Monday, March 2, 2015

'How to Get Away With Murder' and the Punishment of Patriarchy


Guh. For those of you who've been following How to Get Away With Murder all season like I have, this season's finale was a brutal shocker and also kind of an emotional marathon to get to. We struggled through murder accusations, shifting loyalties, horrifying revelations about beloved characters, deaths, more deaths, cases that twisted who we thought we were supposed to root for, and Viola Davis tapdancing on our heartstrings each week to get here. And what did we get? Even more upheaval and drama!

Isn't it great?

And for those of you who haven't seen this first season of Shonda Rhimes' most recent ridiculous success, you should probably do that before you read this article because SPOILERS ABOUND!

Now, there's a lot of stuff that happened this season, and there's so much that happened in the two episode finale itself. It would be hard to go over all of that in a single article, so, instead, I'd rather just talk about the show as a whole and how this first season sends a comprehensive and honestly refreshing message: the patriarchal nature of our society is unequivocally harming us and the only way to survive is to abandon it.

This may seem like a needlessly political statement for a show that's effectively a night-time soap to make, but I feel really confident that that's the message behind season one. Allow me to present you with my evidence before you get all up in arms and email me angry things.*

Each of the main characters in the first season goes through a storyline that expresses how the patriarchal system of power in place in their (admittedly fictionalized) society is harming them. The notable exception here is Sam Keating (Tom Verica), who seems to act as a foil to all the other characters. His success in life and work seems to be an achievement not of his own making, but a result of his privilege as a white upper-middle class man in a world designed to award such men.

All of the other main characters in some way fall afoul of the patriarchy. And this is where it behooves me to define patriarchy as I mean it in this sense. So, in this context, I mean patriarchy to be "a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line", or "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." I would expand that to include that this system of power operates on a hierarchical basis, intersecting with race and class as well as sex. In this power structure, white rich men are at the top, and everyone else is somewhere sliding down the scale.

It doesn't really matter whether or not you feel that our society today is a patriarchy in the most literal terms or if you agree with this term at all, my point is that How to Get Away With Murder absolutely takes place in such a society. And I think that it's intentional.

Obviously the most prominent character in the show is Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), who might not be the protagonist of the show, but is definitely the central character or "pivotal figure" in the story. 

It's Annalise who teaches the law class that all of our other main characters study in, it's Annalise whose law practice is our home base for all the stories, and it's Annalise whose life is turned around when she discovers that her own husband is implicated in a murder on campus. Annalise, Annalise, Annalise. She's the central figure for all of this, so it makes sense to start with her.

Annalise is a complex character when it comes to her status in the patriarchy because she doesn't really fit our preconceived notions of what it means to be "oppressed". She's a fancy bigshot lawyer who also teaches at a prestigious law school. She has money and success, a handsome white husband and a hot black lover. She's clawed her way up from an implicitly (and later explicitly) lower class background, and now we can say that she's "made something of herself." Sure, she's not a particularly moral character, or even an arguably happy one, but she's a success by any definition of the word. So how is she oppressed? How is the patriarchy hurting her?

To understand that we have to look a little deeper at Annalise . So, yes, she's a successful lawyer. But we see over and over again that the price she pays for this success is that of friendship and personal contentment. She's not well liked, and all of the qualities that make her a good lawyer (ambition, thick skin, cunning, wits, ruthlessness) are the sort of traits that people find off-putting in anyone, but downright horrible in a woman. We even see this very literally towards the end of the season when Annalise goes to use a courthouse bathroom and has to listen to two women gossiping about her while she's in the stall. This is the price she's paid: no one likes her. They might respect her, maybe, but they don't like her. She's too much and not enough.

Similarly, while she does have a "good" marriage, it's also an implicitly cold one. Her husband is having an affair with one of his students, she's having an affair with a cop she met on a case, and neither of them wants to admit it, or end the marriage, but neither of them is satisfied with the way things are. Sam, her husband, seems frustrated by his wife and sometimes downright condescending to her, while Annalise is forced to figure out whether or not her loving husband killed the girl he was having an affair with.

So, not the best marriage ever.

But definitely the biggest way in which the patriarchy has harmed Annalise  is something that happened long ago that we as viewers don't discover until the very end. Namely, that as a child, Annalise was sexually abused by her uncle and nothing was ever done about it (that she knows of). There was no court trial, no public anything, no charges, no acknowledgement. It was just a thing that happened, that scarred her forever, and she was never able to get justice.

