How to Get Away with Melodrama? Hire Viola Davis

After spending the equivalent of a semester under the brilliant—if somewhat terrifying—tutelage of Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), you might think it was about time you graduated to How To Get Away With Murder 201, or at least 102. You’d be mistaken. The Season 2 premiere of Shonda Rhimes’ latest hit brings us right into the thick of the mess we left behind in the Season 1 finale. Same classroom, same students (evidently undisturbed by their professor’s blatant favoritism), same seemingly impossible cases. The shocking death of Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay) looms like a pall over Keating’s classroom and her students. Even so, the Keating Five have yet to realize Rebecca isn’t so much throwing back forties at a dive bar in Brooklyn as she is scattered in an abandoned lot by Professor Keating’s ever-obliging associate Frank Delfino (Charlie Weber). Delfino, coincidentally, would be my go-to-guy if I ever accidentally murdered someone. Something about the sideburns-mustache combo really inspires confidence.

Mr. Delfino and his reassuring facial hair
Mr. Delfino and his reassuring facial hair

If I seem to write with little pathos, it is because Rebecca was my least favorite character by far. Indeed, my loyal viewing party and I cheered collectively at her untimely demise. Not just because she repeatedly and unnecessarily caused trouble last season, but also because Findlay failed to bring life to a role that already verged dangerously on caricature. More importantly, Rebecca’s departure presented a critical opportunity for the series to continue building momentum past the Lila Stangard (Megan West) and Sam Keating (Tom Verica) murders in the coming season, particularly as we awaited the identification of her killer.

The prime suspect? Rebecca’s unfathomably naïve and annoyingly self-righteous boyfriend Wes “Waitlist” Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), who becomes mysteriously aloof following her disappearance. Wes even goes so far as to act out in Annalise’s class, a sure sign of psychopathy if there ever was one. Season 1 presented a distinct tension between Wes and Annalise unexplainable by the secrets between them, and their relationship continues to tread an uncomfortably fine line between filial angst and sexual tension in the premiere. Enoch, unfortunately, does little to support Davis in their inscrutable interactions, choosing instead to rely on the admittedly compelling yet increasingly stale effects of his wounded puppy-dog expression.

In which Wes desperately wants to set some boundaries
In which Wes desperately wants to set some boundaries

Ultimately, the big reveal of the culprit’s identity arrives more quickly and offers less satisfaction than you might expect. If the writers are smart we can expect some long-awaited character development for the killer, but viewers may otherwise find the motive assigned to the murderer weak at best, implausible at worst.

You’ll be pleased to note that the unconventional cinematography and techno backing tracks we saw in Season 1 make a welcome return towards the end of Season 2’s new episode. Jerky angle shifts, unexpected angles, and jarring time lapses present a striking yet effective contrast to the slow, sinister camera pans amidst classical instrumentals one comes to expect from the typical crime drama.

The most interesting turn of events by far, however, has to be the entrance of Detective Nate Lahey’s new lawyer. As some of you might recall, after Annalise framed poor Nate for Sam’s murder she recommended a “fixer” in her place. This “fixer” appears in the form of Eve Rothlow (Famke Janssen of James Bond and X-Men fame), legendary death row attorney and Annalise’s former classmate at Harvard. Janssen wears the familiar role of a butt-kicking femme fatale with conviction and authenticity, but only time will tell whether the same can be said for her character. While the revelation of her bisexuality introduces more nuance to Annalise’s dark past, it drags her character farther and farther from reality into myth.

Luckily, Davis’ undeniable ownership of the role manages this challenge quite well along every twist and turn. Like the masterful captain at the helm of a storm-tossed ship, she helps her amateur crew rise to the occasion while steering the tumultuous episode to safety against all odds. Indeed, the monumental effort required by Davis at times to pull together distracted writing and somewhat wooden performances by the supporting cast is truly impressive. However improbable her character becomes, Davis never fails to draw all eyes to her when she enters the screen. I may not believe Annalise, but I believe Viola. As Frank so aptly pointed out, “A person can lift almost anything if they’re desperate enough.”

 Grade: B- 

A harsh mark for my favorite show on television, yet I doubt Professor Keating herself would have been as generous.