Who did kill that girl?: How To Get Away With Murder and narrative saturation

Curator's Note

There is a famous anecdote about The Big Sleep, referenced in Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir by Gene D. Philips. During the shooting of the film, when someone asked who killed Owen Taylor, a minor character whose car ended up in a river, nobody could answer the question, including the director, Howard Hawks, the writers, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, and even the author of the original novel, Raymond Chandler.

That story highlights the main characteristic of the noir genre: its narrative complexity, derived from the absence of a linear story line. Although How To Get Away With Murder is not so much oblique as The Big Sleep, its intricate plot generates so much confusion in the audience that even regular viewers often cannot recall crucial past events of the story. It is common to find threads on Reddit where fans summarize past events of the series and generate “orienting paratexts” in order to clarify the plot. Even though the series mixes the noir genre with elements of the soap opera, such as a density of characters and relationships, there is a total lack of intraepisodic redundancy or repetition of information. In the soap opera genre, the narration is always trying to orient the audience by means of dialogue. In contrast, HTGAWM’s dialogue is laconic, typically ambiguous and contributes to disorientation acting as a vehicle for making false statements or distorting reality.

Ultimately, the labyrinthine structure of a season of HTGAWM, with constant contradictoriness and an endless succession of unpredictable twists, deconstructs the very concept of plot. As a consequence, understanding the story seems meaningless; the series defies logic in order to make the audience experience the uncontrollable chaos of a society in crisis in which a crime is always followed by another crime. In that context, the very concept of truth is a chimera. Everything seems a bewildering tangle of data in which present prevails over serial memory.



Thank you for your post, Rossend. I really enjoy it. You address issues of How to Get Away with Murder that have preoccupied me as a scholar and as a fan. Your discussion of the show's "narrative complexity" especially strikes me. I have been reading Jason Mittell's work on the subject narrative complexity on contemporary television, particularly his book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York University Press, New York and London, 2015). As I read his descriptions of complex television and its elements, I often think of "How to Get Away with Murder." Even before I read your piece, I have felt that the show has some of the same elements of narrative complexity described in the book. One such element is the program's tendency to "reorder events through flashbacks, retelling past events, repeating story events from multiple perspectives, and jumbling chronologies" (Mittell 26). I have also been struck by the fact that "How to Get Away with Murder" combines episodic and serial formats. The program has story arcs that encompass many episodes or entire seasons, such as the mysteries concerning the deaths of Lila Stansgard and Sam Keating, the shooting of Annalise Keating, and the present mystery concerning the identity of the body found in the Keating house. However, there are also storylines that are resolved within the length of a single episode, such as some of the cases undertaken by Annalise's law firm. In these and other respects, "How to Get Away with Murder" has seemed to me to be an example of complex television. Thus, I am struck by someone's use of the phrase "narrative complexity" to describe the program.

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