[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about the series premiere of How to Get Away with Murder. Read at your own risk.]
You can't fault How to Get Away with Murder for not getting right to the point.
Before the ABC legal thriller's series premiere ended Thursday, we see exactly whose murder Professor Annalise Keating's (Viola Davis) frantic students are trying to get away with. The answer: her husband Sam's (Tom Verica). "I never wanted the [identity] to be a secret throughout the season," creator and showrunner Peter Nowalk tells TVGuide.com. "I think it's much more intriguing and interesting to show who it is and [then] show how we get there."
Peter Nowalk: That's great! I love hearing people's theories. I knew that that would be a question mark throughout the episode. I knew I never wanted it to be Annalise. I didn't mind if people drew that conclusion and I also didn't mind if people thought it was, say, Asher, who we call Doucheface in the script. ... It was like the second meeting when I was talking about the pitch and I knew I wanted to reveal who was in the rug, but it was up in the air for me who it was going to be. The second I was driving to work, I was like, "Oh, it's the husband." It made it so clear to me. I wasn't even sure if [I gave her] a husband at the time, but it made it much more intriguing.How much of the season is planned out? I know it will eventually catch up to the present before the season's over.
Nowalk: Yeah, we'll catch up. We have pretty much the first season mapped out. It doesn't mean I know what happens in each episode, but I know what we want to get to and we'll find out who murdered both people in the pilot. We'll find out one answer in the middle and one at the end.I'm assuming Lila is the first murder that will be solved.
Nowalk: I'll let you think whatever you want! [Laughs] ... I always like to say that Lila's body leads to Sam's body. Lila's dead body is the domino that started this whole mess.
Nowalk: It can change at any minute until we have to lock the episode and air it. I really learned that from working in TV for a while that you have to be open to changing things. I've always thought I knew who killed the husband, and we're on Episode 9 and we're still sticking to the plan right now, but if we want to change our mind, we will. You have to react to what you see. A TV show is a super-evolving organism. It is what is in your head, but the actors could do something that is amazing or the director thinks of something cooler than you wrote. It's a big team effort, so I'm definitely open.If you do end up changing it, how concerned are you about making sure that it's still cohesive and jibes with what will have already aired? Or is it flexible enough that anything could work?
Nowalk: You want to tell the best story. I have a basic framework. I wish I could tell you I mapped out every step. I know, especially from working with Shonda [Rhimes], that you've got to let the moment take over and hopefully you've set up the pins well enough that you can knock them down. I know it's a mystery, but it's not fun if I mapped it out for three years and then start to write it. We're figuring things out as we go. It's fun filling in the holes of that night. I think it'll be really fun to binge-watch eventually because you'll see so much of that night in a row. It'll be a fun puzzle to figure out. I think the pressure is more like, "Oh my God, can we get this done in time?" [Laughs] There's a deadline and you're up against it. But people have been doing this for decades, so I tell myself that.You said the theme of the season is "No one is who they seem to be." How much backstory will we get on the characters? Will there be any character-centric episodes?
Nowalk: Yes, in a way. We focus the flash-forwards on the students. The flash-forwards will continue on that night. They will reveal something about each student and where they are currently. We know Michaela's engaged, so we'll meet her fiancé. Wes, eventually we're going to find out more about him. And others too — Bonnie [Liza Weil] doesn't have that much screen time in the pilot, but she's a huge part of Annalise and Sam's life. I don't think you find out people's backstories in life for a while. I want to reveal things about people, but in their current situation. ... I definitely think people are going to make assumptions about Annalise from the first episode and I think that's great. ... Viola brings so many crazy layers of reality. I think people will be surprised by the many dimensions to her. When she's dealing with her students, she's one way, and a very big part of Annalise's life is presenting an image. Like happily being married? I liked her line, "I bet the boyfriend did it," about Lila because when you see that Sam is dead, you think Nate could've killed him.
Nowalk: I like hearing that! [Laughs] We're definitely going to find out more about Annalise and her husband leading up to that night and what their marriage is like, some of their history and what her feelings are about the dead girl.Does Sam know about Nate?
Nowalk: I don't want to say one way or another. That's a question that we'll answer.Katie Findlay) intrigued me the most since we find out that not only is she Wes' neighbor, but she knows Griffin.
Nowalk: Yeah, she's another who we don't see a lot in the pilot, but she factors into the Lila mystery for sure.Wes thinks Annalise picked him because he caught her and Nate. She claims it's because of his self-defense argument. When will we learn her true motivation?
Nowalk: I definitely want people to wonder why. I think Wes will continue to wonder why. I don't think Annalise ever does anything without thinking as many steps ahead. She thinks five steps ahead. It makes her a very smart person and a very complicated person to be married to. Everything she does, you can say, "That was the motive," but what I hope we're writing is she has different motivations. Viola can definitely play that. Why do you think she picked him?I think she respected him when he left after she told him about Nate and her fertility issues. It was getting weird there.
Nowalk: [Laughs] Yeah, who knows what would've happened if he stayed! She has to make really quick judgments about people. She uses her brain for that. So I think whatever we reveal her true motivations are — I do think she sees something in Wes. Their relationship is central to the show. The two of them will learn from each other.Will you continue to have cases of the week?Nowalk: Yes. I love the cases of the week, especially if we're raising so many questions in other story lines, I want to give people answers in other ones. It's a little bit of something for everyone. They're juicy. You get to see Annalise be kind of crazy at her job — crazy-good, but also do things that are unpredictable.Are you a huge Survivor fan? Is that why you called that thing the Immunity Idol?
Nowalk: [Laughs] I was the first two seasons! I was with everyone. Richard Hatch? Please! That was a very clear way for us to describe what that was. I love Survivor. I haven't watched it recently, but it's fun.How to Get Away with Murder airs Thursdays at 10/9c on ABC. Check out why Viola Davis joined the show below: