ABC's big, juicy hit How to Get Away With Murder had its midseason finale Thursday with a big reveal - drum roll - the identity of the nefarious cat who shot antiheroine Annalise Keating.
Such revelations are not that big a deal in this show. Exec producer Shonda Rhimes' drama, which stars Viola Davis as a Philly lawyer with a Machiavellian moral compass, has crimes, criminals, cops, and lawyers aplenty. There seems to be a murder an hour in Annalise's universe.
But look a little closer, and you'll realize the series actually is about love. Any crime in this wondrously overwrought melodrama is simply the by-product of passion, lust, jealousy, and other emotions that erupt as everyone grasps at intimacy.
Invariably, those attempts lead to a world of misery, including violent death. From the first scenes of its pilot, on through its sophomore season, How to Get Away With Murder has consistently drawn an equal sign between love and murder.
That's nothing new. The excesses of passion have been perennial preoccupations for storytellers way before the Torah's morality tales and the dramas of Sophocles. Soaps and prime-time dramas exploit unrequited love and disastrous marriages to keep the story dynamic.
But not every story about love we've inherited is as bleak as Oedipus Rex or Sid and Nancy. Most dramas - and virtually every romcom ever made - also sell the dream of perfect love, the idea that everyone has a soul mate who will lead him or her into a happy future.
Not that you'd know it from HTGAWM, which is all bleakness all the time. What makes the show different is that it refuses to portray romantic relationships as anything but disastrous.
Series creator Peter Nowalk, who came up in the biz writing for Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, gives us the most unremittingly pessimistic view of love I've seen on TV.
Love is a battlefield
HTGAWM, which will wrap up its second season beginning Feb. 11, takes a cue from the slasher-film genre: The second anyone falls in love or has sex, he or she dies a miserable death.
Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. But follow every relationship portrayed on HTGAWM. Aside from a few rare exceptions that prove the rule, they all end badly.
There's Annalise's putrid marriage to her therapist, Sam (Tom Verica), whom she weds after leaving her law-school lover, Eve (Famke Janssen). Sam was her doctor. Red flag, dude. Then there's Sam's affair with undergrad Lila Stangard (Megan West). When Lila gets pregnant and pushy, he uses a lifeline to call a friend and ask him to kill her.
What about Annalise's affair with Philly cop Nate (Billy Brown)? They had great sex . . . until she framed him for murder . . . then recruited him to help cover up her various crimes. Not so healthy, I'd say.
Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) used to be a sex jockey who reveled in one-night stands - until he had his first serious romance with Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), only to find out Oliver has contracted HIV. Their romance begins imploding from that moment on.
My mother, my killer
Even mother-love comes out ugly. Look at the brutal combat between Annalise and her mother (Cicely Tyson), who reveals that, like Annalise, she was sexually abused as a child. She ended it by killing her abuser. And law student Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) seems to spend his life looking for a new mom - his biological one killed herself when he was little.
Who isn't a little grossed out by the strange love triangle that develops among Annalise, Wes, and Wes' girlfriend, sociopathic drug dealer, murder suspect, and childhood sexual abuse survivor Rebecca (Katie Findlay)? For a little while, the Wes-Rebecca romance seemed the genuine article – true, selfless love. That is, until Wes accused her of murder!
Rebecca's disappearance (like Lila before her, she is killed after falling in love with a man who belongs to Annalise) rocks the perverse stability Wes' love triangle provided. Without it, he spins out of control and, as we learned Thursday night, ends up shooting his surrogate mom.
The big reveal was anything but a shock. It seemed inevitable.
What ails us?
The only time I've seen love lead to happiness on HTGAWM was in the episode about a young priest (Tom Everett Scott) who considered setting aside his vocation after falling in love with a parishioner. How does he find happiness? By renouncing her.
So what's Nowalk's problem? Does he hate love? Hardly.
Look a little harder at how his characters go about loving one another. Every one of them, except the priest - who ends up in prison after killing a fellow cleric - is a narcissist. Each yearns for love but expresses it only as need. They see love as a license to take, not give; as a lack - something they do not have and need to get - not an abundance to be shared. Superambitious law student Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) treats her engagement to Aiden (Elliot Knight) as a business arrangement. He's loaded. He's also a closeted gay man. The marriage doesn't happen.
Annalise encourages her students to use sex to disarm and vanquish opponents. They use it to get intelligence for legal cases and assert their own superiority.
Nowalk's series seems to expose us all as hypocrites and our lofty talk about love as a smokescreen. His story is set in the highly competitive world of a top law school where academic success and economic dominance seem to be the only criteria for a happy life. It's the same TV world inhabited by Wall Street traders, investors, and bankers, who fleeced the country and prompted the economic collapse of 2008.
HTGAWM is an exaggerated but telling vision of a brutal ethic that, the show suggests, is drilled into Americans from childhood and can't help but affect the way we define love. In this garish universe, we see love as a tool for self-enrichment, self-fulfillment, not an end in itself, for the sake of another.
How to Get Away With Murder is a wonderful, lusty deconstruction of a society that sees existence as a power game. In such a world, what of love?