That HIV Storyline Was A Step Back For The Progressive "How To Get Away With Murder"
In the Season 1 finale, How to Get Away With Murder couldn't resist including an after-school-special moment. But the characters and the audience deserved better. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Somehow, while solving the murder of Lila Stangard (Megan West), establishing multiple mysteries for an inevitable second season, and shoehorning in a case-of-the-week, the two-hour season finale of How to Get Away With Murder incorporated an HIV storyline.
The episode saw Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) urge his on-again, off-again boyfriend Connor (Jack Falahee) to get tested for STDs. The plot was not without the requisite AIDS scare (on the part of the sexually uninhibited Connor) and it also included an added twist ending (Oliver was the one who tested positive).
On the one hand, it's refreshing to see a television series once again tackling the subject of HIV, which has all but disappeared from the TV landscape. (Until Thursday night's HTGAWM finale, Eddie, played by Daniel Franzese, on HBO's Looking was the only HIV-positive character on a current series.) But on the other, the show's approach to HIV was an embarrassing representation of HTGAWM's muddled queer politics: Connor continues to alternate between a progressive representation of a sexually liberated gay man and a caricature who's defined solely by his bedroom activities and slut-shamed for his promiscuity.
Network television has given us numerous gay male characters over the past decade, but they've been men who remind the audience to be tolerant of their queer brothers and sisters but hold off on shocking them with an actual display of affection. So there's never been a character like Connor on network television before. His sexual escapades rival those of Brian (Gale Harold) on Showtime's Queer as Folk, and he's wholly unapologetic about his random hookups. Which is a beautiful thing. The ABC series deserves plenty of credit for taking things as far as it has, with more implied analingus than we ever could have hoped for in primetime. After all, mere man-on-man kissing is still controversial in 2015, as evidenced by the backlash over the recent same-sex kiss on The Walking Dead.
But Connor has also been one of the most frustratingly underdeveloped characters on HTGAWM. For much of the season, his primary characteristic has been that he's slutty — and his recklessness in the wake of Sam's (Tom Verica) murder has been directly tied to that. Almost all of the characters have engaged in casual sex, most of it ill-conceived, but none of them are as rigidly defined by what they do in the bedroom as Connor is. To be fair, it is tough to create a sexually liberated character who is more than his or her sexual liberations — and were it not for the HIV storyline in the finale, HTGAWM could probably have gotten a pass for Connor.
And while that HIV storyline might have been an attempt to add depth to the character of Connor, and to further the arc of his relationship with Oliver, the way it played out was too pedantic and condescending to be mistaken for actual character development. When Connor went in for his HIV test, he was lectured on his safe sex practices. It was disappointing to see that a character presented as sexually uninhibited had no idea he could contract HIV from topping, and that he seemed unclear as to why he and Oliver both had to get tested before they could resume sexual contact.
The story had an off-putting teaching moment vibe: After a season of sexual freedom, Connor had to face the consequences of his actions in the form of an HIV scare. Because naturally, as soon as his results were delayed, he immediately assumed the worst. It's not as though this never happens in real life, or that sexually active gay men couldn't use the reminder on the importance of condoms; it's more that it felt like the peak of HTGAWM's season-long confusion over how to handle Connor. None of the other characters who engaged in steamy sexual encounters got tested or had any concerns about what they could have contracted, but the finale managed to devote a sizable chunk of time to the possibility that Connor might "pay the price" for his rampant fucking.
On top of that, the twist at the end — Connor ends up testing negative, while clean-cut, sexually responsible Oliver finds out he's HIV positive — felt like another lesson to be learned: Anyone can contract HIV! It's territory that was covered by any number of TV series throughout the '80s and '90s. It's quite the paradox that How to Get Away With Murder, which has been painted as a forward-thinking series for its inclusion of Connor as well as its diverse cast, is presenting the same ideas that were on television three decades earlier.
Though HIV is not off-limits —and we could do with more representations of HIV-positive characters on television — the way HTGAWM's storyline played out was neither authentic nor earned. It wasn't fair to the characters, whose biggest moment up to this point revolved around Connor lying about being a drug addict. Contrast the treatment of HIV on HTGAWM with what Looking has done this season. The HBO series has managed to introduce discussions about safe sex and pre-exposure prophylaxis Truvada without ever falling into after-school-special territory by filtering the information through the lived experience of a well-rounded HIV-positive character. While not every series can be as steeped in queer politics as the LGBT-centric Looking, a show as progressive as HTGAWM at least owes Connor and Oliver a less old-fashioned storyline.