Monday, 18 February 2013

Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side; on The Good Wife, moral quandaries and cynicism

* The TV part in my blog has been getting sorely ignored lately, consider this an apology
With the Sunday night scheduling precipitating some frustrating breaks in transmission it’s been a bit rough being a fan of The Good Wife lately. Case in point, tonight’s episode – only the fourth this year – came after a three week hiatus and it won’t be back until the week after next. This is an issue worth mentioning because in the world of television good drama is built on momentum, and then extraneous things like the show being oddly not one of the shows CBS touted during Super Bowl night make me worry that the show’s not gaining the reach it should. It makes me equal parts excited and disappointed, then, when the episode delivers an hour of peerless television and the machinations of Lockhart/Gardner never seem to titillate the internet like fellow dramas do. Is it timing? Is the show just not essential TV? And how does it even become one of those “elite” talked about shows if no one seems to be paying attention? So, after that break and following a slick (A-) episode a lot seemed to be riding on this episode of The Good Wife this week, and they sure did deliver.
Something isn't right here...
At its best The Good Wife rises to the top as one of TV’s finest dramas because it lives, luxuriates even, in the grey area that other shows seem less predisposed to examining. More than a legal drama, the show has always been for me about the dangers of mixing personal relationships (romantic and otherwise) with the workplace and both the A and B plot this episode was about the unavoidable link between the two. The episode opens on an unusually cheery Lockhart/Gardner. They’ve managed to come out from the red, their debt days are over and their assiduous work to repay the debt means they’ve turned into a significant profit. Things are looking up. In fact, things are looking up so much that the partners are less inclined to bring on five associates to become partners. They don’t need the money their capital contributions and who needs five more persons to spread the wealth among them?* Quickly David Lee arranges a vote, defer the promotions for a year and that’s that. But, that’s just the beginning when Cay and Alicia are asked to oppose Will and Diane in a mock trial on one of the firm’s cases. It’s a situation which before the bad news seems wrought with potential amusing awkwardness and shenanigans (remember the easy humour of season one’s “Mock”?). Except, when David Lee –not very tenderly – lets Alicia know the deal off the table the gloves come off and a potentially awkward situation seems more potentially perilous than just gauche now.
Forming partnerships
So, Cary and Alicia decide to round up the fourth years both of them aware of how hazardous this could be in their relationships with Will and Diane (“The partners might be unhappy with that.” “I know.”) There’s an important line being drawn in the sand. Last episode Diane, astutely, pointed out to Alicia to stop being childlike and petty in her grievances, the work place is not a playground, personal allegiances are secondary. Although accurate it was also slightly disingenuous because it was the personal allegiance Diane used when responding to the Alicia’s threat to leave the firm in lieu of a raise last season. The difficulty in boxing things off in an “expressly professional” or “expressly personal” has been consistently reemphasised, it’s not that simple. But, for Cary and Alicia to get ahead – or at least get even – allegiances like Diane’s maternal relationship with both or Alicia’s…whatever that is… with Will need to be disregarded. This is the workplace. “Game on,” Will jokes after Alicia’s closing argument. If only he knew…

The tug and pull which makes the show work is that despite Alicia’s protagonist moniker the show is constantly allowing us to root for all the main characters – Will, Diane, Alicia, Cary even Peter have all had days where we’ve been firmly in their corner. It makes the volatility that much more pronounced, then, in an episode like this where we LIKE Diane and we understand how powerless she is with the equity partners but we like Alicia and Cary, too, and feel their indignation at the feeling of being betrayed. The Kings are not making this an easy case of X person being in the wrong, it’s all a multi-faceted game where allegiances are specious.

Generally, our lexicon suggests that a term like “game” suggests phoniness but the Kings (and company) have always been adept at showing how in every area of life – it’s strategy and gamesmanship which leads to success. The posturing from the associates, inviting clients out for cryptic lunches, is a key tactic in ruffling feathers. The partners cannot ignore it and their divide and conquer decision to offer the partnership to only a single associate reeks of playing games and points to the dog-eat-dog phenomenon which the show in its cynicism has been edging closer and closer to. It’s a hollow victory – Alicia has strong-armed the partners into getting their attention, but only inasmuch as she’s being used as a pawn in their game with the associates. I pondered, would Alicia take the promotion or would the show allow the easier thing to happen and have her refuse it? Remember that grey area I mentioned above? I could so easily see a lesser show having Alicia refuse the partnership only for it to go to one of the associates we’re less familiar with thereby reinforcing the dog-eat-dog concept but preventing any potential conflict with Alicia and Cary whilst saving Alicia’s character from further ambiguity but still retaining the drama. I emphatically say, though, having Alicia do the human thing and accept the partnership amidst her and Cary’s new formed alliance is the stronger option for the drama. Last week’s (well, three weeks ago) “The Seven Day Rule” ended with that shot of Diane observing Alicia with unease mixed with something else. Alicia is changing; she’s been changing since the show’s first episode and has continued to do so four years down the line. One of the fantastic things about the show is that it flips the notion of who is a character to root for. It’s easy to look at Alicia from the outside and resent her. Things have come easy to her, yes she is skilled but she succeeds not just because of her skill – her rise to success has been a weird mix of luck, happenstance, connections, golden opportunities AND skill. Remember when Alicia triumphed over Cary for the job in season 1? The moment this episode where she lets him know that she’s been offered partnership over the other associates, over him is a significant in its profundity. Alicia’s difficulty in telling him that is palpable, and Cary’s conflict in being – in a way – happy for his co-worker but resentful of her success is even more discernible.**
Alicia doesn’t like to admit it, it raises too many discordant notes with what she thinks about herself and what she likes about herself and it counteracts her own love for the black and whites, but she is a shark – it’s the only real way to success. It’s like that moment in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf when seemingly pliant Nick says, “I’ll play the game, but I’ll play it in your language. I’ll be what you say I am.” To which George quippily replies, “You are but you just don’t know it yet.” This episode is about the “knowing it”. When Alicia almost jolts upon seeing Cary outside watching her outside shaking hands with the partner*** on the inside it’s the sort of shuddering reaction which comes with seeing an image of yourself reflected, one which gives you pause. The Kings have shrewdly built the drama up to a point where black and white line divisions seem superfluous. It’s difficult – impossible I say – to launch into an express castigation or endorsement of anyone’s actions this week. They’re gently needling us with the “Red Team / Blue Team” title when we all know that there are no teams really. Just everyone on their own. Nobody’s on nobody’s side really…and we can’t really blame them.

