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We Know What Mens Rea Is: How to Get Away With Murder’s Familiar DNA

Photo: MGM, ABC and FX

Last night’s premiere of How to Get Away With Murder lit up Twitter like crazy and further solidified Shonda Rhimes’s position as ABC’s MVP. Viola Davis stars as the super-intimidating lawyer and law-school professor Annalise Keating, who bounces between terrifying her (often wimpy) students and winning high-profile cases through questionable courtroom strategies. She’s brilliant! She’s tough! And she wears leather jackets in business-formal settings, so you know she’s serious. On the whole, Murder is a dark, zippy murder-mystery series — though fans of legal fiction might find the pilot pretty familiar. Some moments were straight out of The Paper Chase, another recalled 12 Angry Men, but the two biggest overlaps are Damages and Legally Blonde. And it’s a lot like both.

Davis is the star of Murder, but we see a lot of the show through the eyes of law student Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch, a.k.a. Dean Thomas from Harry Potter). He gets himself into Elle Woods’s exact position within the opening minutes of the pilot: Not only is he the odd man out in the classroom — and just like Elle, he’s accidentally unprepared for class, unlike everyone else — but he has to define mens rea, the same darn term the perky Elle focuses on. Seriously, of all the legal terms Murder could use, this one just screams Legally Blonde to anyone who has seen the movie.

Maybe it would seem less like Blonde if the whole setup of the pilot were itself less like Blonde, but no dice: A group of law students compete to be on a select team at Annalise’s firm, and the lawyers there include an established brown-haired lawyer who hooks up with a student. Congratulations, sir, you have filled the Luke Wilson role — close enough, anyway, since he doesn’t hook up with our Elle parallel but rather with someone else. (Though who knows what lies in Wes’s future.) After Wes accidentally walks in on Annalise mid-sexytimes with someone who is not her husband, she apologizes … and kind of comes on to Wes, gently rubbing her hands on his shoulders and chest. It’s enough to make Wes question why Annalise picked him for her select squad; is it his qualifications, the fact that he’s keeping a secret for her, or is it that she wants to continue to sexually harass him? This is Elle Woods’s crisis of confidence, too, after Professor Callahan skeezes on her.

Plenty o’ Legally Blonde to go around. But Annalise doesn’t seem like Victor Garber’s Callahan as much as she seems like Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes from Damages. They seem a lot alike, right down to the feeling that they themselves have perhaps orchestrated this and maybe other deaths. Murder echoes Damages structurally with its non-linear story, cutting back and forth between the first day of school and some point down the road when the brain trust is trying to dispose of a dead body (the corpse of Annalise’s husband, we find out in the closing moments). Just like on Damages, the circumstances are vague and unsettling, and people we think are upstanding, ambitious legal protégés are suddenly freaking out, receiving ominous phone calls, and coping with being at least adjacent to, if not a perpetrator of, a murder. And in the biggest Damages connection, the murder weapon is a statue that’s been made an object of interest elsewhere in the show. On Murder, it’s a large Lady Justice statue we’ve seen Annalise hold up in class, and on Damages, it’s the Statue of Liberty bookends Patty tells Ellen are too tacky for the office. Justice and liberty, but also murder, get it? Our ideals and our idols turn us into murderers.

Annalise seems like Patty in other ways, too. First, she’s a manipulator: When Annalise was apologizing to Wes, Wes seemed confused and perturbed, but he bought it. From an audience perspective, it looked like Annalise was turning on the waterworks to make Wes think they had a special bond of some kind, and the inappropriate caressing seemed like part of an elaborate plan to control Wes’s loyalties. Second, there’s definitely something shady going on at home. On Damages, Patty’s husband (and later, ex-husband) Phil has a high-profile affair, humiliating Patty and ending their marriage. On Murder, it’s not clear exactly what’s up with Annalise’s personal life, but it’s nothing good: The show seemed to be foreshadowing that Annalise’s husband had an affair with one of his students, and maybe also with Annalise’s young associate Bonnie (Liza Weil), and that maybe he killed said student. (This is just guessing; one hopes twists and turns are ahead of us.) Third, Patty and Annalise seem almost radically nonmaternal, and yet both claim to be tortured by their lack of motherhood. Patty’s fundamental wound is, she says, the death of her daughter, from which she never emotionally recovered. She admits to not being much of a mother to her son, and then she battles him for custody of her granddaughter, a child she’s not actually interested in parenting but wants as a trophy. Annalise tells Wes that her marriage is crumbling thanks to the pressures of trying to have a child, though it’s not clear if that’s true. Certainly one can be ice cold at work and also be a loving, devoted parent at home, but Patty and Annalise just do not seem like those kind of people.

Damages and Legally Blonde are good things to be like. But here’s hoping Murder learns the most important lesson those properties can teach us: The format is not infinitely replicable. Damages’ first season was masterful, and its second was pretty damn thrilling, too; then, diminishing returns. Same goes for Blonde, whose sequel was underwhelming, and yet somehow people made an ABC Family third one, too, without Reese Witherspoon. So go hard, Murder, and when you’re done just be done.

How to Get Away With Murder’s Familiar Legal DNA