SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the sixth and final season premiere of “How To Get Away With Murder,” entitled “Say Goodbye.”
For five seasons on “How To Get Away With Murder,” lawyer and professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) was involved, to various degrees, in other deaths. But this time, it came for her.
The premiere episode of the sixth and final season of the ABC-Shondaland drama ended with a signature flash-forward that revealed Annalise’s funeral. The scene, which will be explained as subsequent episodes unfold in the show’s usual structure, delivering answers at the mid-season mark at the end of the calendar year, was something of a book-end to the beginning of the episode, in which Annalise was in rehab and told by her therapist that she had to make a choice as to whether she would live or die. For showrunner Pete Nowalk, though, that decision was clear for awhile.
“I came to the season with the big idea of how to end the show, which you get a hint of in the season premiere. I wanted to give everyone, especially Annalise, an ending that felt big. For me the mystery of this premiere, which is Who killed Annalise? was something I wanted to do forever, but obviously you can only do it in the last season,” Nowalk tells Variety.
Although Nowalk acknowledges that some of the audience might be “really angry to see that Annalise, this person that maybe I’ve been rooting for, is dead,” he says that anger is an important emotion for the final season. In it, he adds, “is something really useful to maybe take away into your own life. It’s going to be uncomfortable.”
The fifth season of “How To Get Away With Murder” ended on a cliffhanger as Annalise stood in the street screaming after Laurel (Karla Souza) disappeared. Laurel’s infant son was also snatched out of a crib while Connor (Jack Falahee) and Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) were watching him. When the sixth season picked up, the question of what happened to Laurel was still lingering — as were questions about Michaela’s (Aja Naomi King) birthparents, including the fact that Annalise knew her father, and why Annalise selected Connor to be a part of her group at all.
While Nowalk says he does plan to answer as many of the lingering questions as possible throughout the season, the initial focus at the start of the show’s final run was on Annalise’s journey in rehab — including actually opening up honestly to her roommate about her husband’s death and being honest with herself about the negative feelings she has about who she is.
“It should change her, and I think it will change her,” Nowalk says of her experience in rehab.
Even though she only stayed for a week, she exhibited slightly changed behavior already upon getting out by bringing some of the therapeutic techniques she learned there to her infamous Keating Five. But Nowalk notes it won’t be smooth sailing for her in the final stretch of episodes.
“She got some really clear advice,” he says. “It’s the life preserver rule, you put it on yourself first and then you try to save someone else. But I don’t know if Annalise believes that. So I think when she left rehab, I feel really icky about it, I feel scared for her, and I think what we see at the end of the first episode lets you know, ‘Is that the right decision? Should she just run from these people?’ There’s something really heroic she’s doing, which is staying with the date she came with to this murder party because she’s not going to give up — she doesn’t believe in running — but she’s going to go back and forth on that throughout the season.”
How much characters trust Annalise — and each other — this final season will play into the story in a way that bends a bit from previous seasons, as well, Nowalk notes. “They’re all going to choose their alliances. I don’t have to keep them all together. That goes for every dynamic in the show — every character pairing — people are going to choose their alliance like you would on ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Survivor’ and then cross their fingers and hope it works. When push comes to shove I think we would all show our true colors, and that’s what we’re going to do to these characters.”
While Nowalk purposely kept how Annalise dies vague thus far, he says he wasn’t worried about how tragic the event would seem if she was murdered versus if she relapsed and overdosed. Instead, he was focused on making sure to be “true for the character” and not thinking about the “moral of the story, but what feels inevitable.”
Davis previously told Variety that before Annalise’s story comes to an end, she does hope to see some growth and redemption for the woman she devoted six years to portraying. Nowalk shares that the discussion about redemption will be expanded beyond Annalise to include all of those in her orbit in this final season.
“As we get to the end of the doom and everything builds to this final, horrible conclusion — which it will be final and horrible — they have to ask themselves who they want to be, can they live with getting away with this, or is the guilt going to get to them? It’s a real existential part of the episodes: What type of person am I? Would I rather be in jail but be honest with myself and the world? Is that more liberating than running? That’s one of the final questions that I’m having everyone ask themselves,” he says.
Just like in life, he adds that while some characters will get redemption, it might not be the ones who really deserve it.
In writing the final season of a show with so many characters and plot twists to serve, Nowalk says the biggest challenge is wrapping things up without relying on a cliffhanger, the way he has gotten to end the past five seasons. “I don’t want to leave the audience with a cliffhanger at all, I think that’s the least satisfying version of the show at all,” he says.
But he is also careful to mention that he’s not completely wrapping up their lives or definitively answering if they’re better off without Annalise in their lives, either.
“They’re young. They could very easily get a life sentence. They probably deserve that, if not a death sentence. But I actually really love we got to meet them in this really impressionable moment in their lives, and their lives got highjacked by this event and their own choices. They are very culpable, and right now I just want to hint at where they’re going,” he explains. “It’s like the girls from the Manson family, how did they end up? I’d be interested in revisiting that. Who knows? If the show is a big hit, in 20 years maybe I could do that.”