Friday, May 15, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Laurel Castillo (HTGAWM)

It might be an incredibly trite saying at this point, but I'm pretty sure it's true: it's always the quiet ones. On television at least.

Because as you get into How to Get Away With Murder and as you start to delve into these characters and their motivations and their actual personalities beyond just what they project for everyone to see, two things become clear. First, that literally no one on this show is uncomplicatedly a good person, and second, that the quiet ones are way, way, war more terrifying than everybody else. Basically Laurel. Laurel is terrifying, and I love it.

But first, a refresher. How to Get Away With Murder is a Shonda Rhimes drama that stars Viola Davis as a badass, complex, deeply amoral defense attorney. She teaches a class on basic law that she calls "how to get away with murder". Our main characters are all enrolled in that class, and then in its follow up course, as well as chosen in the pilot episode to be her legal assistants/interns. These five students are the basis for the storylines on the show, as they try to navigate law school and assist Annaliese (Davis) in her criminal trials.

Of course, because this is a night time soap it's not quite that simple, and the plot of the first season revolves around the characters also flashing forward in time to about Christmas, when apparently they all murder someone together and use what they've learned in class to cover their tracks. So the first half of the season is leading up to this murder they all commit and the second half is dealing with the consequences. Sound fun? Good, because it is.

And, for the record, this show is a chock full of interesting female characters. Annaliese Keating is our main female protagonist, a woman whose moral center is more of a vague blur, the sort of complex anti-hero that men get to portray all the time. She's not Tony Soprano in a skirt, but she's just as vicious, intense, dark, and terrifying as any of those men could ever be. 

Then there's her assistant, Bonnie (Liza Weil, who I adore), a woman so highly strung she seems like she's going to crap out a diamond, and whose genuinely amazing legal skills are perpetually undermined by her mess of a personal life. Or we have Michaela (Aja Naomi King), Laurel's fellow student and general rival, a girl who works hard to conceal her lower class background so that she can ascend into high society, and also a genius. 

Which is not to even get into how interesting Rebecca (Katie Findlay) is - she's the murder suspect they all end up getting a little too involved with. And of course we can't forget Annaliese's mother (Cicely Tyson). Or the endless parade of really compelling female clients. Heck, even the female prosecuting attorney they're always going up against is super interesting. Basically, my point is, How to Get Away With Murder is hella full of strong female characters. So why did I start off by talking about Laurel?

Well, the easy answer is that I picked her because she's my favorite. But I know you need more context than that, so I'm willing to explain. See, Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza) is a fascinating woman. A member of a high income, well-connected, implicitly political Latinx family, Laurel comes off at first as a socially awkward savant. She's amazing at the law and knowing things, but not great with people. She's quiet, but also a know it all. She pisses off Annaliese on the first day when she answers a question for a fellow student who is struggling. Laurel is the kind of girl who can't bear to see someone not know a thing.

As the season goes on, though, her character gets deeper and more complex. She discovers that she was only asked to join Annaliese's staff because the chief legal assistant, Frank, wants to sleep with her. She's upset about this, but then seems to turn it to her advantage. After all, she now knows that he has a weakness for her. That can be exploited. It's the first time we realize that underneath her socially awkward exterior, Laurel is kind of scary.

Then she forms a friendship/alliance with Wes (Alfred Enoch), the scholarship student everyone else finds painfully naive, and it's like watching a meeting of the Secret Slytherins. Seriously. Laurel and Wes form a tight bond because they both realize how canny the other one is, and they both are perfectly happy hiding it from everyone else.

Then Laurel toys with dating Frank, dates another law student named Khan (he's a social justice kind of person, and she likes that), and proceeds to be quietly destructive at both her job and Frank's emotional stability. She's not really a likable person, but by the time you get to the end of the first half of the season, it's hard to see how you ever thought of her as meek or shy.

Plus, when we finally get the full story on the murder right before Christmas, it becomes clear that Laurel Castillo is no one you want to mess with. She keeps her head in a crisis, is perfectly capable of cleaning up after a dead body, and utterly willing to manipulate the people around her to do what she decides is right. And she does.

