May 25th, 2010
A lot has been written about how The Good Wife is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, presenting itself as a combination of legal procedural and workplace drama on a weekly basis while at its heart remaining a serialized character study. The series’ pilot was one of those skillful bits of television where they presumably lay out all their cards and yet really tell you nothing at all. The clear “structures” of the season were put into place (the competition with Carey, the complications surrounding Peter’s trial, Alicia’s romantic tension with Will, etc.), but it couldn’t tell us that those structures would evolve, and that from their “resolutions” would emerge structures which offer greater complexity.
Ending where the series began, “Running” very purposefully asks us how much has changed since Alicia Florrick stood on stage with her husband one year ago, a cyclical conclusion which for some shows would seem a bit cute (and, admittedly, the ending eventually veers into that territory). However, when you actually consider that question beyond the rote cliffhanger that the episode provides, you realize how much more complex this environment seems, how much it feels like we’ve lived in Alicia Florrick’s shoes and understand the ways in which she’s trapped between different definitions of the series’ title.
And while its ending may be predictable when taken out of that context, I would very much argue that the series’ position heading into its second season is more impressive than even the strong pilot predicted.
This won’t be particularly long: I don’t have any plans to wax poetic about who Alicia chooses between Will and Peter, both because I think the answer is pretty obvious (Peter, for now) and I don’t have any personal investment in her romantic situation beyond its value as dramatic television, but I do want to say some things about the state in which the show finds itself. As Peter prepares a run for office, we remember back to the start of the season when Alicia wanted her independence: she wanted to keep away from the politics of it all, to disassociate herself from her husband, and so she took the job and valued the job because it gave her that. And yet, throughout the season she was constantly reminded of her connections, whether through judges who treat her differently, Glenn Childs’ vendetta, or divorce clients who want her as their attorney because they believe she knows how they feel. Alicia has been running away from her connection with Peter but she keeps getting drawn back, a sort of season-long equivalent to her attempt to meet Will for dinner being interrupted by Peter’s decision to violate house arrest to win her back.
I haven’t written about this show in a long while, partially because I fell behind and watched the past few episodes ahead of tonight’s finale. What’s interesting is that these elements have been there from the beginning, a way of bringing her life into her work, but they’ve gained greater meaning now that her life is re-emerging. As Peter is set free and allowed to run for office, Alicia finds that all of her independence is gone because her job (as she’s discovered all season) is caught up in the same machine. She wanted to get away from it all, but all she did was become a cog in that machine, a bargaining chip that Peter could use in order to appease potential supporters. Already indebted to Eli Gold for her job (after narrowly defeating Carey in the competition due to his business), Alicia realizes that Peter wants her to keep working because it helps him, not because he values her independence. Peter’s exoneration (of sorts) is supposed to take the weight off of Alicia’s shoulders – the kids, for example, want to buy a big house and go to Europe – but all it does is place more pressure on her to “perform” as the good wife. However, now she questions whether being a good wife is the same as being a good person, reflecting on Carey’s argument last week that she is really a bad person beneath it all. I’m usually not a fan of the show’s title being used in that sort of literal fashion, also preferring more complex terms than “good” or “bad” to describe human behaviour, but it’s an effective reminder of how Alicia really won’t be getting out of her current situation very easily.
What I like is that the show puts just about every other character in the same situation in “Running,” in particular Kalinda. At times a bit too smart for her own good, we start to see the moral weight of Kalinda’s actions as she negotiates her sexuality and her ethics in the midst of this corruption case. The show has used Kalinda’s intensely private life as an excuse to maintain the mystery surrounding the character, but here we see some of the reasons why she remains so private: she immediately gives in to mistrust when she learns that her detective hookup (in more ways than one) could be dirty, and it is in this compromised state that she and Jill Flint’s FBI agent have their romantic rendezvous in the self-storage locker. It’s a more complex look at the character, which makes me frustrated that we don’t get to actually see anything: they can’t use the character’s privacy as a justification to avoid showing an actual same sex kiss forever if they’re going through with her bisexuality, and while the show does skew extremely old that doesn’t seem like an excuse to keep us shut out. I say this not out of some sort of crass male desire to see the action itself, but rather out of hope that the wall the show has built around the character will continue to erode naturally over time.
Will and Diane were given similar stories about being trapped between two positions, Diane forced to balance her feelings for McVeigh while Will considered his young heiress as compared with Alicia, but they’re largely secondary here. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy Will and Alicia finally having their dinner, or Diane’s persistence at McVeigh’s doorbell, but this is really Alicia and Kalinda’s conclusion. The other characters are still a part of the story, and in Will’s struggle with his feelings or Carey’s desire for vengeance we see the ways in which the show’s other characters remain their own three-dimensional entities within this story. However, we’re most interested in how it is going to affect Alicia, and how she’s going to manage the transition into the next stage in the series.
Which is why, as noted, I don’t care what she does in the cliffhanger, as the second season has quite a compelling setup either way. Peter’s campaign gives Alan Cumming some more material to play with (and hopefully more opportunities to play scenes with Mary Beth Peil, who remains terrifying in the best possible way), but it also creates new responses from Alicia, and new expectations on her time and energy. If the past season was Alicia trying to prove her independence, the second season promises to be the ultimate test of what little independence she achieved, and that seems like the right decision for the show. You’re not going to throw out the sheep’s clothing when the show’s structure has proved a solid foundation, you are just going to modify the costume to reflect the changes in the wolf beneath. It’s a show that despite a “procedural” structure has every ability to evolve, and “Running” very purposefully gives us a repeat of that evocative opening sequence from the pilot and asks us how the show has changed since then or, more accurately, how our perceptions of the show’s universe have changed. The show has always had this sense of confidence to it, but through the repetition of certain elements and by breaking down certain expectations the series has convinced us of the quality that the show has been pretty secure about from the beginning.
It’s never going to be the best show on television, but it pretty easily takes the title of the season’s best new drama series, a task it pulled off with minimal fanfare and some subtle, but effective, risktaking with its character development, and it will be interesting to see whether its sure-footed narrative carries on into the fall.
- The actual story in this one never really came together, wasting Amy Acker (who didn’t even get a scene where she was confronted by her actions, robbing us of any sort of closure) and feeling at times too conveniently designed to get Diane to McVeigh’s to get Carey into Lockhart Gardner, to get Kalinda into the storage unit, etc. The show’s standalone stories have never been that strong, but after a couple of weeks of dynamic stories (Dylan Baker’s return, the radical detour from divorce to coma patient power of attorney two weeks ago) it seemed strange to get something that never really came together because the show had the symmetry with the “Pilot” to establish.
- Karen Olivo has been fun as Will’s romantic alternative – I’m not sure how I feel about her being revealed to be an heiress, as I quite enjoyed the simplicity of the fun mock trial storyline turning into something unexpected, but I’m along for the ride so long as Olivo remains compelling.
- There’s a case to be made that the show is one of the best piece-movers in television: bringing Eli into the Lockhart Gardner fold, for example, is an excuse for the character to be around more often so that Alan Cumming could logically return as a regular in Season Two, and yet it felt like it happened organically within the storyline. The same goes for how Carey was transferred to Childs’ office – it’s predictable that they’d keep Czuchry around, but it was believable in terms of the character and his motivations as well.
- I’ll say it now: I think The Good Wife gets an Emmy nomination for Drama Series, and I’d say Margulies is the east frontrunner in actress. I’d also say that Alan Cumming has a good shot at a Guest Actor nod, and Christine Baranski could sneak her way into Supporting Actress (although if the show really takes off, Archie Panjabi could even break through).