Monday, 19 May 2014

The New Cary: On The Good Wife season 5 and “A Weird Year”


The Good Wife has been such a consistently great show, I’m still going back on forth on whether season five has unequivocally been the highpoint of the show, thus far. What I will say is that it’s been the season which has reached for the greatest heights with individual episodes. The entire season has been about turning things on their head, tearing things down to build them up again and in that sense of the heightened stakes – the finale, “A Weird Year” was just the sort of ending this season needed.
The Good Wife is not a show that fundamentally depends on the heightened. It’s probably why the most criticised element of its 100+ episode history was the tale of Kalinda’s husband which existed in a realm of vague surrealism that seemed, to many, to conflict with the show’s tone, and even as this season has upped the ante in terms of crazy things happeningit’s never felt surreal. The excellent closer to season 5, though, lived and breathed in that sense of the heightened taking a path that was often circuitous to close off with an episode that stressed the cyclical nature of thing and the way that in constantly spinning the world just would not give us enough time to catch up. It’s like that Alan and Marilyn Bergman song says, “round like the circles in a spiral….”

The circuitousness was immediate. The case of the Lockhart/Gardner abortion with the unsuccessful adoption case which sees the litigants suing for six million dollars returns to cap off the season putting both firms in danger. Since “Hitting the Fan” the way the show has stressed the theme that nothing ever truly fades away. And this case is a fine example. No matter how much Florrick/Agos aims to distance themselves from their parent firm, there are too many connecting threads. But the boomerangs of this episode ran deeper than just the adoption case. The episode’s crux was not to be found in the lone legal case of the evening but in something almost surreal. In a moment that hinged on coincidence, after a teleconferencing call between three firms the Lockhart/Gardner team leave their cameras on. Carey (not Cary) finds out and watches the machinations of David Lee and Louis Canning, amused. Newly minted lawyer, Clark Hayden is disgusted by his lack of ethics, but before the spying (a clear parallel to the previous NSA struggles) can be shut down the Florrick/Agos team hears that Lee and Canning plan to gut their firm, and the battle for supremacy is on.

The happenstance which the teleconferencing gaffe depends on might strain credulity had the show not carved such an intriguing path between those watching and those being watched with the NSA arc at the beginning of the season (but tracing back all the way to season 2's “On Tap”). The device itself may be incidental, but everything emanating from that device garnered is real and authentic. As usual for the Kings, though, the surveillance becomes not just a deus ex machina to find a single bit of vital information but a tool to make festering issues explode. The last third of this season has seen Cary’s “relationship” with Kalinda function as a tool for work purposes. In the episode’s strongest isolated moment Cary (along with the rest of Florrick/Agos) overhears the way that relationship is considered and it’s a classic example of the Kings eking nail biting tension out of moments that are almost mundane. But what Cary overhears about Kalinda is negligible next to what he overhears about the rumblings to merge Lockhart/Gardner and Canning and Florrick/Agos. And it leads the episode’s strongest arc – Cary vs Alicia.
Alicia Florrick is such a level-headed person that added to the fact that she exists as our entry point into this world of fictional legal Chicago; it’s often difficult to root against here, or to consider positions which are in contravention with her ideals. Alicia is not my favourite character on The Good Wife, but I almost always feel badly when I root against her. Towards the end of the season I begun pondering on the ways Alicia, blinded to her own agenda, has been as hypocritical as those around her and this episode like so many of The Good Wife, in refusing to give us easy answers seemed to amplify that. When Diane, Kalinda and Julius Caine meet in the boardroom to discuss Kalinda’s chance to shake Cary down for information and potential rumblings to merge with Florrick Agos and Lockhart Gardner (and Canning) that tightshot of Czuchry’s face (reeling from the glibness of the Kalinda issue as well as the merger) is an expert directing moment from Robert King. As the camera zooms in on Cary it’s not just a nice directorial flourish but a manifestation of how Cary feels at that moment – alone.
The shot leads to a conversation between Cary and Alicia debating the merits of the merger. It’s an essential moment for the two near partners, for the characters and for the audience. It emphasises that Cary’s antipathy against the merger is more than residual hurt feelings at Diane and develops it into the realisation that in this scenario Cary is the one who’ll get left behind. Again, alone. For, The Good Wife has always been best at continuity and in that moment my mind harkened both to the season one decision where Alicia was the chosen associate and Cary got the boot, and then season 4 when it was Alicia who got the partnership over Cary and the other fourth years. When the going gets tough, Cary ends up alone.

