I Came for The Wall, I Stayed for the Intrigue: How to Get Away with Murder
Although I talk about television as much as I talk about books lately, it’s usually that my shows have source material in books somewhere and I can justify writing about them in what’s technically a book blog. How to Get Away with Murder has no source material that I know of. However, I did watch it because of a comic book.
Actress Viola Davis, who plays the lead in the show, has recently been cast as Amanda Waller in the DC Suicide Squad movie. Waller, thanks to the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), has long been one of my favorite characters. A woman who is older, black, and heavy-set who is allowed to be awesome is a rare thing in the comic book universe. Waller has no powers; or, more accurately, her power is the power of the government, with all the positives and negatives that entails. She is never truly villainous, and she’s one of those rare, wonderful antagonists that almost never needs to lie, because she is so very often right. Even when she’s wrong, the principles she stands for make her right. She’s a woman who represents the very understandable fear of the government as it pertains to all these people with superpowers. To The Wall (as she’s called), it doesn’t matter if the powers are used for good or for bad; all power has the ability to eventually corrupt and therefore they must be kept in check. She runs the Suicide Squad, a rotating group of villains that pay off their debt to society with dangerous covert missions.
The DCAU’s version of Amanda Waller (as voiced by the awesome CCH Pounder) is amazing. She is a tough woman who has had to be tough to get where she is. She is the kind of woman that doesn’t give much away, not about her life (she’s called “Mrs. Waller,” but we never see Mr. Waller–that is, if they use her comic book backstory, I don’t remember because it’s not about who she was, but who she is and continues to be), not about her feelings. She’s got that act-like-a-man thing that worked so well in politics in the past, but probably won’t last much longer. She wears skirts, but they don’t make her look attractive or good. Those are not things she feels like she has to be to do her job. In fact, the skirt is a mislead. “Here is a lady,” her clothes say. “Here is a woman,” her actions say. It’s all part of playing the game.
She’s the kind of woman who knows for decades who Batman is behind the mask and doesn’t play games with it–but she will use that information if she has to. She’s the kind of person who eventually changes her mind on who Batman is and what he means and how he’s made. (I’m going to leave it there, because you should watch all of it, including the Epilogue.) She’s everyone’s antagonist, but she and Batman have a special relationship. They both begin from a place of paranoia that they believe is necessary to create contingencies to protect a world from powers it’s never had to deal with before. There’s a reason Batman keeps Kryptonite in his utility belt, and it’s the same reason Waller has her job.
It’s hard to find specific antagonists in the world of comics. It’s easier to find the heroes, especially when they get their own titles. I haven’t read a lot of Waller in the comics because I’ve found it difficult to find her in the comics at my library, but I am highly attached to her character and enjoy when she’s on the page. One of the reasons I didn’t read The New 52 is because they made her young and thin, and that’s ridiculous for a world with so little diversity as it is. I’ve heard that actresses have played her in things I haven’t seen (later seasons of Smallville, Green Lantern maybe?), and I’m incredibly disappointed with her portrayal in Arrow, but now we have the Suicide Squad movie, where she’s going to take a front seat.
I was Team Oprah when the rumors started going around about the casting. She has the weight to play the actress–and I’m not being rude here. Her dramatic chops are fantastic, although the public tends to forget that after years of her talk show; physically, she’s as close to The Wall as we’re going to get from Hollywood. But they announced Viola Davis.
I had no idea who this woman was, except peripherally. I’d probably seen her as an extra or guest star about ten years ago, on SVU or Judging Amy. But I didn’t see The Help. I don’t even know if I made it all the way through the pilot of The United States of Tara. I had to find out if this woman could do justice to The Wall. So I turned to her latest series, How to Get Away with Murder. I’d heard the buzz, and Mahasin loves it. I decided to give it a shot.
Before anything else, let me say that Hulu and ABC finally did something right with this show. It was getting so much buzz that they decided that instead of having the last five episodes available, they’d keep the first episodes going through the first run of the series. This meant people like me, who don’t have broadcast TV, could jump in any time before the repeats and still manage to catch up without missing a thing. I’d be watching a few more shows this season if other networks had thought to do this.
Now on with the show.
Davis plays Annalise Keating, a smart, tough Philadelphian lawyer who teaches classes as well as takes difficult cases. She’s a woman who does not like to lose; she is a woman who will do anything not to lose. She uses her cases to teach her students. She explains how she does what she does, and why. To her, the law isn’t a game, but it isn’t set in stone either. It’s malleable. She’s a sculptress.
Every year, she picks a group of four to be her interns and then works them near to death. This year, she picks five: rich dudebro Asher, who embarrasses himself nearly every time he speaks and generally has no idea; Wes, a really nice guy who got in on the waiting list, which immediately makes him mockable to his fellow students; Michaela, an upwardly mobile young woman who loves being smart and being the best; Connor, a gorgeous gay man who will seduce any man to get what he wants; and Laurel, who looks around her and sees people with less than her and wants to fight for them. Every week, we watch them aid Annalise in her nigh-unwinnable cases, and fight each other for the head of the class, watched over by Annalise’s associate Bonnie and the vaguely mysterious Frank.
This is all really interesting on its own, but one of the students at the college has recently been murdered, and it sets off a chain of events that lead to Annalise and her students becoming more intimate with the case than they ever expected. From week to week, the story twists and turns, being told in flashforwards and flashbacks and the present-day cases that show Annalise for the legal powerhouse that she is.
On another show, Annalise would be cold and hard and never anything else, until maybe a breakdown. But this show never does that. It shows Annalise as a woman who is both able to mask her feelings and embrace them entirely, yet we know she is so smart that it’s possible every tear is a lie. In the first episode, I kept waiting for her to reveal all her actions as manipulation, and it doesn’t happen because Annalise is not some stock character moved around like a puppet on screen. She manipulates, yes, but she doesn’t stop feeling because of it. It might instead affect her more.
Viola Davis is utterly brilliant as Annalise. One moment she is cold as ice; the next she bares her soul and you want to sob for her, with her, while still being terrified that Annalise is playing you, the viewer, too somehow. In That Scene, the one that has won her all the awards, I was bowled over. I mean, I could’ve fallen to the floor, it was so overwhelming. And as a white woman I don’t even BEGIN to understand the ramifications of what Davis was doing. And, more importantly, here’s a woman who made that scene what it was: not just by being the actress in it, but by making certain choices that I hate to detail, because if you haven’t seen it and you will…well, I’d like to save that moment for you.
So, all that said: I am on board with Viola Davis being The Wall. I am beyond on board. On top of all that talent is a woman who is not traditionally thin and beautiful; she’s gained a little weight in all the best places over the past two years (from what I can tell from Googling red carpet events), giving her the kind of body that can be made blocky-looking with the right clothes. She’s got a lovely face that with the right wig looks full. While we may not be getting a hefty Wall, we won’t be getting a slim one, and for that I am grateful.
But then there’s all that talent too, and I am screechingly happy about this casting choice.
Now to try to find a way to warm to Jared Leto, and figure out who this Margot Robbie woman is…