How to Get Away with Murder is one of those drama shows where it’s easy to get spoiled if you’re not caught up. The series has always taken pride in its shocking twists and turns, which culminated in this week’s mid-season finale, “Who’s Dead?” The episode finally answered the question of who’s the dead body #UnderTheSheet from Annalise Keating‘s house fire, which has served as the flash-forward sequence of season three. In doing so, the series exploited its own shock value to a troubling degree.
On that note, if you aren’t fully caught up with season three, MAJOR spoilers follow.
In the tradition of How to Get Away with Murder, each season has dangled some tantalizing question in front of its fans. Season one opened with the question, “Who killed Sam?” Season two’s opening question was, “Who shot Annalise?” And now, season three has kept on asking, “Who’s Dead?” Sadly, all of them have the same answer: Wes Gibbins.
Has How to Get Away with Murder finally gone too far? Wes’s death is just the latest in the series’ endless stream of shocking moments. And that wasn’t even the worst part: Fans learned that Wes was already dead before Annalise’s house fire. This means we still don’t know how he died. In its rush to raise its stakes, has the series become too frustrating for fans to watch? Now is as good a time as any to take a look.
Kill Your Darlings
For many fans, How to Get Away with Murder is a maddening guessing game about who’s next to die. In an interview about “Who’s Dead?”, Showrunner Pete Nowalk revealed he didn’t decide to kill off Wes until just two episodes prior. Nowalk said, “Ultimately, it was about a gut feeling, and [killing off Wes] gave me the biggest pain in my gut.” Even the show’s main actors said on Twitter they were devastated when they learned Wes was #UnderTheSheet.
The creative writing community is rather fond of a William Faulkner proverb, that tells fellow writers to “kill your darlings”. By that, Faulkner means that authors should shape their writing from an objective standpoint, without emotion or sentiment. Nevertheless, there’s a certain element of sadism to Faulkner’s words. To kill your darlings, you have to suppress your emotions — or else run the risk of sadistically exploiting those decisions.
Is How to Get Away with Murder guilty of that brand of sadism? I don’t want to do Nowalk or his writing team a disservice by oversimplifying their work. Even more importantly, I don’t want to reduce the impact of the show’s complex commentary on current issues, from race and gender to LGBTQ rights and the criminal justice system. Yet, the fact remains that the series is far too obsessed with killing its darlings.
Wes is the first major character to die, but I doubt he’ll be the last. There comes a point when shock value loses its value, and How to Get Away with Murder is on the verge of letting that happen. As the series produces more shocking moments, it also dilutes their value. Perhaps there will come a time when the show can’t raise its stakes anymore because there won’t be any stakes left to raise. That’s a disturbing thought, but it’s gradually becoming a reality.
How to Watch a Show About Murder
Ever since I became a fan of How to Get Away with Murder, I’ve been frustrated with its unrelenting obsession with shock value. Scroll through the series’ Facebook and Twitter feeds, and you’ll see that almost every marketing spot focuses on the incalculable amount of shocking moments from each episode. Even season three’s #UnderTheSheet hashtag — which is currently trending on Twitter — originally surfaced from the series’ promotional ads.
What frustrates me is that it seems like the show’s writing and marketing teams want to shock fans. Let’s get something straight: Fans aren’t playthings. We choose which shows to watch, and we watch them because we’re passionate about them. But if fans watch a series because they want to be shocked, that might develop into an unhealthy cycle of watching an increasingly violent show.
Maybe I’m overstating the obvious. After all, this is a show about murder, so perhaps fans should know what to expect from it. The show’s title contains the word “murder,” for crying out loud. But after two and a half seasons, the only thing that’s constant about How to Get Away with Murder is its unpredictability. I’m not convinced that unpredictability is a good quality for a TV show. No series should leave its fans with more questions than answers.
So, how do you watch a show about murder? There isn’t an easy answer. Personally, my solution was to become less emotionally invested in the series. I still watch How to Get Away with Murder because I really enjoy its social commentary. At the same time, I’ve given up on becoming invested in the series’ unremitting shock value.
It’s not about watching a show that I hate. How to Get Away with Murder still fascinates me for its exploration of human relationships. Nevertheless, the series is determined to make a spectacle of itself, so it’s important to be aware of that. Even though the show loves to shock its loyal fans, I don’t have the emotional capacity to let it shock me any longer.