Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Strange Case of Kalinda Sharma (and Alicia Florrick)

My initial plan to write something on the weirdly counter-intuitive development of the Alicia/Kalinda dynamic on The Good Wife was eclipsed by the *devastating news that Archie Panjabi is leaving the show at the end of the next season.

*I’m not being hyperbolic when I say devastating but I’m also being especially subjective because I’m conscious that Kalinda Sharma, her inscrutable nature and her journey in the legal world of Chicago has not always been a uniformly loved one by fans of the show.
Writing an obituary on the character is premature with eighteen episodes left before the season’s end. With the news of Kalinda's departure next year, I’m more intrigued by the oft-discussed but never truly examined issue of the Kalinda/Alicia frostbite that’s plagued the show since the middle of season four.

And, why has the Kalinda/Alicia arc been such an essential thing for fans over the seasons of the show? It's more than just the dearth of non-confrontational female friendships on the TV landscape. The way savvy Kalinda Sharma and housewife turned legal savant Alicia Florrick hit it off from their first episode was a boon to the show. Their rapport together became a constant source of certainty in the sometimes turbulent world of (then) Lockhart/Gardner. Two ladies, circumspect in different ways, open up to each other and become essential to each other. Margulies and Panjabi's rapport has always been effective, so that by time the show's fortieth episode comes around (“Ham Sandwich”, one of its best) we get how Kalinda giving out her address is something significant. 

Of course the delightful “Ham Sandwich” is the beginning of the end because the biggest bombshell of The Good Wife lands at the end of the episode when we find out that once upon a time in a time before Kalinda, she had a one night liaison with Peter Florrick. That was March in 2011, two months later in May Alicia found out. Things have never been the same since.

In 2013, Julianne Margulies (also producer on the show) commented that she thinks the coldness between the two is expected considering that Kalinda slept with Alicia’s husband (albeit pre the beginning of their friendship) and it’s a legitimate concern. The Good Wife has always prided itself on evolving naturally to distressing occasions instead of being unrealistic and going for the easy fixes.
“I think that [the relationship] is kind of played out because of circumstance. I doubt she'll be able to trust that friendship fully. I think Kalinda's character seems to have gone in a different direction. What keeps the show interesting and sort of satisfying is to see other people come into the central character's life to open her up. She needs female friendship, but she needs to start from scratch. She can't be pouring her heart out to someone who once slept with her husband. I mean, it's just not going to happen. It doesn't seem realistic. As much as I think the relationship worked in the beginning because Kalinda is such an independent, sort of suffragette woman -- it helped Alicia to see she didn't need to be a wallflower housewife anymore -- but I think there have been too many twists and turns there. To bring it back would be going backwards instead of moving forward. And there are only so many scenes at a bar you can do. [Laughs.] I do think what it did -- which is fantastic -- is it opened up a world to Alicia where she's going to realize she needs female friendship. In a certain way, having Dallas Roberts' character on the show -- her gay brother -- gave us an inkling, sort of a moment into that. Having Stockard Channing come into her life allows us to sort of see what her life was and how she was raised and why she is the way she is.” (24 April, 2013 Huffington Post)

The way Julianna surmised that the relationship was played out always struck me as odd, for myriad reasons. Especially because, even though things had not been the same since May 2011, the show - thus far - had not made the relationship between the two impossible. Her words in 2013 seemed to be forgetting the previous year of the show. Let's take a journey back to the Kalinda/Alicia relationship after the Peter bombshell.

It’s a legitimate point to make, and discussing the show’s development since with fellow fan Teo Bugbee I pointed out that the stasis of the Kalinda/Alicia arc has been the show’s unusual crutch. We both agree that as great as The Good Wife continues to be (excellent TV) the emphatic disavowal of the Kalinda/Alicia relationship smarts because of the integral nature it played in the formation of the series.

The Buzzfeed piece on the two characters not sharing a scene since “Red Team/Blue Team” from Emily is interesting and essential, but Margulies words (spoken at the end of season four) make little sense considering the way the relationship ends that season.

After the end of the affair in season 2 the coldness began to thaw just a few months later in “What Went Wrong” (December, 2011) when Alicia finds out that Kalinda has found her (not quite) missing daughter, Grace, and warned her hipster preacher from contacting her again. An awkward car conversation immediately afters seemed a step in a positive direction. The relationship was on the mend. With Will’s time off from the law Alicia became Kalinda’s lawyer (May, 2012) and the two gently became friends again with Alicia losing her cool on some FBI agents trying to intimidate Kalinda. By the end of season 3 in the finale “The Dream Team”, an innocuous act like Alicia turning an empty chair at a bar so Kalinda could sit became something a million Alicia/Kalinda shippers (in a non-romantic or romantic sense) hearts melted when the two sat down to share a glass of tequila.
The date was April 12, 2012. Eleven months after the harrowing break-up of “Getting Off”. It was as if the Kings were telling us, Worry not. Things can improve. Right? Even the appearance of terrible Nick in Season 4 did not threaten to regrowth of the Kalinda/Alicia relationship.

