There is no such thing as “too cruel” in television.
That’s a lesson How to Get Away With Murder creator Pete Nowalk learned from his boss Shonda Rhimes — and applied to his own ABC drama’s Season 2 finale.
“Look at poor Meredith Grey [on Grey’s Anatomy] and what she’s been through — and they’ve made it to Season 13,” Nowalk says, when asked about the new layer of tragedy piled onto law student Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) at the end of this week’s episode. “Sometimes you just have to put your characters through hell.”
To recap, Season 2 ended with Wes approaching Wallace Mahoney — the man who’d raped his mother some two decades ago, resulting in her becoming pregnant with Wes — only to see the wealthy hedge-fund manager get gunned down by an unseen shooter. (For those keeping score at home, that means Wes not only witnessed the death of both of his parents, but ended up covered in their blood.)
Meanwhile, we learned in the “10 Years Earlier” flashback that Frank received a suitcase full of cash in exchange for planting a bug in Annalise’s hotel room during the Charles Mahoney trial — and that it was Wallace who’d orchestrated the car crash that resulted in the death of Annalise’s unborn baby (in an attempt to stop her from sharing damning information with the prosecution). Frank confessed his sins to a Sam, who insisted Annalise could never know the truth because it would destroy her.
At the end of the hour, Bonnie revealed to Annalise that Frank had played a role in the death of her child — and how Sam would later use his knowledge of Frank’s bad act to coerce him into murdering Lila Stangard. Annalise insisted Frank would need to exit the firm — but as Laurel went to his apartment to look for him, she discovered he’d already packed his things and left town.
Finally, the Hapstall case was wrapped up when Caleb turned against Annalise and nearly got her arrested for obstruction of justice. Proving it never pays to double cross the Lady Keating, we learned Philip (in his struggle with our protagonist in Wes’ apartment) had begged Annalise to believe his version of events: That Caleb killed his own adoptive parents, then murdered his aunt (Philip’s biomom) in an attempt to inherit the entire Hapstall fortune. (And creepy Philip had a fitness tracker and a confession from Catherine to support his version of events.) Annalise used all that intel to make sure the politically minded D.A. pursued Caleb — not her — and as the police closed in on Caleb, he committed suicide by slitting his wrists in a warm bath.
Annalise might’ve turned the tables even faster — but she’d spent most of the hour hiding away at her mother’s house in Memphis. When she finally told Cicely Tyson’s Ophelia about her decade-old lost pregnancy, it led to a heartbreaking sequence in which her mother had her write a note to the baby and bury it in the backyard. “His name was Sam,” Annalise wept, dropping to her knees as a trembling Ophelia held her in her arms.
Below, Nowalk takes a deep dive into the action packed hour — and offers some bonus scoop about the not-that-innocent Oliver!
TVLINE | Before we get into the death toll and shocking revelations from the finale, I wanted to talk to you about Annalise’s trip back home. You had told me last week that having Cicely Tyson available to return as Annalise’s mom made you feel like you had to dig into this part of the story. What did you already know about Annalise’s hometown life beforehand — and what parts of the arc came as a surprise as you wrote them?
The only thing we really knew going in was that Annalise hadn’t ever told her mother that she’d been pregnant and had lost the child. That felt very real to me. For Annalise, we saw she was so scared of having this baby, and so scared of losing the baby, that it almost wasn’t real to her. She didn’t want to tell anyone. She didn’t want to tell Eve. She just didn’t want to believe that it was possible, and unfortunately, she was right.
It’s always such a collaboration with Viola — talking to her, hashing it out — and also talking to Cicely about what the dynamic was with the father. Viola was like, “I’m really curious to meet her father.” That was something we’d talked about in the middle of the season. We went through many different versions, I will say, and it was hard — because we don’t have that much time in the episode to explore it. Basically, the version we ended up with was a snapshot of what this family is like. There’s more to explore in the future, and I’m really excited and hopeful that we’ll get to do that next season and in future seasons — because things are so unresolved with a lot of the characters.
TVLINE | The dynamic between Annalise and her dad was fascinating, as was his observation that more so than anyone else, she should understand his dynamic of coming home to Ophelia to remind himself of who he is.
What I loved about meeting her father was that he’s a runner. He ran away from his problems, and that’s really what Annalise has done for the last 20 years. She hasn’t really interacted with her family because she thought she could survive without them.
Her father’s stuff is also really interesting to me because here Annalise has been betrayed by men her entire life, and so I get why she has such trust issues. I get why she lashes out at people. Sam betrayed her, and then she found out Frank betrayed her, and here’s her father who abandoned her as a child. Of course, her uncle betrayed her, too. It provides a full picture of why she is the way she is.
TVLINE | The backyard burial scene, where did that idea come from? It was almost like an emotional bookend to last week’s episode, where we saw Annalise lose the baby in the emergency room.
If she was going to go home, she needed to heal in some way. She’s never dealt truly with the loss of the child. She’s never grieved it in a full way. I mean, just keeping it a secret from your mother is not healthy.
She’s been burying it, and it’s not actually been working, clearly. Annalise was hallucinating a baby a few episodes ago, and Bonnie even said that had happened before, so it’s clearly a kind of PTSD that Annalise hasn’t dealt with. [Losing her baby at full term] not something she could cry about and then be like, “OK, I’m done with it,” but we did want a healing moment or something close to healing — and who else can she do that with but her mother?
TVLINE | Let’s talk abut Frank, who’s been this figure carrying out bad deeds in the shadows for two seasons. Did you deliberately set out to explore this character when you started Season 2 — or did this exploration sprout out of the storytelling?