Last week’s episode “The 1 Percent” was a great reminder of Alicia’s relationship with privilege. For a show like The Good Wife which often examines the debilitating nature of patriarchy in the work place in a Cary / Alicia face-off (especially with Alicia as our protagonist) the obvious choice for “right” seems Alicia, not just a woman but an older woman. But the way privilege works is gnarly and intriguing like any episode of The Good Wife and the way hurt Cary trying to defend his claim (at any cost) makes his way to Canning to stop the merger at whatever price exists it’s a moment that seems more villainous than it does in context. It’s the same behind-the-back way that Diane and Alicia initially discussed the merger – without their own colleagues input – expect Canning and Cary’s meeting is borne not out of easy rapport but deliberate destruction. Canning's motives might be Machiavellian (although his if I don't work I die, is interesting) but Cary's are interesting in the way it highlights that people are most volatile when they feel alone and cornered.

It’s that thing about circuitousness I was talking about. In a light moment Cary quips, “I guess I am the new Will” and the way Alicia and Cary move from friendly to foe-like at the drop of a hat recalls the season 2 arguments Will and Diane would have when Derek Bond threatened to come between them. Of course, I'm being deliberately flippant when I title this essay “The New Cary”. This isn't an essentially new aspect to his character, Cary's moral code has always fascinated me because even when he was being set-up as an adversary to Alicia in season 1 he prided himself on fairness. It's why he stepped down from his senior position at the State's Attorney's office. It's also why he went off with Alicia. The two's partnership has depended on them being on an even keel. What now? It’s an element of the The Good Wife’s love for keeping continuity that makes those mirror-moments work so well. And, it's also why I’ll always frown when fans people suggest “Hitting the Fan” as an acceptable entry point to the show. You’re losing essential information which this show depends on if you do that. With The Good Wife context is everything.)

Archie Panjabi and Kalinda have been the season’s biggest victims (she has gone all year without an arc) but Czuchry’s Cary has consistently been the character the show has most fundamentally ignored and so his prominence in an episode to end the season of shake-ups feels satisfying. The show is Alicia’s but it’s not just telling one story. The promise of what Diane’s move to Florrick/Agos spells for Cary, surely still bitter at Diane and now probably Alicia will be interesting to watch. Ostensibly we cheer at Diane escaping the increasingly odious environment at her old firm but when Cary and Alicia have been so friendly ever since she paved the way for him to return to Lockhart/Gardner in season 3 this episode feels as if things have been irrevocably damaged between them. They’re at different points in their lives. Cary is younger and thirsting to build something of his own from the ground up, Alicia is older and tired personally, and professionally, with a family to take care of. The realisation makes me realise that their firm was not built on the sturdiest foundations and now with a new (doubtlessly) name partner to add to the mix how will the house built upon the sand survive?

Additional Thoughts 
  • And such an expert episode this was I didn't even have to consider the closing scene. It's more on the circuitousness, though. The season opened with Alicia pondering a change, and it opens with her pondering another.
  • I hope Graham Phillips returns in some capacity next year even though Zach is at college.
  • I'm curious to see Diane at Florrick/Agos, but the thought of Kalinda working for a new state's attorney would have been an A+ arc.
  • I could write a thousand words on Jackie in this episode, and with so many months until season 6 I just might. (Mary Beth Peil continues to enchant.)
  • Will Julius Cain move to Florrick/Agos, too?

Episode: “A Weird Year”, A (MVP: Czuchry)
Season: A-

Season Standouts: “Hitting the Fan”, “A Weird Year”, “All Tapped Out”

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