I don’t remember when I first fell in love with Shonda Rhimes. It may have been the first time Scandal cold opened with an extended sex scene set to a groovy Motown track. Or it might have been when Annalise Keating, the star of Rhimes’s 2014 offering, How to Get Away with Murder, politely asked her husband, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” Or it could have been the pure and simple casting of Jesse Williams on Rhimes’s flagship series, Grey’s Anatomy. I love me some Jesse Williams.
ShondaLand is the name of television fairy godmother Shonda Rhimes’s production company. It’s also shorthand for a miraculous world that we mere humans are granted access to every Thursday, because God really is a black woman, and her name is Shonda Rhimes. On Thursday, two of ShondaLand’s stalwarts—Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder—returned to ABC for their fall premieres. Scandal, Rhimes’s Kerry Washington-helmed Washington D.C. drama, is sitting this one out on account of Washington’s second pregnancy. I like to think that this is because Scandal’s diehard fans simply would not buy an episode in which Washington’s Olivia Pope didn’t drain a fishbowl-sized glass of Pinot Grigio. This is the magical world that Shonda Rhimes has created, and we’re just living in it.
ShondaLand is superior to the real world for a host of reasons including, but not limited to, the fact that IRL 2016 is fucking horrible. In ShondaLand women, specifically women of color, are respected, high powered professionals. Women like Annalise Keaton, Olivia Pope, and even Meredith Grey are badasses who are unparalleled in their chosen fields. By some otherworldly feat of imagination, Rhimes has managed to conjure up a world in which women are more or less in charge—where they don’t have to pander to powerful men or dab on national television to get the jobs that they deserve. The real feminist fantasy of Grey’s Anatomy was never getting laid in an unattended supply closet between rounds—it was becoming a world-renowned surgeon, or getting appointed chief of staff. In ShondaLand, studly but frequently stupid men are basically scattered around like accessories, ripped and for her pleasure. Call it a groundbreaking reversal of the male gaze or just call it a shirtless Billy Brown giving Viola Davis a foot massage—suffice to say, these women aren’t worried about the wage gap or the orgasm gap.
In the winter white landscape otherwise known as network television, ShondaLand has given us countless non-white baes to pine over. Rhimes’s roster of aspirational love interests includes beautiful bisexual women, stereotypically gorgeous white men, hot dudes with beards, hot dudes without beards, sexy gingers of both genders, and Jesse freaking Williams. If you happen to like your women strong and stunning, and your men carved from various shades of marble, you’ve come to the right place. After one Olivia Pope-sized pour of white wine, even sexy grandpa Richard Webber could get it. Forget about living in ShondaLand—can we just get 24 hours on their Tinder?
In ShondaLand, tailored white suits actually stay clean. Your boyfriend is the President, your doctor is (the ghost of?) Patrick Dempsey, and you probably have a really cool half-sister you don’t even know about yet. So without further ado, welcome back ShondaLand. We really freaking missed you.
In a misguided attempt to set boundaries between myself and Shonda Rhimes, I actually stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy a few years ago. My subsequent decision to watch the premiere of the millionth season of Grey’s without reading a single recap was, in my opinion, a courageous one. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that all of my favorite characters are dead, and Meredith Grey’s voiceovers still sound like a collection of yoga teacher Tumblr posts. This season opened on Owen’s wedding reception to Amelia, a person I have never heard of. McDreamy and love are both dead and they’re never coming back. So naturally, Meredith has a new love interest—and boy is he generic. He also has some sort of accent that the ladies of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital are really going wild for—cue the inevitable love triangle between Meredith, Maggie and this white guy (fine, his name is Nathan).
