The queer legacy of "How to Get Away with Murder"

May 13, 2020

For the last six years, ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” has rolled out some of the most twisted, thrilling, and over-the-top murder-mystery storylines on network television. Fans are getting ready to say goodbye to the series that centers around Annalise Keating, a bisexual law professor played by Viola Davis, and her faithful group of law students. The show’s “whodunit” moments have struck a chord with audiences, prompting many social media hashtags from #WhoKilledSam to #WhoDiedAtTheWedding.  However, no matter how many bloody messes Keating and Co. have cleaned up during the show’s 90-episode run, the series’ lasting legacy will lie in its commitment to creating compelling and diverse LGBTQ storylines.

Ahead of the May 14 series finale, Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s Head of Talent, spoke to showrunner and creator Pete Nowalk as well as actors Conrad Ricamora and Amirah Vann, who portray queer favorites Oliver Hampton and Tegan Price, respectively.

Oliver is now married to Connor Walsh (played by Jack Falahee) and although the couple is in a much different place than in the beginning, Ricamora says that he thinks their relationship is “the heart of the show.” Then came season two, when we learned that Annalise Keating had a previous long-term relationship with a woman named Eve Rothlo (played by Famke Jansen).  Two seasons later, Annalise finally found “a unicorn” in powerhouse Tegan Price, who was in charge of a high-profile law firm and just happened to be Afro-Latinx and a lesbian.

Looking back on a show that ended up being beloved and embraced for its complex, queer storylines, Nowalk says that, surprisingly, it was not his original game plan to do so.

 “The LGBTQ legacy is something I am most proud of, but I never set out to make a show that was so LGBTQ.  What has been awesome for me is the self-discovery of what a queer point of view I have and to freely inject that into the show,” he said.

“How To Get Away with Murder” was an original member of Shondaland’s famed #TGIT Thursday night lineup with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” and Vann says that because the show aired on broadcast television, it connects with an audience of people that might be seeing a queer relationship for the very first time.

“This show is reaching so many people. It is necessary television. When people see two men or two women kissing on TV, those moments are seen around the world, and it sends a message that this is the world we live in,” she said.

Vann says she has been an ally to the LGBTQ community “since growing up in New York” and she hopes that her portrayal on the series gets people to stop discrimination against queer people..

“The LGBTQ community is a community of people who need to be treated with dignity and respect because they are human. They are no different than the rest of us,” Vann said.

“How to Get Away with Murder” won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2015, and it was that win that sparked the decision to make Davis’ Annalise Keating bisexual.

“I was actually at the GLAAD Awards that first season, and I told Viola that I had an idea for Season 2. I told her I think Annalise used to be in love with a woman and she just smiled! I think she really likes to be challenged. The whole journey for Annalise is for her to get back to who she is at her core,” he said.

In 2018, another pivotal moment that stands out in the show’s history was when Ricamora’s character came out to his traditional Filipino mother as HIV-positive.

GLAAD worked as an advisor on the episode, introducing the writers to people living with HIV so they could hear their personal stories of telling family members they were HIV-positive.

Ricamora spoke with GLAAD after the episode originally aired and said that it was imperative for him to show an HIV narrative that is not seen nearly enough.

“There is this tendency to approach storylines with characters living with HIV and AIDS with such a heaviness and I think that just in showing Oliver living his day-to-day life, even in episodes where we haven’t mentioned it, it is allowing people to see characters and a person living with HIV that is thriving and it’s not about them having a crisis,” Ricamora said.

Flash forward to today, Ricamora, who is gay, says that portraying Oliver, has helped him accept his own queer identity.

“The show has really healed a deep part of me.  I did not have a great coming out experience in high school. I lost most of my friends. When the pilot came out, I had a little bit of a panic attack after I watched it because I realized how many people were going to see this gay story. I felt exposed, the same way I did in high school. But to see the love and support that came out of that experience has truly healed a part of me that was really traumatized.”

In an earlier episode during its final season, Annalise finally opens up to her elderly, ill mother (played by Cicely Tyson) about her sexuality and talks about having been in love with a woman. Two episodes later, we see her declare in an open courtroom “I am a bisexual woman!” Nowalk says that it was important to see this side of her character through to the end.

“When Annalise tells her mother things, so much of the time, she is also really telling that to herself.  I finally found that with Annalise - she could own it and she realized that is a part of her. To love herself she had to share that with her mother,” he said.

Like so many shows, a fandom can continue to grow when people stream a series after it’s aired. Nowalk says that because the previous seasons are available on Netflix, he regularly hears from queer people all over the world who say the show finally made them feel seen and represented.

Ricamora says it’s these kinds of messages on social media that he has received for six years that is truly what he is the most proud of.

“On a weekly basis there will be people who say they have been able to see themselves in the character of Oliver, or that they have been made more comfortable with who they are because of Connor and Oliver’s relationship. People have also said that they have been able to come out to their friends and family because of these characters who they could identify with and gain strength from,” he said.

Check out Viola Davis, Pete Nowalk, Jack Falahee, Conrad Ricamora, and Amirah Vann speaking about the show’s LGBTQ impact:

The series finale of “How To Get Away With Murder” airs Thursday, March 14 at 10pm on ABC.