundary-defying, because Annalise Keating is bizarre and has zero understanding of boundaries. Even if it weren’t Wes’ child, it would still be way too close to the unborn child she lost — the fact that it is means that it’s both: Not just a third-time do-over but a Russian nesting doll of emotional meaning and yearning and sadness. This baby will be born with Wes’ ghost inside it, and her miscarried son’s ghost inside that — and maybe even the good things about Sam (Tom Verica) and Frank (Charlie Weber) inside that, if we have the right read on how she attaches.
And so it’s fitting that a story bookended by Wes’ murder would end up back where we started: The day Frank sold Annalise out, and the Mahoneys (Roxanne Hart & Adam Arkin) took her child. Laurel’s off-book meddling has proven that the murder — and, it seems likely, the conspiracy against Annalise that now goes all the way to the top — comes down to those original enemies, too. Much of the episode’s running-around bits lead eventually back to saving Nate (Billy Brown) from falling prey yet again from Annalise’s mess, but now the “mess” is reality, since the devil’s at the door. The sickeningly sad and sudden breakdown of her friendship with Soraya Hargrove (Lauren Luna Vélez) — one of the high points of the season, previously — is the last straw: They can find you anywhere.
And when Keating explains, in several mini-speeches, that the Mahoneys are an unstoppable evil that will wipe you off the map as though you never existed, it’s with her full Viola Davis power: That good old Keating Authority, booming like the voice of God.
But this time she’s lying — and if her kids can see that, that means they’re growing up. Doubly, if she can’t see it herself. Ultimately, Annalise is in no position to reliably narrate the next 24 hours, and in no position to recognize that about herself. She’s speaking from fear and fear is the mind-killer and in the end, Laurel’s snooping led to proof that the Mahoneys killed Wes after confirming who his father is, which is the first domino in a very short sequence. Which means the rest of the family needs a workaround.
Annalise, as a groundbreaking character and award-winning performance, is a person who is not defined by, but is riddled with, trauma. In some cases the cracks are filled with gold — that’s the work of a lifetime, and she’s done an admirable job. But in the end, it’s the cracks that remain — for Annalise, for any of us — that we’re more fragile than glass.
“How to Get Away With Murder” airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. The two-hour finale airs Feb. 23.