Peter Nowalk considers himself the luckiest showrunner working in television today.
Take that blistering scene from How to Get Away With Murder‘s Thursday episode — directed by showbiz legend Debbie Allen — in which Bonnie confesses to Annalise that she knew for months about Sam’s affair with Lila Stangard, and even suspected the murdered sorority girl was pregnant.
“What Liza [Weil] and Viola [Davis] do is add so much backstory and feeling that’s not written into the script,” explains Nowalk. “When I watched the dailies, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is so powerful! I could watch the scene over and over.’ I have to give them all the credit for that.”
Nowalk, however, has to take quite a bit of credit for creating the most buzzed-about drama of the fall TV season — one which has the watercooler and social media brainstorming theories both reasonable and outlandish about who strangled Lila and left her body in a water tank, and who later bashed Sam’s head in with a Scales of Justice statue.
As the show races toward next Thursday’s winter finale (10/9c on ABC), TVLine caught up with Nowalk to discuss the genuineness of Annalise’s tearful moments, Bonnie’s future in the wake of her firing from Annalise’s firm, some sneaking suspicions about Wes and Rebecca and, of course, the details on that delectable showdown between Michaela and her future mother-in-law.
TVLINE | Walk me through the big confrontation scene between Bonnie, or as I like to call her, Lurky McChurchmouse, and Annalise.
This is a major moment for Bonnie. To me, I always knew her allegiance deep down was with Annalise. Maybe there was a naïve, hopeful, romantic part of Bonnie that wanted to believe that Sam was this great man; more interestingly than having a crush on him, she just adored him. He gave her hope about her own life in terms of finding a man that could be that good. So, when Sam shows his true colors and he’s pretty much the opposite of what Bonnie thought, and it makes her distrust her gut instincts about people, the first person she’s going to run to is the rock in her life, Annalise.
What I would love to explore in future episodes is how Bonnie came to work for Annalise. It’s very interesting and mysterious, and she owes a lot to Annalise. I will say that. So, the fact that Bonnie tried to step outside the family circle and lie is embarrassing and shameful, and Liza Weil, who plays Bonnie, knew all that gutturally. Her instinct was to make this as painful a confession as she could. To me, it’s like a scene from The Godfather, and Debbie Allen, the way she directed it and the way that Viola and Liza performed it, [they came up with the idea of] Bonnie getting on her hands and knees and begging. It hurts Annalise so much, too. What I love about that fiery moment is it’s not about anger. Annalise is using anger to cover up the fact that she feels so betrayed and distrustful; she only wants to trust the people in her life, and the fact that she now can’t is just devastating to her.
TVLINE | Yes, it was interesting that Bonnie was not the only one with tears in her eyes.
Annalise is trying to shove them down, because one, she’s hearing the worst news about her husband ever. It’s all her deepest fears realized, and it’s also the fact that Bonnie’s the messenger, so she’s been double-betrayed.
TVLINE | I had wondered what was the worst crime in Annalise’s book: Bonnie not saying anything about having met Lila, Bonnie admitting Sam kissed her, or just the fact that Bonnie is the messenger of all this bad news.
Yes, it’s all of the above, and that’s what Viola plays with no words. You see all the pinballs going off in her head: “Wait, this is a three-fold, devastating betrayal.”
TVLINE | So if Bonnie no longer works for Annalise, and we resolve the flash-forwards of Sam’s murder in the winter finale, does that mean we’ll be seeing less of Liza Weil when Season 1 continues in 2015?
You’ll have to watch and see. I mean, there is a hint in the flash-forwards that we’ve already seen of [Annalise calling Bonnie to track down Sam’s whereabouts]. It’s not going to go where you expect. What I’ve always said is, everything that happens in Episode 8, it’s all different after Episode 9, because this whole night of madness has occurred. Very quickly, all the rules can change.
TVLINE | So we should not count Bonnie out of the future action?
No. I’ll tell you that much.
TVLINE | OK, let’s talk Annalise. I’m always looking at her through the prism of someone who wants to win and is maybe three steps ahead of everyone in the room. And yet, that speech she gave about her fertility problems, and the guilt she feels for having been Sam’s mistress before they got married. Do we take her tears and vulnerability at face value, or is it…
You know, I don’t want to answer that for anyone. I want people to interpret it as they want, because the show is about mystery and not knowing people. But I will say she’s human, and Annalise isn’t… everything she does isn’t an act. It can’t be. She’s a person, and sometimes things will get to her.
TVLINE | On that same subject, one of the buzziest scenes of the season was Annalise taking off her wig and her makeup and getting ready for bed — right before confronting Sam with irrefutable evidence of his affair with Lila. I read an interview where Viola Davis talked about that moment partly being about a woman going to bed at night and removing her mask. It seems to me there are two Annalises. There is that public face, the hard-charging woman that says, “prayer is for the weak” and does whatever she has to do to win. She’ll plant a rape story in the paper to pull off a victory in court. And yet, at the same time, it’s surprising, because we see this vulnerability in her personal life — and this almost naive wish to believe that her husband is something he’s not.
Since Viola signed on for the role, she wanted that dichotomy of the public versus the private. Annalise is obviously a more exaggerated version than most of us are in our lives, but we all have a public face and a private face, and I don’t know a person who can wear a mask all the time. Annalise has deep, deep emotions that she can cover up or use in different ways in public. I don’t think being vulnerable is interesting to her. [Laughs.] She is about winning, but she’s also about doing her job really well and being a dynamic, successful person. In her marriage, the fact that she has to accept that Sam is lying to her, it blows a lot of her foundation up. She’s invested a lot of herself in this marriage and the image of it, but also the actual love she felt for this man.