I definitely knew it would be a season where we got to know a lot about Frank, because we had to answer the question of why he killed Lila. It was the major thing that we left off with [in the Season 1 finale]. So, I came into the season knowing that I wanted to figure out a way that Frank, basically, killed Annalise’s baby and felt a ton of guilt about that — and how it tied him into Sam. It really is the ultimate betrayal to Annalise and makes me understand why he’s so loyal to her.
I will say this, there’s still so much more to explore with Frank. We still don’t know what he was like before he started working for Annalise, where Sam met him before that, what happened those 10 years after. I’m open to seeing more of that. What I love is that we can continue to show the past and show different sides of these characters at the same time we delve into the future.
TVLINE | One nagging question people might have: How did Sam let Frank stick around for 10 years? Why didn’t Frank just quit the job? What do you say to people who don’t buy it?
I would say that’s a great question, and I get it, and there are answers that we haven’t shown you yet. What’s their origin story? This clearly wasn’t the first little secret they’ve kept between them, and there’s probably a lot more than that, so I would just say it’s just the start.
TVLINE | Based on the final minutes of the episode, and putting aside how often things are not as they initially appear on How to Get Away With Murder, are we supposed to assume it was Frank who murdered Wallace Mahoney?
I definitely think Frank is on the top of the list of suspects. It makes sense that he would be the shooter, and sometimes we do exactly what you think makes sense — though sometimes we do things that are different. We’ll answer that sometime in Season 3. Since we haven’t written it yet, I don’t know when exactly [we’ll reveal], but that’s something that we might answer right away or we might make you wait a little bit. That said, I understand why you would suspect Frank. I do know who the shooter is and it makes a lot of sense to me.
TVLINE | Will Charlie Weber be a series regular in Season 3?
Well, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to give away anything.
TVLINE | Fair enough. Speaking of Frank, though, why did he confess to Sam so quickly and so completely?
It really started with the idea that I needed their secret to be about Annalise, and I understand Sam completely for wanting to keep this information from Annalise. It’s one thing to believe that there was an accident and that’s why you lost your child and it was just God’s fate. But to know that it really could have been prevented — and that one of your people has betrayed you — Sam thought that that would destroy Annalise. I don’t know if that was a good decision, but I understand why he made it. Again, as far as the Sam/Frank relationship goes, we’ve just started to scratch the surface.
TVLINE | Wanting to tell Annalise, too, seemed like a way for Frank to get some of the crushing guilt off his chest.
Yeah. Frank was a dumb, little, wounded boy, and Charlie’s performance in that scene is so genius because it shows how he made a mistake. He made a booboo, and it was terrible and selfish, but he never thought it would end up with a dead child. He was just young and stupid, and I can really relate to that. And it really explains why he’s so loyal to Annalise. He’s trying to make up for the ultimate sin.
TVLINE | Shifting gears to Wes witnessing Wallace’s death. Can we assume that Wallace’s wife and son — played by Roxanne Hart and Wilson Bethel — will play fairly prominent roles in Season 3? Is that an arc you absolutely have to play out right away?
That’s not for sure at all. I love those actors, so it’s a definite possibility, but I’m just going to give myself like a month, and then I’m going to start diving in.
TVLINE | Do you have a sense of what Wes’ state of mind is going to be when you resume?
What’s really different for Wes is his relationship with Annalise. Now that she’s told him what she’s been protecting him from, he understands her. And for once, maybe he feels like he has someone in his corner, that he’s not all alone. We’ve seen Wes really distraught and sad and a mess, and so I don’t know if I want to see him that way again.
TVLINE | You also wrapped up the Hapstall case with Caleb dead in a bathtub. Are we assuming that death was by his own hand, that no one else played a role in his death there?
It definitely looks like a suicide, and he has a lot of reasons to have done it, because he was the mastermind. The thing I didn’t want to do was make it like a Scooby Doo episode with really clear evidence — like a videotape that Caleb did it. What I leaned into was the idea of real life, where most of the time, we never actually know. We convict people who seem 99 percent guilty, but then we find out they’re not. With that said, I don’t imagine revisiting the Hapstall case next season. It’s always possible, so I can take that back, but right now, that was always designed to be a case of the season.
TVLINE | Was Caleb always going to turn out to be the murderer?
Yes, for a while, and then I worried it was too obvious. When we got to this episode, the writers convinced me it was the right way to go. Annalise’s fight with Philip ended so quickly in the last episode, and I loved that we were able to continue it and show that Annalise has been really debating for the last two episodes about what she’s going to do with his information. Does she believe Philip? The minute Annalise found out that Caleb was the rat, she trusted Philip and believed that Caleb was the killer.
TVLINE | She went into legal superhero mode from that moment forward. We’ve seen a lot of vulnerable Annalise in the back half of Season 2 — so it was nice to see her go to the DA’s office and crush it.
I agree. Annalise is a badass, and she’ll always be a badass, and I love to see her be victorious. Going home to her mother allowed her to get back in the game.
TVLINE | Final question: Oliver pulled a fast one on Connor — deleting his Stanford acceptance email and impersonating Connor on the phone to make sure they didn’t leave Philadelphia. Is sweet Oliver going dark in Season 3?
I love Oliver, and I totally understand why he would want to live a little bit more on the dark side. Everyone in our show started off thinking they were one person, but their real natures come out eventually. So yes, Oliver’s life has changed. He has a new lease on life… not only meeting Connor, but also his [HIV-positive] diagnosis. All of it has made him look at his life and say, “What do I really want?” He wants a little bit more excitement. He wants to feel passionate about his job. He doesn’t want to be bored.
TVLINE | Working at Annalise’s firm has not been boring — that’s for sure!
[Laughs]. You definitely have to be careful who you hang out with.