'Not everyone's going to get a happy ending,' Pete Nowalk says

By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 13, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Richard Cartwright/ABC
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Ending a hit TV show can be murder — but when you write a show about murder, endings become a speciality.

“I don’t love the idea of leaving a lot of things hanging,” creator Pete Nowalk says of concluding his Shondaland series How to Get Away With Murder. “We’ll get clarity. That means romantically, plot-wise, criminally. But hold on tight, because [no] character’s going to go where you expect.”

At the end of season 5, Laurel (Karla Souza) and baby Christopher went missing, while Annalise (Viola Davis) and the other members of the Keating Four became targets of a massive conspiracy orchestrated by the governor and the Castillo family.

While Nowalk promises that viewers “will get answers right away,” much of the final season will be about how each character chooses to answer for their misdeeds (and after five seasons, that’s a lot of murder, perjury, blackmail, etc.). “What do they deserve?” Nowalk muses. “What’s actually going to make them happy? Running away from your sins does not necessarily mean you’re going to be happy… We have 15 episodes to have each character decide what they want for themselves, and in that, they have to grow up. Every character has that journey of trying to figure out who they are… Not everyone’s going to get a happy ending.”

But will Annalise? The antiheroine has been a groundbreaking, Emmy-winning role for Davis. “She’s deciding how to claw her way out of [hell],” Nowalk teases. “How much does she protect herself versus how much does she protect certain people she loves, and who does she not protect? Every decision she makes is going to affect her fate in a major way, and we’re going to see that from the very first scene of our premiere.”

Perhaps equally compelling as the murder has been the swirling carousel of relationships and hook-ups — scenarios that Nowalk assures us will also reach definitive conclusions. “They’re scared and desperate, so they’re clinging to each other for moments of joy, for moments of pleasure, for love, so every one of those relationships we’re going to finish and tell the audience how they end,” he says. “We’re going to explore Michaela [Aja Naomi King] and Gabriel [Rome Flynn] still, and how Asher [Matt McGorry] feels about that. We’re going to learn a lot more about how Frank [Charlie Weber] feels about Laurel, how Laurel feels about him, how Bonnie [Liza Weil] factors into that.”

Richard Cartwright/ABC

For the Keating Four (previously Five), a major part of their intrigue has been the slow reveal of just how they entered Annalise’s orbit. The answers have been more twisty and disturbing than we ever could have expected, but there are still two big question marks left: Michaela and Connor [Jack Falahee]. Michaela learned in the season 5 finale that Annalise knew her birth father, and there’s a lot more to unravel there. “We are diving deep into Michaela’s backstory,” Nowalk says. “We’ve met her adopted mother, but we also have not met her birth parents, and we will meet one of them at least and find out how Annalise was involved in that.”

Of course, that will leave Connor with a lot of questions. “Last year, [he] was like, ‘Why did you pick me? What’s my secret?’” Nowalk hints. “This Michaela reveal is going to send him asking that question harder and harder, so we will answer that by the end of the series.”

They’d also never wrap things up without bringing back some of the buzziest guest stars to appear on the show — as well as introducing some surprising new faces. “Having Cicely [Tyson] back is pivotal to the show and to ending Annalise’s story,” Nowalk says. “We’ll also have some other parental figures we’ve seen in the past come back. We’ll have some new parents arrive. We’re going to have some major surprise guest stars.”

Twists and turns aside, HTGAWM has also earned a reputation for breaking barriers and tackling hot-buttons issues like solitary confinement, living with HIV, and racial injustice in the criminal justice system. Nowalk promises the final season won’t be short on those moments, hinting at episodes featuring an officer-involved shooting, gun control, and internet dating. “For me, this whole show is really about creating empathy for the defendant and for the criminal,” he says. “We’re all capable of being criminals if our lives took a wrong turn. What I’m proud of is that we are one of the only shows that have really focused completely on the defense.”

Many of those complex characters and issues come courtesy of the show’s dynamic leading lady. “[That was] following Viola’s lead. She’s helped me create this character so much,” Nowalk says. “She’s just such a leader, and she’s so passionate about showing all sides of people. [But] that’s what I’ve liked: Everyone’s been complicated. Maybe audiences have got to know characters they’ve never seen before. Ultimately, it was a delicious, fun experience.”

And there’s still one more season — and probably some murders — to savor.

How to Get Away with Murder returns Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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Viola Davis stars as a law professor where she teaches, wait for it, how to get away with murder.
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