This article deals with spoilers from How to Get Away with Murder's first season and season premiere. Please avoid if you don't want to be spoiled.
If you want to see how Shonda Rhimes has changed television, look everywhere but the shows she has a hand in creating.
Look for the Shonda moments — the moments that shock you, twist a show on its head, and so rattle you that you check to make sure what you just saw wasn't some kind of mistake. Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, Rhimes's most successful shows, had their fair share of them, and now many others (specifically: Empire and the upcoming Quantico) have adopted similar strategies.
Twists, turns, and cliffhangers, of course, aren't any new thing. But Rhimes's method is a bit of a departure. In the past, twists were implicit surprises for viewers. They came out of nowhere, and that's what made them fun.
What Rhimes has perfected is taking some of the surprise out of the equation. You know when you tune in to Shondaland that there will be some moment everyone will be talking about. That's what you crave. You're tuning in for that little morsel of WTF.
And it's a show Rhimes didn't even create that's currently the grandest, most entertaining soap of them all.
How to Get Away With Murder has perfected the Shonda Rhimes method
How to Get Away With Murder hails from Rhimes's Shondaland production company, but Rhimes is not a creator, nor does she have writing credits. Those belong to Peter Nowalk, a producer who has worked with Rhimes on Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.
Nowalk's story of Annalise Keating (Emmy Award winner Viola Davis) and her Scooby Doo gang of law students solving mysteries and covering up a homicide was one of the best and most addictive shows last season. And as it kicked off its second season, How to Get Away bested the rest of the television playing field with a blistering season premiere.
There were revelations about Annalise's sexuality, a killer's reveal, and one gasp-inducing WTF mystery in the fleeting seconds of the episode that flew past the limits of 40 minutes of storytelling.
The season premiere was a reminder that How to Get Away is the most entertaining show on television.
Putting Annalise on the defensive results in stronger drama
There were times in the first season when Annalise seemed to suffer from Frank Underwood's unbeatable syndrome. Even when she was down and out, she was still, at the end, going to come away with the win. Underwood's invulnerability makes House of Cards a dull watch, and the same seemed like it might happen to Annalise. She was touted as a badass lawyer who chewed out students. She never lost cases.
But How to Get Away's second season premiere dispels the notion that Annalise is untouchable. The episode opens with Annalise being utterly clueless. Usually it's her students who are in the dark, but now she has to find out who killed Rebecca (Katie Findlay). She has to figure out who's playing her, who's not playing her, and whether she can tell the two apart.
In an attempt to figure out whether Wes (Alfred Enoch) did it, she cooks him dinner in a scene that's both strangely funny and slyly intense. She's prodding, he's shifty — it's a reversal from that first season where she held all the power.
The season premiere also made clear that you're not supposed to like Annalise. In promotion for the show, Davis has talked about how her character shouldn't have to be likable. With the introduction of Famke Janssen as fellow attorney and onetime lover Eve Rothlow (who left the relationship embittered and burned), the show can now better explore Annalise as a manipulator and user.
How to Get Away knows how messy it needs to be
The problem with banking on Shonda moments is that the reliance on them can be cumbersome to detangle by the end of the season. There were times in its fourth season when Scandal sacrificed some of its magic — particularly the interaction between Olivia and her gladiators — for myriad tangential subplots.
How to Get Away feels more in control of its plots, at least at this juncture. It helps that the stakes are small. There is no country at risk. There are no polar bears eating people. There's no empire that's crashing down. It's just Keating, her students, and a little murder here and there.
Even though the bulk of the episode is geared toward figuring out who Rebecca's killer is, there are smaller and quieter moments like Connor (Jack Falahee) dealing with Oliver's HIV status, or Michaela (Aja Naomi King) and Laurel (Karla Souza) repairing a friendship in tatters. These small moments help keep the show steady.
The show has its twists and its Shonda moments, yes. (Just look below.) But it also has its moments of quiet, all the better to let us catch our breath.
The OMG-WTF moment
The season's big mystery is revealed in the episode's final sequence. In a flash forward, we see the shadowy exterior of a mansion belonging to Annalise's clients, a brother and sister suspected of killing their parents. We hear two gunshots, before seeing Wes run outside and sees Annalise with a bloody stomach, lying in a pool of her own blood, breath shallow and eyes anime big.
It's an absolutely searing moment, one we'll see over and over again as the season uncoils.
I have no idea what is happening, but I have a guess — just like the millions of other viewers who tuned in on Thursday night. It's probably wrong, and it will change from episode to episode. But I will be watching every single second this season to see if I was right. The Shonda moment works best when it's predictable, but not too predictable. As it enters season two, How to Get Away With Murder shows it's learned that lesson beautifully.
How to Get Away With Murder airs Thursdays on ABC at 10 pm Eastern.