Almost six years ago, ABC sneakily introduced fans to Peter Nowalk’s new Shonda Rhimes-produced series How to Get Away with Murder by slipping it into the late night slot after popular series Scandal. The new show, led by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, followed the shady circumstances surrounding brilliant criminal defense attorney and law professor Annalise Keating. It was stressful viewing from the beginning, filled with characters that we loved to hate and hated to love, but we were hooked. Rhimes' Shondaland production house had another bonafide hit on its hands.
What was it about HTGAWM that draws viewers to it week after week? The series is a bold departure from TGIT's most popular productions on the network — unlike Grey's Anatomy and Scandal stans desperate to work at Grey Memorial Sloan Hospital or intern at Pope and Associates, nobody in their right mind wants to be part of the Keating 5 — but there is something about it that brings fans of the show back even after the most distressing plot twists.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Annalise is the glue that holds the story together — and the bait that keeps us coming back for more every time.
Her existence in Shondaland canon is a huge deal for many reasons. Within a mediascape that is notoriously anti-black, sexist, and colorist, proper television roles for dark skinned Black women are few and far between; if given opportunities at all, they're often relegated to playing minor parts fraught with negative stereotypes.
Not so for Davis' Annalise. The character knows that she doesn't look like other professors on campus or other attorneys in the classroom, but years of being victimized by misogynoir have strengthened her resolve to be the smartest person in the room. Annalise carries herself like she's the best because, having worked ten times as hard as her peers just to get a seat at the table, she is the best. Students fall over themselves to take her courses, potential clients want her to be in their corner — Annalise is just that girl.
But for all of her professional prowess, our protagonist is no Strong Black Woman™. As the plot develops, the cracks in Annalise's armor begin to show. She's not the good guy in this story by any means; some might actually say that she's more of a chaotic anti-hero with villainous leanings. Annalise is prone to self-sabotage, giving in to dangerous vices that lead to connections with the wrong people and strained the relationships with the ones who love her most.
Nowalk and his writers room map out Annalise's messy personal life to be a major stumbling block for her own career and that of her interns Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), Asher Millstone (Matt McGorry), and Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza). Whether by their own design or in connection to their relationship with Annalise, the law students find themselves roped into her drama. After years in her service, each one of them has literal blood on their hands. Together, they've killed a lot of people.
What makes Annalise and her story so interesting is the fact that she often toes the line between right and wrong. Possibly the most realistic thinker of Rhimes' TGIT leading ladies, she's not blindly invested in doing the right thing — she's usually concerned with what serves her. For example, after discovering that the Keating 5 were responsible for the death of her husband Sam, Annalise chooses to help them cover it up. It's not to protect her beloved students, though; she's just making sure the investigation doesn't look too deeply into her role in the crime.
Her character is a walking embodiment of chaos, a portrayal of a woman untethered to social norms and expectations of what a "good" person is supposed to do. It's a purposeful portrayal from seasoned actress Davis, who finds freedom in the discomfort that viewers may feel when watching her character. If you wish Annalise was likable, you're pretty much missing the point.
"Your only job as an actor is to have the audience understand where you're coming from — not to like you," she told SiriusXM in 2017. "If you're playing likability, you're filtering the character."
"As a dark skinned Black woman, I have played so many mamas, so many maids — like Buddha characters. People who know the answer to everything," Davis continued. "What you can get with Annalise, and hopefully with my performance, is a great experiment to where I believe Black women should be going in narratives."
Davis's representation of Annalise has provided a clear example of what happens when writers allow Black women to be human in their stories. Thankfully, the character isn't alone in the current television space; the roles of other Black women like Issa Rae (Insecure), Ashley Blaine Featherson (Dear White People), and Regina King (in literally everything) are walking along that same path.
Annalise isn't the first polarizing Black woman on our screens, but she is among the best to ever do it. And even with HTGAWM coming to an end after six long years of turning up the brightness on our screens — why the hell was the lighting on the show so dark? — we will never forget her impact.
Find out how Annalise's story ends by tuning into the series finale of HTGAWM tonight on ABC.