(This is generally why I try to avoid single episode write-ups for shows they end up turning into thousand word pieces.)

A few other fine points I couldn’t include in the main write-up.

- The Elsbeth/Eli (!!!) team-up splendidly endorses the personal relationships/work relationships kerfuffle. Would Eli be as hesitant to betray a client were it not Peter? Is he being imprudent in NOT looking for a way to defend himself? It’s why the reveal that the wire tap was a hoax works so well. We could very well see him feeling backed into a corner enough to change ranks and in his case we’re cheering on hoping that it’s the personal and not professional bone in him which succeeds. Then, there is the added significance that Elsbeth is unlikely to help Eli work against Peter when her first introduction to us was on Peter's behalf so the fake-out of him only betraying Jordan is such a plausible avenue.
- I have never approached the show for its romantic entanglements, and I have always been firmly anti-Alicia/Will inasmuch as it being an endgame for the parties involved, but its placement in this episode is brilliant because it only adds to an already muddled state of affairs and allows Charles and Margulies some excellent moments both before, during and after the kiss. I would rather not having Willicia back, but if it always comes with such well structured drama? I can deal.

* Let’s all pray to the writing gods that this is the last we hear of the firm’s financial troubles which is my favourite “oh, not again” plot point the show takes a weird pleasure in regurgitating.

** Margulies was typically on point this episode but how good was Matt Czuchry? I know I’m not the only fan who’s been hoping that Cary would get more to do this season but moving between righteous anger at his co-workers and the pain of losing to Alicia he had a great episode this week.

*** And layers upon layers. Remember last episode when the shaking hands with the partners was a necessary evil to accepting partnership, this episode finds Alicia there again but this time a more willing participant. But when she utters that "Thank you." so obsequiously I wonder has Alicia really forgiven and forgotten about the treacherous road she travelled to attain partnership?  Changes, changes.

Episode Grade: A

How much was the tension getting to you this episode? Are you in agreement about the shades of grey, or do you know where your allegiances lie? Do we all love Elsbeth? 


Squasher88 said...

This episode showed how things are really starting to get stirred up under the surface. One of the key moments for me was when Kalinda still helped out Alicia and Cary in the mock trial, despite being ordered not to. The tension between the leadership of the firm and those on the lower rungs of their ladder. Remember how Kalinda had to "fight" for her raise.

It's all a good reminder that Lockhart Gardner is indeed a competitive, capitalist law firm. Diane, Will etc. all seem so nice, but the bottom line is, they wanna make money. We can't even fault them for that, even when they go back on their promises to associates.

I'm intrigued to see how Alicia's promotion affects the workplace dynamic from here on. Great stuff.

Ryan T. said...

You already know my DVR cut off just as Alicia was about to talk to Cary at the end. Thanks again for letting me know what happened (and I also saw the scene online this morning). In any case, I really worried they would take the route of St. Alicia self-sacrificing this offer and it would go to Cary so I'm very happy Alicia finally got hers. I'll be sad regarding this new division b/w Alicia and Cary, but happy for what this could mean for Alicia's character growth. BTW I'm impressed you only managed to contain your Elsbeth's thought in one paragraph! But that just goes to show you how dense almost every episode of this show is where one can probably write a 1000-word essay on a variety of elements in the episode. Great write-up!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane so worried about what the repercussions of all this stirring could be. and we know that kalinda is anti-establishment, now that alicia is part of the "establishment" i wonder how the dynamic changes. they're still in a tenuous place.

yup, it's that bottom line which is the main thing in the firm in the long run.

ryan SO MANY good things. it was an episode which really went above and beyond. i too would have loved to see more of cary/alicia. remember them drinking wine in the hotel last year?