Clearly this has had a massive impact on who she is as a person. But the episode where we find out about it also makes it clear that sexual abuse, specifically the sexual abuse of women of color, is not a standalone issue. It's about all women everywhere, and it's about a culture that allows and sometimes even condones such behavior. As Annalise's mother (Cicely Tyson) tells her, "Men take things." The patriarchal system is horrible to everyone, and Annalise's mother admits that she herself was sexually abused, as were several other women in their family. The point is clear that as far as Annalise's mother is concerned, sexual abuse is just something that happens because men take and women can't stop them.

Which is not to say that this storyline is without hope. It resolves itself with the revelation that while Annalise's mother couldn't do anything to stop her abuse, which she did know about, she was able to take revenge, burning down her own house with Annalise's rapist inside. So there's that. But the whole storyline serves to cement the thesis of the show: in a society where men have virtually unlimited power and authority in the lives of women, it is not only common but almost natural for that power to be abused. Annalise knows this, and so does her mother.

While Annalise's story is rooted in the past and shows how the patriarchal family structure she grew up in made it possible for her to be abused, the other storylines make it clear that the patriarchy is alive and well in the present day, and making all of our other characters miserable too.

Wes Gibbons (Alfred Enoch), who arguably is the main character, is a sensitive, bright, sweet young man who happens to want to be a lawyer. At the start of the show a lot of people compared him to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde: bright and capable, but a little naive and a little too good at seeing the best in people. As the season carried on, we had to watch the light in Wes' eyes slowly snuffed out as he learned the truth about abuse of power, murder, and the reality of what it means to want to help people in a system as broken as this one.

Wes' storyline is interesting because in contrast to Annalise's backstory-laden plot, we really know almost nothing about Wes. We know that he's kind and intelligent, that he only got into the school on a waitlist, and that he isn't particularly close with his family, but very literally nothing else about him. So what we do know is only what we've seen. And that paints a rather sad picture, honestly.

He's codedly lower class, choosing to move into a pretty awful building off campus rather than one of the fancy ones downtown. He wants to be a lawyer so that he can help people, and he's not comfortable with the machinations of justice that go along with that - for all that he turns out to be very good at them. Wes has a conscience and always tries to do the right thing, even when it's not in his best interest. He protects people, and it gets him in trouble.

What makes Wes' story an indictment of the patriarchy though is a bit more subtle. See, in his story, he falls in love with his next door neighbor, the troubled and troublesome Rebecca Sutter (Katie Findlay). Wes, being the kind of person who would do anything for love, proceeds to get himself all mixed up in the murder case that Rebecca is accused of and even goes so far as to get himself arrested trying to help her. But the real trouble comes when Wes, trying to help Rebecca yet again, accidentally confronts Sam Keating over the murder of that student we keep mentioning. In the scuffle where Sam tries to silence Rebecca, Wes kills him, hitting him over the head with a statue of Lady Justice and a not particularly subtle metaphor.

Though we the audience can see this murder as justified, and everyone agrees that it was self-defense, Wes and the others decide to cover it up. Why? Because the two people most culpable in the murder are Wes, a young black man of limited financial means or family connections, and Rebecca, a working class former drug dealer who's already been accused of murder in the past few months. Given that they have killed Sam, a middle-aged, respected white college professor, they realize that no one will believe them. And so the cover up.

Because Wes cannot go to the police, no matter how solid his actual self defense case is (and it's pretty solid), he falls into a spiral of depression and nightmares. He can barely hold it together, and eventually ends up fixating on the guy who lived in his apartment before him and whether or not Rebecca killed him. Wes' deterioration is painful to watch, but even more painful as we realize that the only reason he must fall apart like this is because he cannot tell the truth. Because no one will believe him. Because of the societal structure that would punish him for daring to be disenfranchised.

I've already gone really far in depth on those two, but just so you know, literally every main character on this show has a storyline that deals with the ways that the patriarchal society has failed them and made them miserable. Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza), a fellow student of Wes' and one of Annalise's interns, is an extremely talented and shrewd lawyer-in-training, but her accomplishments are dismissed by her family because she's just a daughter. She also struggles with the revelation that she was only hired to Annalise's team because Annalise's assistant, Frank (Charlie Weber), wants to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, Frank deals with facing prejudice because of his lower class background. He has a noticeable working class accent and for all that he wears fancy suits, he is frequently perceived by the students and by other law professionals as a "hit man" or "heavy."** This cultural and class discrimination wears on him and causes him to have a short temper. He lashes out several times at the students, and pretends he doesn't care that Laurel has chosen to date another student of her social class, but deeply resents both of them.