After walking in on his girlfriend fully clothed but in proximity to a human man last season, Karev proceeded to pummel said male—surgeon DeLuca—into a bloody pulp. Karev then took his own victim to the hospital and attempted to treat him, all while halfheartedly hiding his incredibly suspicious bruised knuckle. Karev and BFF Meredith spend the entire episode trying to get their story straight. Eventually, Karev turns himself in, and learns that he could be facing up to 20 years for his unwarranted assault. Meanwhile, in another hospital wing, April has decided to name her and Jackson’s baby Harriet (Tubman) Kepner-Avery, because if we’ve learned anything from Grey’s Anatomy, it’s that your parents can really fuck you up.
My first thought while watching this premiere was, wow, Karev is really the worst. Over the course of one episode, he graduates from beating up an innocent man to making his girlfriend cry by criticizing her for being raised in foster care. The whole time, he pressures Meredith to defend him and puts the entire weight of his poor decision-making on her shoulders. Meredith’s smoking hot soulmate died in a freak car accident; she should be taking long bubble baths and listening to Frank Ocean, not wasting her energy keeping trifling man-boys out of prison. My second thought was, wow, fictional Seattle real estate is really incredible. I guess in ShondaLand, you know you’re a grown-up once you’re more turned on by exposed brick and well-tended houseplants than Jackson Avery. Lastly, I learned that 90 percent of acting is just staring at your scene mate, and that Maggie is actually Meredith’s sister, which, in retrospect, would’ve been really helpful information to have at the beginning of this episode.
Grey’s Anatomy has a predictable, schmaltzy formula, which some people love and other people love to hate. Meanwhile, How to Get Away with Murder is objectively amazing and everything about it is incredible. This premiere episode is called “We’re Good People Now.” This is an inside joke, stemming from the fact that all of these people are horrible. These characters aren’t trendy, tortured anti-heroes—they’re monsters. HTGAWM, a show about lawyers, might actually have a higher body count than Grey’s Anatomy, a medical drama.
Last season, Wes finally met his biological dad, who was promptly shot in front of him. We quickly learn that Shonda will be disrupting this perfect hour of television with confusing time stamps, as is her wont—Shonda giveth, and Shonda taketh away. Wes tells Annalise that Frank, noted killer and beard icon, took him to meet his dad and then fled the crime scene. Because Frank is a hired assassin, and also because of some very complicated backstory between Frank, Annalise, and Wes’s dad, it’s clear that Frank killed Wes’s father. Annalise takes Wes into the woods to scream out their grief, which is sort of cute. Their primal scream is juxtaposed with flashes of Frank shaving his beard and head. I loved Frank’s beard, but damn if that Italian bone structure isn’t working overtime.
Four months later, the gang is back on campus and everyone is in their feelings about it. Wes and Laurel have an awkward reunion, in which we learn that Wes has a new girlfriend—the tragically named Meggy. Asher half-winks at Michaela, reminding us all—and seemingly, Michaela—that they were getting busy at the end of last season. An unfriendly new student chimes in, reminding the would-be lawyers that all of their grades are horrible. Apparently, spending your entire semester battling PTSD and killing law enforcement officials might land you on the bottom of your class rankings. Annalise makes her grand entrance, welcoming everyone to her new pro bono law clinic. For each case, students will compete to earn a spot representing their new client. The first client is an immigrant who’s facing deportation on drug charges.
Annalise’s protégées are worried about all the murders they committed last season, and have a sneaking suspicion that there aren’t enough pro bono cases in the world to clear their consciences. Also, Annalise has a burner phone she keeps in a secret compartment in her jewelry box.
Through a series of flashbacks, we get to catch up on all the goings-on we missed over summer vacay. These scenes are shot in a fun, over-saturated filter, which is how we know that it’s definitely not fall. Back in May, Laurel came to tell Annalise that she’s leaving for Mexico to visit her mother, because her criminal mastermind father still isn’t allowed back in the country. Because why make a character’s family backstory simple when it could be endlessly intricate and complicated? Laurel tells Annalise that Frank still hasn’t contacted her in the wake of his crime spree/beard shaving, and that he’s dead to her. Annalise tells her to student to “bring me back some tequila, my body’s sick of vodka.” If there is one thing this episode will prove beyond a reasonable doubt, it is that Annalise Keaton is not sick of vodka.
