Pete Nowalk talks about abandoning formula, who killed Rebecca and telling an "honest, genuine" story with Oliver and Connor.
ABC's How to Get Away With Murder knows what it is — a twisty web of murder, secrets and conspiracy — and what it isn't — a show that throws formula out off a second-story floor and rolls it up into a rug.
The structure of the Shondaland drama from showrunner Pete Nowalk will not change its approach when season two resumes in September with a premiere that will reveal just who killed Rebecca (Katie Findlay).
Here, The Hollywood Reporter chats with Nowalk about what to expect from the sophomore season of the Viola Davis starrer and exclusively debuts his show's new key art (above).
See more On the Set of 'How to Get Away With Murder'
Is there an overall theme for season two?
I don't approach writing so much from theme but if there was, it would be: What has Annalise (Davis) wrought? How does she live with herself doing all the bad things she does? That is something that every character is dealing with thematically: We did this terrible thing, why don't we just turn ourselves in? Why do we want to keep going? It's an existential crisis.
Structurally speaking, we'll find out who killed Rebecca during the season two premiere. Is there a new death every season?
I'm going to be blunt, I don't know. I haven't known anything since I wrote the first scripts. What I know is I'm following the storyline episode to episode. People do bad things in life and they have to do more bad things to get away with them. What we've come up with for season two — and there's so much — I hope people are going to be excited about the new mysteries we introduce. The high-stakes situation they've been put in — will they get away with Sam's murder? — is going to affect their future decisions in that they're going to make even riskier decisions. In terms of the longevity of the show, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Olivia Pope were constantly doing bad things. That's the challenge for me and keeps me up and night, terrified, but it's also exciting to figure out what the direction of the show is. There doesn't have to be a formula; there doesn't have to be a murder every season, just as long as the characters are full.
How long will these characters be in this class?
This introduction to criminal law class goes a year for our students. In our seasons, we haven't decided yet. The first season was like a semester and a half. We're in February in our show. Annalise is a professor but that's not all she does. These kids are now involved in her life in a way that is way past them being her students. Is there an element of the show that you have to have? No. I hope not.
Will there be new law students introduced this season?
In the premiere, we'll meet a few new characters — some from people's backstories and previous parts of their life — and some brand-new characters to them. That's all I'll say; I don't want to give away too much.
I have an idea but it will probably change. I did not know season one ended with Rebecca dead. When we did that, I didn't know we'd reveal who her killer is in the premiere. I like to have a goal that I also know I can throw out.
How will whomever killed Rebecca help inform the remaining 14 episodes of the season?
It doesn't go away. Just like anything in our show, I don't want anything to be forgotten. Just like Sam's murder, Lila's murder — yes they're dead, but the consequences of that continue to reverberate. The same is going to happen with Rebecca. Some people will know she's dead; some people will know who killed her; some people will think she's missing. She plays a big part in season two, even though she's dead.
You're also poised to take on a big story with Connor (Jack Falahee) and his boyfriend, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) who is HIV-positive. Are you working with GLAAD on that story and what can viewers expect?
We're working with GLAAD on it; we also consult with lots of other people — we're making sure we're telling an honest, genuine story. It's a story I'm very excited about because it isn't being told right now. There's a whole community of people who aren't represented on TV, and Shondaland is a place where everyone belongs. We'll continue to see more of Connor and Oliver — I won't say in what way — but it's a story we're excited to tell because it feels fresh and like something I want to see on TV. Conrad is still in a Broadway play on The King & I so he's not a series regular but we have ways to incorporate him into the show.
I don't want to say because a lot of the show is surprising people's expectations with how we deal with things. Hopefully it will feel real to the characters since it can't represent everyone. Oliver is such a special presence on the show, he's really sweet and dear and so different form everyone else. Some people tell me he's the only character they think is likable.
How to Get Away With Murder returns Thursday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. on ABC. What are you looking forward to seeing?