And then there's Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King), an uptight society princess engaged to marry her perfect prince. Michaela is a brilliant student and very high strung, but we discover that she struggles against the expectations of her future mother in law, who doesn't approve of her. Michaela's future mother in law dislikes her because she's too "low class", "ambitious", and "trashy" for her son. And for most of the season Michaela strives to make the woman like her, because she wants the prestige that comes from marrying a nice rich black man and owning that privilege.

But, and it's nice that at least this story has a happy resolution, as the season unfolds, Michaela comes to the certain realization that her fiance, Aiden, does not love her. More than that, she gains the self confidence to tell her future mother in law that while Aiden might not love her, she loves herself, and she's done trying to win Aiden like he was some prize she needed. Michaela has been damaged by the idea that she needs a man in order to be complete or have value in society. It's only when she rejects that idea and declares that she's good by herself that we see her being truly happy.

Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), meanwhile, struggles against the patriarchy in a very different and more direct way. As the one main gay character on the show, Connor is shown to have a slight complex about commitment and emotional attachment - presumably related to a relationship that ended horribly when his lover decided to dump him in favor of playing straight - and Connor has never really recovered. Interestingly, Connor is really the one character shown to have a loving and supportive family, but it's his relationship with Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), his on again off again boyfriend, that gives us the most insight into how society has hurt him.

Towards the end of the season, as Connor and Oliver are reconciling for (hopefully) the last time, Oliver insists that they both be tested for STDs, because Connor has a deeply promiscuous sexual history. The twist is that while Connor comes up completely clean, we discover Oliver is HIV+. This storyline is more, frankly, graphic than the others, because it deals with a very literal disease, but it brings back to mind the fact that HIV/AIDS was allowed to grow into a full pandemic in the United States in the 1980s because it primarily affected the gay community and people of color, and the patriarchal society leaders at the time did not view that as a big loss.

In short, all of the characters on this show butt up against the patriarchy in their lives, in little and big ways. Even Bonnie (Liza Weil), Annalise's associate lawyer, and Asher (Matt McGorry), the two characters who arguably have the most societal privilege on the show, are seen to be harmed by it. Bonnie is hampered by the fact that people dismiss her because she's a petite, sweet-looking woman. And Asher, who has had the world handed to him on a plate, discovers that his privilege came on the backs of others' misfortunes: his father, a judge, once rendered a verdict he knew was wrong because he could benefit from it.

And, finally, the central storyline of the season turns out to be one of patriarchal privilege. The whole season has been about the murder of Lila Stangard (Megan West), the college student with whom Sam was having an affair. At first we don't know who did it, but as the season goes on, we see how Lila's life was shaped by patriarchal power, and how it ruined her. Literally. Her college boyfriend asked her to take a vow of purity with him, not because he had any intention of sexual purity, but because he liked the idea of her staying pure for him.

When she broke that and began an affair with her professor, it was an affair of dubious consent, because he was her teacher and in a position of authority over her. Later, she discovered she was pregnant and Sam, her teacher and her lover, pressured her to get an abortion. When she didn't, he had her killed and blamed it on her working class friend, Rebecca.

What makes this season really remarkable isn't that each storyline was somehow depressing and soul-crushing, but rather that they all work together to make a holistic picture of what the patriarchy does to us all. It shows very clearly that such systems of power are unhealthy for all of us, from the Ashers and Sams who have the most power, down to the Michaelas and Annalises and Franks and Weses and Connors and Olivers and Laurels. It shows how in an unequal society, we all suffer. And that's a pretty radical statement for a night-time soap to be making.

I'm not saying that you have to look at this show as a statement or piece of political propaganda. It's a story. A story that you may or may not like, depending on your tastes. But it's really nice, at least for me, to see that this is a story that openly questions our ideas about power. 

And it's honestly a relief to know that when I turn it on every week I'll see more compelling plotlines that deal deeply with intersecting concepts of race, gender, and class.

Besides, I have to turn in next season whether I want to or not. Don't we all still have to find out who killed Rebecca?!


*Though I have little doubt that some of you are going to do that anyway. If so, let me make this easier for you. My email is kissmywonderwoman@gmail.com and while you're at it, why not sign up to be a voter in The Undies! We're looking for the best underappreciated films of 2014 and we could use your misguided rage and appreciation for pop culture to help!

**To be fair, he is. Literally.

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