HTGAWM: Who’s Guilty?

htgawmI think I can safely say that How to Get Away with Murder is my favorite new network show of the 2014-15 season. And that’s saying something. There have been a lot of good ones: The FlashJane the VirginAgent Carter, etc. But this is the one that I have made sure to park myself on the couch for as many Thursday nights as I can. The others I don’t mind using Hulu to catch up (and in fact I’m five episode behind on Jane), but I get crazy if I’m not right on top of HTGAWM.

Last week was the first episode back after the winter finale where we finally saw the events of Murder Night. And I have to say, I’m loving the aftermath. Yes, not a ton happened in the episode itself other than charges being dropped against Rebecca and Lila’s baby being confirmed as Sam’s child. Otherwise, we just spent an hour seeing the characters, specifically the five murderers, unspool.

It was delicious.

Connor especially seems to not be handling the situation well, what with him constantly shielding himself from the world in his blanket burrito. He was the most suave of the five, the most secure and put-together pre-Murder Night, that it’s a revelation to see him unravel this far this fast.

But as much fun as it is to just take the episode as a fascinating character study, I want to talk about the very end of the episode. Professor Keating’s exam.

Four individuals walk into a convenience store. One of them, Mr. Green, decides to rob the clerk. The clerk fights back. The others, Mr. White, Miss Blue, and Miss Red, come to Mr. Green’s defense. A physical struggle ensues involving the individuals against the clerk. The clerk becomes incapacitated. Bang! Mr. White shoots the clerk, killing him. Now, though Mr. White acted alone in killing the clerk, all of the individuals are involved in the disposal of the body. Now, the goal is to get these individuals acquitted of all charges, and there is a way. Find it.

Now, I won’t insult your intelligence by thinking I’m informing you of something new by telling you the exam is an obvious allegory for the actual crime of Sam’s murder. That was made pretty clear by the episode itself. But I will say that I think it was the most important part of the episode, at least in terms of understanding the crime that has been committed. Taking the characters we’ve grown to know, to both love and hate, out of the equation makes the situation so much more black and white and we as viewers are forced to confront some of the characters’ actions in a different way.

I saw so many responses to the winter finale of people who didn’t understand why the five didn’t just turn themselves in claiming self defense. And this is where we get into a discussion of ethics vs. the law.

Sam Keating was a Bad Man. He was lecherous, preying on younger women. We know him to have had affairs with multiple students, abusing his position of power as their professor and breaking his marriage vows by cheating on his wife. Sam was violent, both verbally and physically. His fight with Annalise the night of his murder was graphic and brutal. Throughout the series we’ve seen basically nothing redeemable about Sam. He isn’t morally complex and ambiguous, he is Bad. Everything we’ve been told about him, everything that has been suggested about him, has told us that he is Bad. And so when he goes for Rebecca and chokes her, it’s just reassurance that he is Bad. He’s killed, we suppose. He’s been violent with his wife, we know. And now he’s on the verge of killing again, to stop it getting out that he had motive to kill someone else. Of course he must be stopped. Of course Wes had to grab the trophy and kill him. Of course Wes and the others had the right to protect themselves against a violent killer.

Except…did they?

The exam analogy that Professor Keating put forth paints the situation in a whole new light. Mr. Green is robbing the convenience store. He is committing a crime. It’s the clerk who has the right to defend himself. Rebecca broke into Sam Keating’s home in order to rob him. And that’s not a gray area. The show made a point of showing us a scene where Sam explicitly says to Rebecca that she is not welcome in his home unless she has been invited and is accompanied by Annalise. So it is Rebecca who is committing a crime. And so it is Sam who has a right to defend himself and his property.

Wes may have been the one to actually wield the trophy, the one to strike the fatal blow, but the other four are equally guilty. As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer but I have worked in criminal justice, and it is my understanding that when a murder is committed during another felony (and B&E and burglary are felonies), everyone who is committing the first felony is considered guilty of the murder. And so, as the episode made it clear that each of the four students assisted Rebecca in the theft of the phone data BEFORE Sam was killed and all stayed in the house after he explicitly told them they had to leave, they were all complicit in the initial felony making them guilty of the second.

So as much as Connor may want to, turning on Wes is not going to make things all that better for him.

The last thing I want to talk about is this. We’ve spent ten episodes being told that Sam is a Bad Man. Sam cheated on Annalise. Sam preys on his students, he used Bonnie’s feelings for him to keep her quiet. Sam killed Lila. And because we know all this, it’s hard for us to really blame the five for killing Sam. He deserved to die. They were trying to prove that he was a killer and accidentally killed him in the process. Whether they are legally guilty of murder is one thing, but the jury of us, the viewers, will surely acquit. Ethically, they’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve rid the world of a killer.

But have they? The show is pounding hard on the idea that Sam is truly Lila’s killer, but as the judge pointed out in the last episode, the evidence is circumstantial at this point. We don’t actually know if he’s killed anyone. And I wonder just how much the knowledge that he is innocent (if it turns out he is) changes our view on the morality of his murder, and even more interesting, changes our five merry murderers views of themselves.

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