In the context of both Jennifer Esposito’s essay on Ugly Betty’s interest in the problems of meritocracy (524) and Hollywood ethnography (525) and Christine Acham’s Cosby Show chapter’s critique of the mainstreaming impulse, I’d like to take a look at the complicated posture of one of this year’s new shows, How to Get Away with Murder.
Specifically, the show makes a tangle (perhaps with good rhetorical purpose) of the issue of meritocracy. The show borrows the form of the legal procedural and yet it disavows the putative rationalism of legalist procedure. The law as the epitome of a meritocratic playing field is both promoted and continually critiqued in the show. On the one hand, the show’s five law student characters wage an ongoing merit contest over a statuette of blind justice. On the other, one of the two black students among them is nicknamed “waitlist” by the others, with a clear implication of affirmative action. The reality of merit-based success is always at play. But in no one is it more problematic or tangled than in the central character, law professor Annelise Keating (Viola Davis).
Annelise’s great legal gift in the show’s courtroom scenes seems never to be mastery of the “rationalized” legal profession but instead of its theatricality: sophistry, stagecraft, and deceit. For the show’s writers, theatricality defines the limits of the strict legalism of the courtroom setting. The show seems constantly to be pointing its finger at the historically and culturally contingent nature of legal practice. Likewise, Annelise slips repeatedly between being an exemplar of the meritocratic ideal and a challenge to it. In episode 1.13, “Mama’s Here Now,” we learn both that she’s made good on the American rags to riches narrative and that she’s done so through a series of self-negations and by adopting different guises, among them a new name: she was born Anna Mae (coded as black, Southern, and poor) but rechristened herself Annelise.
Central to the show’s portrayal of Annelise has been the matter of veneer, disguise, and artifice. A moment at the end of the fourth episode (“Let’s Go Scooping”) offers something of a statement of purpose. Faced with undeniable evidence of her white husband’s infidelity and potential involvement in a murder, Annelise sits before a mirror and begins removing her make-up. And no sooner is her face bare, but she reaches up and removes her wig to reveal a crown of small braids. Viola Davis addressed the moment in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog: “It was my idea that I pitched to [series creator] Peter Nowalk before I even took the job. I said, ‘The only way I can play someone this hard is for something to be peeled away each week, and the first thing that needs to go is the wig.’ I just wanted to deal with her hair. It’s a big thing with African-American women, in a way that’s far more complicated than I can possibly tell you over the phone. […] It’s a part of Annalise that I needed the writers to deal with because I’ve never seen it, ever, on TV and I thought it would be very powerful. It’s part of her mask.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/10/17/viola-davis-on-shocking-how-to-get-away-with-murder-ending/)
Annelise’s success in the nominally meritocratic field of law is predicated on an anti-meritocratic masking. Without ever directly taking on the problem of the law’s deep historical contingency and its structural biases, this moment goes a long way to fulfilling the show’s argument about the irrational passions that bedevil the institution and the society it stands for.