Viola Davis And The Power Of Removing Annalise Keating's Wig On How To Get Away With Murder

Back in the heyday of Shondaland's TGI Thursdays, just when "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy" were ruling cable at their heights, a third melodrama swept in to steal the show. Shonda Rhimes' "How To Get Away With Murder" (or "HTGAWN") quickly established itself alongside its sister series', offering dramatic courtroom monologues, a mystery worth solving, and huge twists around every corner. 

"HTGAWN" touted plenty of ingredients for success, including a talented ensemble cast, but the undeniable magic that pulled it all together was Viola Davis as high-powered lawyer Annalise Keating, a woman who would go on to dabble in crime herself as she covered up murders and eluded anyone attempting to catch her in a lie. With the acclaimed actress taking the lead, there was no shortage of memorable scenes from the series, but one stands above all the others, having surely earned a place in the TV hall of fame. 

In the fourth episode of the first season, the brilliant and glamorous lawyer — who's been radiating power since she first stepped into the frame — sits down in her bedroom and strips away her makeup and wig. While this may sound unremarkable, it remains one of the most memorable revelations in the series. Seven years later, Viola Davis has stepped forward to claim credit where it's due.

Annalise loses her armor

Annalise Keating is a hard one to nail down, and as "How to Get Away with Murder" goes on, she only gets messier and more complex. She leaps from one murder coverup to the next, landing herself in increasingly dire circumstances, and falling from grace season after season before rising back to claim her throne. But when we first meet her, none of that is clear. 

Let me set the scene: picture Viola Davis in her sharpest makeup and most impeccable blazer, with pursed lips, and a look that could kill. Annalise is a kick-ass criminal defense lawyer and college professor at the top of her game. She's a force of nature, terrifying her students and colleagues alike, with a pristine reputation and picture-perfect success, trophy husband and all. Or at least, that's what it seems. In reality, Annalise's success is hard-won and Davis was intent on proving this point — Black women don't easily come to find success in the world of white academia, but Annalise has pulled it off and made it look easy. How? By being one person in public and another in private. So of course, a scene where she bares her soul by stripping away her public persona was necessary.

Davis got a call from Shonda Rhimes early in the process when Rhimes and co-creator Nowalk were still developing the sexy, primetime soap opera. She was their dream choice and they were thrilled when she accepted a meeting. But before officially signing on, Davis had a request — she asked for a scene where Annalise would remove her wig. And thus we're given the gift of Annalise Keating stripping down her armor. Davis explained her thought process in a New York Magazine profile, saying:

"The TV and film business is saturated with people who think they're writing something human when it's really a gimmick. But if I took the wig off in a brutal, private moment and took off the makeup, it would force them to write for THAT woman."

One part of this scene that has stood the test of time is the jaw-dropping (and very meme-able) button that it ends on: why is your penis on a dead girl's phone? Those nine words are a beauty, and so is everything leading up to them. (You can watch it here.) Annalise has come to the realization that her husband was having an affair with a recently murdered college student and has decided to call him out. But before that,  she takes a seat at her vanity, pulls off her wig to reveal her natural hair, and wipes away her makeup. She caps it all off by breaking out the cocoa butter, staring into the mirror as she awaits her husband's arrival. 

Seeing her nighttime routine is so simple yet so invigorating — we've crept into Annalise's home and see an entirely new side of her, free from the armor she wears for the rest of the world. And then, when the confrontation comes and those magical nine words are uttered, her strength is still crystal clear — but now comes from her vulnerability. 

The magic of Annalise Keating

Viola Davis has been unpacking this scene for years because, as it deserves, it remains one of the most memorable moments in the show's six-season run. After the first season of "How to Get Away with Murder"premiered in 2014, Davis spoke about it at a panel for the series (via Vulture):

"There was something for me that I didn't buy about Annalise in private. It felt like who she was in private had to be diametrically opposed to who she was in public. And so in order to do that, I felt like I had to physically take the wig off. I mean, I have no eyebrows. I have eyelashes that I put on, and there was something extremely vulnerable about that act — and I know it seems like a very simple act at the end of the day — but for me, that simple act really surmounted to something very powerful in the end, because what it was someone being very, very private in public, which is absolutely the cornerstone of what we do as artists"

Annalise revealed more of herself over time — her marriage isn't all that it seems, plagued by affairs on both sides. Annalise herself has both a boyfriend and a former female lover. She has a past riddled with trauma and a future riddled with crime. Her morals are dubious at best. She's a complicated character that Davis makes realistic by drawing a line between her public and private persona: in a courtroom she's poised, polished and sharp with stunning makeup, an impeccable (and extensive) collection of wigs. But when we catch her alone, her vulnerability comes through in more ways than one. This is what made the role so appealing to Davis, especially at this point in her career. She was 47-year-old Black woman, just in time to be sequestered off into sexually neutered maternal roles. There are so few opportunities for Black women to be mysterious, complicated, messy, and sexy, but Annalise was all that and more.