Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty

Usually, killing off a main character would be unthinkable for a TV series, especially if that character has functioned as the viewer stand-in since the first episode. But things are different in the Shonda Rhimes universe, where characters are offed left and right. Still, How To Get Away With Murder, created by frequent Rhimes producer Peter Nowalk, managed to pull off a major surprise this year, when it was revealed that the season’s unidentified murder victim was actually Wes (Alfred Enoch). This raises the stakes for the rest of the show’s season three, as the remaining law students try to discover who killed him, and their mentor, Annalise (Viola Davis), is accused of his murder. The series continues this story when it returns to ABC’s TGIT lineup tonight, January 26, at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Sometimes when a TV character is killed off, it’s the result of an actor wanting to leave the show. Speaking to The A.V. Club at this winter’s Television Critics Association press tour, Nowalk assured that this wasn’t the case with Wes. “That’s what made it a very difficult decision,” he said. “We have a very happy family of a set, and that’s rare, as I’m sure you know. Alfie, who plays Wes, is a dreamboat. He’s had to carry so much of the show on his shoulders, and he’s so young. And I love him. So I think that’s primarily why I made the decision. It scared me, all of those things.”

Even though many of the series’ viewers were shocked, Nowalk shrugs, “I didn’t think it would be that much of a surprise, actually, for the audience. I wanted it to be surprising, but you know how people are so smart and they can tell things. Really, I was just writing toward the idea that this would be very impactful for everyone, and for me, it was scary. And I think that helps you when you’re on a really fast writing schedule, to invigorate you. So there are many reasons to make a bad decision, but it all came from story.”

Thanks to the magic of TV flashbacks, Nowalk says that viewers haven’t seen the last of Enoch this season. “I’m still in denial about it because we get to see Wes in the rest of the season. We’re just starting to write the finale right now so we still get to write scenes for Wes. So, I don’t know if it will hit me until, you know, we actually reveal who killed him.”

The loss of Annalise’s surrogate son stands to test the skills of series lead Davis, but as Nowalk describes, “It’s incredible to write for her, because obviously she can do anything.” He says that Davis’ influence resonates behind the scenes as well: “She’s also my collaborator, so it’s incredible to get ideas from her and also to be challenged by her in terms of going deeper. It’s incredible. She’s a storyteller at heart. Like, look at how she told that story about Meryl Streep [at the Golden Globes]. She’s a great writer, Viola. I told her that introduction was so well-written. Obviously she knows how to perform, but I think she’s always telling a story in the smallest of moments.

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“It’s very cheesy to say but she’s like my professor in a way,” he continues. “Creating the character. I try to go to set to be like, ‘What did you think of this script? Can you help me with this scene?’ I’ll just rely on her in a million ways. She’s also really good at taking a challenge that she doesn’t know how to do and running with it. I think that’s such a gift for a writer, because you don’t ever question whether your actor can do something. It’s more like, if she’s scared, then I know I’ve done a good job.”