In June, Annalise promised Connor not to hire his boyfriend, Oliver. When Oliver comes in for his interview, he confesses to Annalise that he deleted Connor’s acceptance to Stanford with his super hacker skills, offering this betrayal of trust as evidence that he can be bad too. And in July, a newly cut off Asher went to Annalise asking for a loan, and was promptly laughed out of her backyard: “Your white ass hasn’t struggled a day in its life.”
Annalise and Michaela have their little moment in an August flashback, when Annalise is called to pick up a wasted Michaela from an almost bar fight. Seriously, who lists their terrifying law professor as their emergency contact? Michaela wants to rage at Annalise for turning her life into a living hell, but Annalise is having none of it: “Next time you want to drink yourself silly, call me. I have a full liquor cabinet and I won’t let you drive home drunk.” Annalise’s one-on-ones with her students overwhelmingly seem to circle back to her own alcoholism, which might be why they call her selfish all the time.
In a flashback meeting with the new university president—who, yes, is a black woman; black women run this school, what of it? —we learn that Annalise’s new law clinic is actually a demotion. She’s chastised for her poor performance as a professor, since all of her pet students are basically failing out of school. It’s unnerving to see a professional boundary being emphasized on a ShondaLand show—Annalise is actually facing repercussions for treating her students like stand-in kids/criminal accomplices.
Meanwhile, back at school, someone is hanging up “killer” posters of Annalise’s face. The kids keep asking Annalise what her plan is, to which she replies, confused, “Why you always stalking me?” Annalise doesn’t love the incriminating posters pasted around her place of work but notes, “At least they chose a good photo.” Clearly, Annalise has no fucks left to give—maybe they’re hiding in her secret jewelry box compartment.
Time for a mojito party at Oliver and Connor’s! Meanwhile, Annalise is having a grown up party with her boyfriend, Nathan, who’s giving her the topless foot massage of a lifetime.
Asher is an RA now (bummer), but Michaela is still deigning to sleep with him (nice!). Mid-sex session, Michaela catches a glimpse of Asher’s notes for the law clinic and leaves in a hurry, with a half-assed excuse about not wanting to date a boy who lives in a dorm room. Asher complains that Michaela is just discriminating against him because he’s poor now, to which she effortlessly replies, “Welcome to America.”
Wes is leading the team at court, where we get a little bit of learning sprinkled in with our soap opera—according to Annalise, the defense only wins 3 percent of cases in immigration court. Michaela uses the lead she stole from Asher to fill the episode’s “breathless interruption of a court scene” quota. Unfortunately, the judge still rules to deport their client, because life isn’t fair and it’s a whole lot less fair if you’re in this country on a green card. Annalise tells Connor she’s going hire Oliver, despite promising him that she wouldn’t. She also breaks the news about his boyfriend’s Stanford betrayal as if she’s relaying a coffee order, most likely due to her aforementioned lack of fucks.
Connor confronts Oliver about messing with his Stanford application, but is ultimately way too chill about the whole situation. Oliver thinks that Connor should be angry, as “anyone who hears this story” would be. Touché. Oliver, who is shockingly sane, has to admit that, “This is not what a healthy relationship looks like.” Now we’re all crying, as Oliver tells a disbelieving Connor that they’re over.
Meanwhile, Annalise and Bonnie are drinking huge glasses of vodka and thinking about how convenient it would be if Frank was dead. Annalise says she’s not a killer, and she’s not about to let Frank turn her into one—which is sort of splitting hairs at this point. Finally, we get back to the mystery of Annalise and her burner phone. She gets a call from a dude who’s found Frank at a motel. “So, do or die?” he asks her. “What do you want to do?” Before Annalise can answer, Frank sneaks up behind her hired help and starts strangling him.
In a flash forward to two months later, we find Annalise sobbing uncontrollably beside a body, undoubtedly a main cast member. Also, her house is on fire. This. Is. ShondaLand.