How ‘HTGAWM’ transitioned from crime- to justice-oriented drama: Series needs to learn how to balance old, new tricks

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“How to Get Away with Murder” aired the finale of its fourth season last week — and for a show that packs its hourlong episodes with as much drama as possible, the episode was largely anticlimactic.

The series follows infamous defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her students, who will soon be graduating from law school. “HTGAWM” started out as a semi-procedural series wherein the characters navigated murky moral waters defending alleged murderers. Now, the episodes no longer operate on a case-by-case basis — the show since transformed into a character-driven drama.

“How to Get Away with Murder” now digs into its characters’ pasts to pinpoint the experiences that made them who they are — some of them murderers, all of them partners in crime.

At the start of the first season, Annalise selected a set of students to be mentored by her and aid her in her case work. Those students were Wes (Alfred Enoch), Laurel (Karla Souza), Michaela (Aja Naomi King), Connor (Jack Falahee) and Asher (Matt McGorry). They’re later joined by Connor’s boyfriend, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), whose technical skills allow him to participate in the team’s scheming even though he isn’t a law student.

Each episode of the early seasons featured a new legal case, in which Annalise defended a person accused of murder. The core of the show, however, was that a student at the central university had just been killed, and the team was hell-bent on figuring out who did it. Breadcrumbs led to Annalise’s husband, and he ultimately clashed with Annalise’s student team.

In a moment of panic, Wes killed Annalise’s husband in her own home — then the team, and eventually Annalise, help cover up the murder.

The first seasons were dark and intense, tying up any loose ends before revealing guilty players. Slowly, however, “HTGAWM” perfected the art of meticulous plot-planning.

Later on, the series still dually focused on Annalise’s cases, up until a link between Annalise and Wes’ pasts emerged.

Flashbacks, which were needed to understand Annalise’s relationship with Wes, catalyzed a fundamental changed in the show’s structure. “How to Get Away with Murder” went from a crime-driven drama to one that’s justice-driven, a shift that begun the moment Annalise acknowledged her responsibility for the death of Wes’ mother.

Since that moment, the series became more invested in the crimes Annalise and her students commit in their pursuits of justice. Now, the show is equally interested in making the characters face their misdeeds as it is in their moral ambiguities themselves. This transition forced the show to pack more cliffhangers into every episode, as it now lacked the built-in cliffhangers of active murder investigations.

That is, until Wes was murdered in the third season.

The question “HTGAWM” aims to answer now is, “How far would you go for justice?”

Killing off Wes led the series into an era of multi-layered plot. Instead of looking at individual cases and a police-led investigation, the series became focused on one long-term class-action lawsuit for Annalise and the long-term pursuit of Wes’ killer — though the police ruled his death an accident.

Throughout the most recent season, Wes’ peers both criticize and defend him ruthlessly. His murder forced all of the students to reflect on their moral standings going forward.

Wes was never physically present this season, but his moral compass still looms over the team, driving them to not only find out who’s guilty of killing him, but also to hold his killer (or killers) accountable. Wes set a moral standard, against which the rest of the team constantly measures themselves.

His death also catalyzed important changes in Annalise. She not only received treatment for trauma and alcoholism this season, but also pursued a class-action suit that was brought to the Supreme Court — she argued that lack of effective legal council perpetuates mass incarceration and institutionalized racism, and she won.

The shift to a character-driven focus justifies another change in the show’s orientation. This fourth season, we’ve seen the characters’ intentions become more altruistic — they’re driven less by a desire to protect themselves, but rather one to protect their communities instead. When we understand the characters’ backgrounds, we better understand their motives.

These have been the two major plots of season four — justice against a racist carceral system, and justice for Wes — both of which have greater long-term consequences for the team, but lessened short-term consequences. Thus, the tension in the series has dissipated, even if the plot’s intentions are now more altruistic than they’ve been in the past.

One thing is certain: “How to Get Away with Murder” has always been invested in watching its characters walk morally gray lines. But its new orientation towards fighting more personal battles as well as systemic oppression points toward a fundamental change in the series’ approach to crime.

“HTGAWM” now responds to socio-political calls to action.

Annalise’s monologues about justice and racial inequality are moving. Davis is a queen on and off the screen. The series’ use of real statistics, such as those on racialized mass incarceration from the NAACP, is both informative and staggering.

But viewership for the series has dropped significantly since its first season. This may be because the show’s new moral orientations aren’t captivating audiences as much as the original season’s built-in cliffhangers did.

The series’ new approach is a strong one, and it is much needed in the present era — but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of what’s worked for “HTGAWM” in the past.

“HTGAWM” seems to want us to come back for the characters, but sinking viewership tells us that’s not enough. The first season started out with 20 million viewers, according to Deadline, and ended with almost 9 million. This season, the series started and ended with almost 4 million viewers. “HTGAWM” seemed to have a consistent viewership of about 3.5 million this season, who will keep coming back for the characters and the changing storylines.

Perhaps audiences were more interested when the characters were in physical or legal peril. Perhaps what hooked them in the first place was the idea of lawyers who didn’t always follow the law or commonly held moral prescriptions. Maybe the stakes feel lower than they did in former seasons.

The series has to learn to balance satisfaction with anticipation, because in the past, its finales have only delivered one or the other.

For viewers who want to see justice served, this season was a bumpy but ultimately satisfying ride. Viewers who came expecting the morally ambiguous lawyers they saw in the early seasons of “How to Get Away with Murder,” probably wouldn’t recognize this season.

Change is good, especially in response to social imperatives — in that vein, “HTGAWM” is setting a strong and positive precedent. But now, the series must find its footing and a balance between its new goals and old tricks, both of which make it a distinctive TV drama.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].