Now that Comcast has gotten their recent nonsense resolved and on demand shows are updating in my area again, I had a chance to try out How to Get Away with Murder, the new Viola Davis vehicle.
I could probably say a lot about different aspects of the show, but four episodes in, the thing that’s really struck a chord with me is the way the show has handled homosexuality, on a couple of different levels. Apparently, I’m far from the only person to take notice, though not all of those others have responded positively.
Here’s the thing: I feel like I’ve seen a fair amount of similarly-racy stuff in shows featuring heterosexual couplings, so if all that seemed to be happening was that How to Get Away with Murder added just as much of a gay variant, I’m not sure it would be nearly as worth commenting on.
That’s not what’s happened, however. Four episodes in, three of the four explicit (for network TV) sex scenes have featured series regular Connor Walsh’s (Jack Falahee) homosexual encounters (I’ll get to the fourth later). This is not to say that The Gay Guy is the only one having naughty time. It’s both obvious and explicit that the majority of the regular characters for this show have active libidos that they aren’t shy about satisfying. We just haven’t seen much of that onscreen.
You can see the contrast just from the pilot. Connor hooks up with a guy from a bar, and the show jumps straight to a mostly-naked, pumping-music-underscored, fully-lit sequence where there is no way not to see what’s going on. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is similarly in the middle of sexy time later in the episode, but this time we enter the scene in the dark, with barely lit silhouettes and low voices. It takes a second to realize that, yup, that sure is cunnilingus. And just when that’s totally clear, it’s also over.
I don’t think the Annalise scene is any less titillating insofar as these things go, mind you. It is, however, slightly less explicit. Watching the Connor scene goes something like Woah! Okay, that is sex. The Annalise scene is on the order of Wait, is she? Are they? Woah! Okay, that is sex. It gets to the same place; the latter just asks you to connect a few more dots.
Like I said, this level of in-your-face with gay sex isn’t entirely new, but it is one of the first times I can think of where the majority of steamy sex stuff originates in a gay cast member who isn’t (1) the central focus of the show or (2) part of a large ensemble primarily populated by other gay characters.
The show is a solid ensemble piece. But, like I said before, it’s built as a Viola Davis vehicle. The lead character by just about any measure is Davis’s Annalise Keating. Even among the law students she’s chosen to help her at her firm, Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) has been positioned far more solidly as both the audience proxy and the person around whom the multi-episode murder subplot seems to pivot.
The sexually aggressive member of an ensemble drama isn’t really new. It’s a fairly stock element in this kind of story, really. That the writers chose to make that character someone with a sexuality different from the rest of the cast’s, though, is incredibly intriguing to me. Most of the time, when there’s a sole homosexual player in your main lineup, that’s the character whose sexuality happens to the side. Boyfriends and dates get mentioned, and maybe you catch a shaded view of something here or there, but when it comes time for the steamy show to go steamy, one of your straight characters takes up that challenge.
By and large, How to Get Away with Murder has gone the opposite direction. Annalise’s scene is one example. Laurel Castillo’s (Karla Souza) indiscretions have been alluded to but not yet shown. And thus far, the relationship building for Wes Gibbins is relatively chaste (if still slightly troubling).
Of the primary characters, in fact, the only other who has something approaching the kind of out-of-the-shadows sex Connor shows off for the camera is Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King). It takes until the third episode for that scene to happen. And even then, I suspect this has less to do with making Michaela competition for the Sexy Character as it does with yet another intriguing angle the show takes on sexuality.
While I’m talking around things with a lot of the stuff above, this next bit pretty definitely constitutes spoilers, so look away if you’ve not seen episode three. It was two weeks ago, but I hate to be That Guy.
All right, so the third episode of the show opens with Michaela having sexy time with her fiancée, Aiden Walker (Elliot Knight). While at first this seems like the show finally having some equal time, I suspect this scene, and others where it’s made clear Aiden and Michaela have an active sexual relationship, are there to help resolve the questions and tensions that arise when Connor reveals that he and Aiden fooled around back in boarding school.
I’m intrigued with what I hope the storyline with Michaela’s fiancée implies, since, like the inversion of sexual depiction I talked about before, I don’t remember seeing much of this: male sexual experimentation. The dominant narrative is that, while women may have lesbian dalliances as part of a sexually adventurous phase, they can still be essentially straight. Men, on the other hand, are told through just about every narrative channel that same-sex of any sort effectively makes them a closet case if they wind up deciding it’s just not for them afterwards.
While there’s a lot of yelling and crying, by the end of the episode, Aiden assures Michaela that he is not, in fact, gay. And unlike most stories of this stripe, I think the show is actually pushing viewers pretty heavily to believe him. In addition to the above-mentioned sex / groping scenes (which seem built to make it clear that Aiden is very much into Michaela), Connor himself tells Michaela that he “basically hooked up with all the hot guys at school.” He doesn’t say “all the hot gay guys,” or “all the hot guys were gay.” The implication is that Connor doesn’t even think Aiden’s gay, but that Connor himself is just especially skilled at convincing people to Give Gay a Try.
That Annalise seems to think an essential lawyer skill is the ability to convince people of what you want them to believe (even if it’s patently false) in order to forward your own agenda, this whole subplot seems like more of an extension of that particular theme than any kind of implication that Aiden is gay, or even a condemnation of Connor as predatory gay.
There’s a lot of stuff at play in the series four episodes in. Some of it certainly works better than others. I definitely have to say, though, that for a show with a straight lead character and a large heterosexual ensemble, I’ve been thus far really enthralled with how it’s positioned Connor1 and his sexual proclivities.
1. 1200 words on explicit sexual depictions. Surely you can forgive me one double entendre?↩