I get the question a lot, “Why did she defend Sam and stay with him?” For starters, she was having her own affair. So, yes, she understands that. They’ve been married for 20 years. We haven’t seen any of that history, but there’s history there. You don’t throw it away if you’re Annalise just because he cheated on you. And until you know for sure…it’s not a decision you make very quickly. Again, it’s only been two months between her confirming that he actually cheated and [the events of bonfire night]. It’s a big decision to take 20 years of your life and throw it away. And there’s also this fear that maybe [the marriage] was a big lie. For someone like Annalise who likes to be in control and know all, that’s not a good feeling.
TVLINE | So in last Thursday’s episode, it sets up this chain of information about the discovery that Lila was six weeks pregnant when she died. Annalise tells Wes. Wes tells Rebecca. Rebecca tells Nate. Annalise had to know Wes would pass the information along, so who’s zooming who in this scenario?
You’ll see who’s zooming who. To me, that sequence is so real in terms of, “I’m going to tell you this. I’m going to trust you’re not going to say it.” There’s a part of Annalise that maybe believed Wes wouldn’t tell Rebecca. Or maybe she wanted to see what would happen. We’ll answer that question, but for me, it’s much simpler than maybe people have been reading into it. To me, it’s like, we’re all self-preservationists when it comes to our welfare and going to jail. And telling a secret’s really easy. It’s the repercussions of telling that secret that can shock people, but it’s really easy to say, “Oh, I’m going to tell you something. Don’t tell anyone,” and not completely understand how wrong it could go from there.
Plus, Wes is in love with Rebecca, good or bad. He’s in love with her, and he trusts her and wants her to get off because he doesn’t believe she did this murder. And then Rebecca now has information that will let her get away with it. I get each of them in their own way. Are they dysfunctional? Yes, they’re all dysfunctional.
TVLINE | We got glimpses of Lila and Rebecca’s relationship in flashbacks, and Rebecca proved to be a very good listener – almost suspiciously quiet. What’s in that dynamic for her?
I get what’s in it for Rebecca. One, Lila is a girl who’s innocent and sweet and comes from the opposite world of where Rebecca’s from. There’s something really refreshing in that, of just getting to be around someone who’s normal and not f—ed up. Lila was a very all-American girl really, and that was a relief for Rebecca. She doesn’t have to be “on.” She doesn’t have to have her big defense mechanisms. She doesn’t need to be worried that some guy’s going to take advantage of her. It’s like a breather in Rebecca’s life in a way that she hasn’t had before. So I understood their friendship.
TVLINE | The other moment from Thursday’s installment that we simply have to discuss involves Michaela. At the top of the hour, she threatened to bash Asher’s head in with the trophy, and she raised her hand to her future mother-in-law in one of the most delightful scenes of bitchery I’ve seen in a long time. Talk me through what we saw — and if you can, tell me about casting Lynn Whitfield as Aiden’s mom.
It was actually a scene that we discussed a lot. It went through many different versions. It needed to feel real coming from Michaela, who is a person that’s very together, and I wanted it to feel like a clash of two equals. No one’s being evil, and no one’s being ridiculous, but you have two very strong people sitting across the dinner table from each other with strong points of view about this pre-nup. And casting Lynn Whitfield was a no-brainer. You’re like, “Lynn Whitfield? Well, we’re not going to get her, but try.” Then, when she comes up on the screen, it’s just like, “Charisma! Charisma!” She brings a real character to these two little scenes.
We talked about the dinner scene a lot — why Michaela would do this in the moment. We had a version where Michaela actually did accomplish the slap. Did it feel real? The line right before the slap is what is revealing, what Aiden’s mom says about her, about coming from bayou backwoods trash. That’s a reveal about Michaela, or at least how the mother-in-law views Michaela, and maybe that’s different than we’ve assumed about her.
TVLINE | So, next week’s winter finale, we will definitively find out who killed Sam and why. Is that correct?
Yeah, and you’ll find out even more. Well, we’ll see all of Murder Night and even some of the next day.
TVLINE | But the Lila murder mystery will be ongoing into 2015. Is that correct?
I won’t say one way or the other because I think, to a lot of the people in the show next week, it feels solved. They might be right.
TVLINE | Last but not least, and possibly most ridiculous. A subset of our readers have been posting in our comments section that they feel like there’s an Asher/Connor chemistry beginning to percolate — particularly Asher’s fascination with Connor’s sex life. Are they onto something?
I will say for right now, no. What I love is Asher hasn’t had a lot of gay friends. So he’s just curious in the most intellectual and funny way to me, and I think that’s very real. I’m a gay guy, and I have a lot of straight guy friends. They have great chemistry, Jack [Falahee] and Matt [McGorry], on screen together. So we like that, but right now, [sexual chemistry] doesn’t feel real to me.
TVLINE | Understood. I just had to ask. And you did qualify your answer with the phrase “for right now.” So, there’s always hope that in Season 2 the fan fic will come raging to life.
[Laughs.] It’s good that people have theories, because as they do know, anything can happen on our show. So they’re not wrong to wonder. I just didn’t realize the ‘shippers were that strong for them. [Laughs.]