HIV on How to Get Away with Murder

In true Shonda style, How to Get Away with Murder dropped a couple of bombshells on us in the finale, and I’m not just talking about the situation under the stairs, although you should definitely stop reading this post right this second if for some reason you haven’t seen last season’s final episodes yet. We also learned that Oliver tested positive for HIV, in a moment that could prove critical to television. We’ve seen widely varying depictions of HIV/AIDS on television, and I’m really crossing my fingers that this will be a good one, because it has so much potential.

Rhimes in general really confronts sexuality, and her shows take an unabashed approach to sexuality that’s not filled with shaming, in addition to playing with notions about sex and relationships. Many of the women on her shows are empowered, making personal choices about sexuality and their relationships that aren’t really seen on television, and those choices include advocating for their own pleasure and pushing for bodily autonomy. Rhimes also depicts varied sexuality, including gay and lesbian relationships — though I’d love to see her take on nonmonogamy as well.

The relationship between Connor and Oliver is a complicated one. Connor uses his sexuality to get ahead and get what he wants, in a silent sendup to stereotypes about women manipulating people and situations with their bodies and sex appeal. The relationship begins as he takes to using Oliver for his IT skills, and shifts as he realises he’s developing a deeper emotional attachment, even as Oliver feels frustrated and upset with the way he’s being treated. The stakes went way, way up when the two decided to get tested and Oliver got positive results while Connor’s were negative.

Depictions of HIV in media are often tragedised, and it’s easy for producers to fall into that trap of lazy writing and representation. They’re also commonly associated with gay men, reflecting an enduring stereotype about HIV and who gets it — and who doesn’t. In this case, How to Get Away with Murder is falling behind right out of the gate with the decision to have the diagnosis take place in the context of a homosexual relationship. But the show did twist the narrative a little by having the non-promiscuous partner turn up with a positive result: Instead of shaming Connor for being sexual, it tackled the more complex aspects of HIV and sexuality.

As the next season unfolds, I have no doubt that we’re going to learn more about the exposure that led to infection. Perhaps Oliver cheated — in which case we are going firmly down the HIV as punishment path, which is deeply disturbing. Maybe it’s from a prior relationship, and he never realised it. Maybe it’s from an accident like a needle stick, or exposure in some other form. There are a lot of different ways to acquire HIV, and this could be a great chance for the show to explore the fact that while HIV is a sexually transmitted infection, sex isn’t the only way to acquire the virus.

I’m really deeply interested in how the show depicts Oliver’s life moving forward. In the usual tragic HIV narrative, his case would rapidly accelerate to full-blown AIDS, and we’d quickly be looking at him in a sad, wasted, struggling form — he’d die to add drama and tragedy to Connor’s story, and he’d be reduced to a plot device. I really don’t want that to happen. I’d really love, for example, to see Oliver getting on HIV medications to control the infection — because thanks to the modern state of pharmaceuticals (go big pharma!) there are actually numerous treatments available.

There’s also a great deal of class privilege there to explore, though. HIV meds are extremely expensive and they need to be taken for life. Not all insurance companies cover them, or only offer partial coverage. Can Oliver keep up with his medications? How are they going to affect his life? Will he experience side effects that force him to rotate through several drug regimens to keep the virus at bay? Are we going to see him managing his infection and monitoring his T-cell counts, showing us what life is like on a daily basis for many people with HIV that hasn’t progressed to AIDS?

Or are we going to be subjected to melodrama and tragedy, the obligatory visits to woeful AIDS wards and the steady decline of someone with plummeting T-cell counts and growing opportunistic infections? What will Oliver look like when we pick up the next season, and where will Oliver and Connor go? Can Connor come to terms with his boyfriend’s infection, or is he going to drop him, an all too common event for people with HIV and other chronic sexually transmitted infections?

Because that would be really fascinating, and it would offer a chance to look at HIV/AIDS in a new way on television. There’s a balance to be struck between instant tragedy and no big whup, and How to Get Away with Murder could just get there if the writers and producers did their homework and proceeded thoughtfully and with care. I’m really, really hoping that they do, because while television doesn’t have an obligation to provide social messaging, when it does, it really does provide a meaningful change for society as a whole. Some viewers don’t think about HIV/AIDS at all, or when they do, they retain stereotyped and inaccurate views of the infection and subsequent syndrome.

Could this become a sensitive depiction of the situation that opens up a larger conversation?

Image: Disney | ABC Television, Flickr