But the moment that I think sold everyone on Laurel's secret terrifyingness was when she used Frank's crush on her to destroy useful evidence. Like, that's cold. Frank's not a particularly nice guy, because no one on this show is nice, but that's still very cold. I loved it.

I don't think I love Laurel exactly because she's so incredibly amoral all the time, but it's definitely something I find appealing in her. I think it's because we so rarely get to see characters anything like her. Laurel Castillo, she of the Secret Slytherins and wealthy family, is the sort of character who other writers would paint too broadly. They'd make her a bitch or a timid churchmouse or some version of the Madonna/Whore. Here, though, she is allowed to be a full and richly characterized person. She's quiet and she lets herself be underestimated, but she's not weak and she's not dumb.

It's this little quirk, the idea that Laurel herself is always in control and managing how people perceive her, that I love. I adore the idea of seeing female characters who encompass the vast reality of female capability. Too often we're pigeonholed as either good or bad. It's rare to see a woman who is neither and both. Laurel isn't exactly a good person, but she's very good at making sure good things happen. She's not nice, but she's effective. She believes in justice, and she's willing to break the law to ensure it happens. In other words, she's grey all over, and I want more of that.

Women are people and people are complicated. For years our media has insisted that only men are capable of containing this level of complicated agency. But if we want to show that women are fully people, then we have to see examples of women with ambiguous morals. After all, a woman who cannot be bad also cannot be fully good. We need the show the whole spectrum of female consciousness, and women are exactly as capable of evil, corruption, and murder as men.

Laurel is the sort of character we need more of precisely because she's not blatant about her moral shortcomings. In fact, she's actually one of the nicer people on the show. At least outwardly. While Michaela and Connor are locked in a neurotic battle for supremacy, Laurel and Wes engage in a strong friendship based on mutual respect. Yeah, they're both super shady human beings, but they're super shady human beings who are also very good at supporting and appreciating each other. 

I could keep going about how much I love her, but I think by now you've really got the point. It's also worth mentioning that any complex portrayal of a Hispanic/Latina woman is a welcome addition to our cultural library. Laurel Castillo is the sort of character we don't often see: a quietly competent woman from a high income background who happens to be non-white. Right on.

But mostly I love her because underneath her Chanel jackets and statement necklaces, behind the meticulous notes and really great friendship with Wes, and beyond her advocacy for the poor and downtrodden, Laurel Castillo is straight up terrifying. She's a bitch. She just hides it really well. And if women want to be seen equally in the media, we need a lot more like her.

Best reaction faces too.


  1. Are you reviewing Mad Max? Its the best action movie ever!! I really was a little sad with the box office cause that means there isnt gonna be a MM 2. I would watch MM 2 over any other upcoming comic movie. I hope someone at WB has a heart and green lights a sequel

    1. I am so down for Mad Max 2. So incredibly down. I would pay for that ticket right now, sight unseen. Totally agree.

  2. Great read. I too have been a Laurel fan since the moment she realized that the aspirin killer was conspiring with the real wife and tha Frank and Annaliese already knew about it. She locked me in on episode 2 when she argued the "He's a hunter, he knows how to kill" defense. From thet point on, my eyes are on her and what else she can do. The details and materials given to this character is so well written that others might not really get it. There is strength in her that is hard to shatter and I expected at least three to four seasons before they can actually break her. And I am so ecstatic to see it slowlyt happening as the show progresses and can't wait to wathc Season 4! It's like watching how people are hating on Faith and cheering all for Buffy, but dissecting her character makes you realize how effective it is. But to this point Laurel is probably on 2nd and 3rd favorite female character on TV. next to leslie Knope and April Ludgate. (I know comedy over suspense drama? Well, it's how they are written that makes you love 'em right?) Oh and don't forget about Liz Lemon, TV wise you love her, but in reallife though, she's a racist failed feminist who can be trully annoying.

    Laurel Castillo is not just a scary law student, as it has become apparent, she really is a secret weapon not just for the Keating Law office, but to the bigger plot!

    Season 4 is so gonna exciting!

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