In the wake of How to Get Away With Murder‘s harrowing Thursday-night installment, showrunner Pete Nowalk found himself a little embarrassed, but mostly grateful.
The hour, of course, flashed back to Annalise’s emergency C-section necessitated by a car accident, followed by a gutwrenching moment in which a nurse took a photo of the devastated couple holding their deceased infant.
The first time Nowalk watched the episode, “I found myself tearing up, and I was embarrassed because I knew what was coming, so therefore I’m not supposed to cry,” he says. “But Viola [Davis] and Tom [Verica] gave such amazing performances. They’re both parents, and I imagine that scene was emotionally exhausting. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to perform, and then go home and be like, ‘How was your day?’ and have a normal dinner.”
Ultimately, though, the finished product left Nowalk feeling “a ton of gratitude.” Read on for his insights on the unforgettable emergency-room sequence, the hookup between Asher and Michaela and more.
TVLINE | That was an emotionally grueling hour of television. I think a lot of shows would have cut away after the efforts to resuscitate the baby failed. But you continued with Sam coming into the room, followed by the sequence of the nurse photographing he and Annalise with their dead son. Did you ever worry that would be too sad or feel like too much?
God, I guess I didn’t even consider the option of not showing it. Obviously, any opportunity we have to shed light on Annalise’s past and the trauma she’s been through, we want to show it. And, for me, this is something that happens to a lot of parents. It’s a hard question for me to process, because I didn’t consider not showing it, and now I’m like, “Oh, should we have not?” But to me, this is a real thing that happened to Annalise.
My sister actually told me the story about someone she knows… and certain doctors will encourage you to take pictures. People need the chance, whenever they lose someone, to say goodbye to them. We knew [for the last several weeks of episodes] that Annalise had been pregnant, and we knew something happened to the baby, so it just felt like a moment that we really needed to pay off for her character. She did really want this baby and so she had to grieve it in her own way in that moment.
The other thing is, we have Viola Davis, and you just want to see her do her thing. Obviously, it’s a very heartbreaking thing. When I had the idea it wasn’t, “Oh, someone’s holding and saying goodbye to their dead child. It’s Viola Davis.” And I wanted to see that.
TVLINE | I didn’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t have done it. It was a really devastating moment.
I hope so. It’s real and it happens to people — and that’s always what Viola is always encouraging for the show to do. Let’s show the things that are real even if they’re uncomfortable or messy and sad. That was the goal.
TVLINE | How did she respond when she first saw the script? Did she know that you were building toward that emergency-room scene?
Yes. From the beginning of this arc, we talked through the things that we thought would happen. She’s always my litmus test. If she doesn’t buy it, I just know that means there’s probably a better way of telling the story. But we don’t really talk too much about [the scripts]. Viola just does her job, and it shows up on the TV like that.
TVLINE | The loss of the baby — and seeing it play out — makes the dissolution of Annalise and Sam’s marriage, all the heartbreak and ugliness we know is to come a decade later — all that much worse. Was that your intention?
What I love about our show is that we can tell stories out of time, and you get to know people slowly. Sam and Annalise were married for 20 years. And before this flashback storyline, we only saw them in Year 20. There was a time when they had more hope and they were happy — and I was grateful to show that and continue to show it for next week’s episode — because I don’t think people mean to be evil. Things happen, and all of a sudden they find themselves being really bad. It’s fun to pull back the layers on these characters.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about Annalise’s confession to Wes. She was admitting to him what happened with his mother, and saying it was her fault. But on a second level, it felt like she reliving her guilt over the loss her baby.
That was actually hard to write, and we wrote a few different versions. Obviously, we found our place in the story where we knew that she needed to tell Wes [about his mom] — but I knew she would never tell him the whole story. She would never share her deepest, darkest scar with him about losing the baby. But those are two connected things. The question for so many people is “What’s the deal with Wes? Why does she feel such a connection with Wes?” Things got muddy in the situation. And I like that it’s a half confession, because she’s not telling him the whole story. Only we get to see the whole story.
TVLINE | She also stops short of the truth about Wes’ mother having been raped by Wallace Mahoney — and it takes Wes’ insistence that he knows Annalise is not getting the full story before she drops that bombshell about Wallace being his dad. What’s with Annalise always holding on to secrets as if they’re currency?
Truths and lies, it is always the case with her. To me, it made sense. She didn’t want Wes to know what happened to his mother. She doesn’t want him to know that his father is a bad person and still out there. She doesn’t want him to know that he was the product of something like that. Once we come up with the storyline, I felt like I really understood why she was doing everything she was doing for him.
TVLINE | Shifting gears to the Michaela/Asher hookup. At what point did you cook up that idea — and why?
We talked about it all season long. Michaela has been wound so tight through our series. Aja [Naomi King] is not like that at all. She’s extremely fun and the life of the party, and we were looking for a chance to show that. It felt like this moment was surprising but also very real. They’re twentysomethings who are really drunk and under a lot of pressure. Whether it’s more than a hookup or not remains to be seen, but it felt super-fun for both of the characters.
TVLINE | And it’s something Oliver hinted at a couple weeks ago when Michaela was in their apartment, and Asher left the room. He teased her that she ought to hook up with Asher, that his rap video dance moves were a signal that Asher might be good in bed. Was that a little bit of foreshadowing on your part? Did you do that deliberately?
I think so. Or maybe Oliver just has a sixth sense about who should be together. It’s kind of annoying to me when you watch something and it’s never been hinted at beforehand. So I’m glad you’re bringing [that moment] up, because now I can say, “You should have not been so surprised!” Everyone was thinking it was a threesome with Asher, Connor and Oliver — and I was like, “It was right before your eyes this whole time.”