I will admit, as terrible as the Nick character was I never found the Nick storyline wholly unsalvageable as many did and it never compromised with the renewal of the Alicia/Kalinda dynamic. Kalinda, notable for holding things close to her chest, confides in Alicia (only Alicia) that the erratic Nick is her spouse. In one of the more ambiguous scenes of the storyline, Nick finds Kalinda giggling on the phone with Alicia and becomes convinced that she's flirting with some beau. In fact, Nick’s departure from the show is catapulted by Alicia voicing her fear of him to Kalinda to which the show deliciously leave us with the two facing off and cutting to black. In a historic Alicia/Kalinda import episode 11 of season four ends with the two at a bar. And Alicia and the audience sort of a heave a sigh at his departure.

Alicia: He’s gone.
Kalinda: Yeah.
Alicia: And you’re safe?
Kalinda: You are too.
That bar conversation was a familiar thread the show never failed to make us forget. Threaten Alicia, and Kalinda will appear bearing arms. Little did we know that December 2, 2012 would be the last Kalinda/Alicia scene in a bar....

One episode later, while out of the city on a case Kalinda shows up with incidentals to Alicia's room and they have taut, but warm bedroom conversation.
 “I miss this,” Kalinda says. The unwritten part seemed to suggest, perhaps now we can get more of that. And, yet, three episodes later in “Red Team / Blue Team” they share their last physical appearance as she covertly helps them win a mock case. 

BUT, even though this marks the end of the two's physical contact It isn't the end of their emotional contact, which has made recent remarks of the dissolution of the friendship seem so unusual. 

In “Running with the Devil” (March, 2013) when Lockhart/Gardner decides to hire a new investigator Alicia inserts herself on to the committee to ensure that Kalinda’s best interests are met. They don’t speak, but the implication of warmth stays there. Alicia has Kalinda's back. Even more significant, two episodes later in the unusually framed episode “Death of a Client” while at the gubernatorial ball Alicia is down at the police station because of an incident with a client’s death and she calls Kalinda with those magic words, “Kalinda I need your help” and like the knight in black boots, Kalinda rushes off to save Alicia from the night.

 It harks back to the season 2 days when, whether or not the overtones were essentially romantic, there was evidence as Teo suggests of a strong emotional arc between the two ladies. 

The always perceptive Emily Nussbaum excellent summed it up in a tweet yesterday. 
It's weird though because maybe I'm crazy but... early on, wasn't the show a love story with Kalinda as Alicia's secret chivalric knight?

Even as the back end of season 4 saw them not together the idea of the rapport seemed certain which is why when Alicia's move to start her own firm was mentioned to Kalinda in “The Wheels of Justice” her face goes still. The effect is obvious. She is shocked, and even hurt, that she wasn’t informed. Kalinda has always been savvy enough to know when to cut her losses, why would she be so unnerved by not knowing if the friendship had been kaput?

It’s why Margulies’ public words on the relationship have always struck me as a sort of odd retroactive continuity thing with the show. It seemed odd that the Kings would not have the characters address and then end their “relationship” instead of being in a state of stasis where they never interact and then retroactively declare that they are no longer friends. In episode 5 of season 5 when everything hits the fan Will asks Kalinda about Alicia leaving and how she didn’t know and she muses almost bitterly “I guess I wasn’t friend enough”. That might be a logical movement assuming that the Peter issue still looms but for the way considering their last interaction on the show has no animosity present. TV drama is what you see, after all, and if we have not seen it did it really happen? 

I’ve always claimed The Good Wife does continuity better than anyone so this being their continuity crutch has always been unusual, especially considering its essential role. to the early seasons.

The Kings have hedged on the issue, reportedly surprised that anyone has noticed. They’ve always been such savvy showrunners their coyness on the issue has always bemused me. When asked if the two will share a frame again before the premiere of this season Robert King responded:

 “I think so. I mean, here's the bottom line. We're trying to follow the reality now that she slept with Peter, which kind of comes back into their lives because one thing when someone's running for office, scandal tends to follow. There is a possibility. I saw that piece too. First of all, I was surprised people are keeping track. Second of all, part of that has been intentional, which is to try and show this relationship, which was a friendship so strong, is now so worse.” (21 September , 2014 interview E Online.)

Aside from the oddness of them doing it on purpose (and still being “surprised” that people are keeping track) I think the audience response to the lack of rapport has less to do with the dissolution of the relationship than with the addressing of where it is. Like any visual medium we can only judge what’s within the frame and the current state of the relationship has been so unexamined it’s difficult knowing why anything has happened.

And it becomes even more intriguing when last year before the fifth season in an excellent interview with the Daily Beast they were much less close-lipped on the dynamic. 

Much of this season seemed to be moving towards repairing the gulf between Alicia and Kalinda. Given now that they are in competing firms, is that division going to create a wider gulf between them, one that is potentially insurmountable?
Robert King: I don't know that it’s insurmountable but it's definitely creating a gulf. The problem is our people cared for each other and they even care for each other when there is great division between them. People that we want to see getting closer together [are now] having this dividing line drawn between them.
Michelle King: It will play with the reality of people that are just going to be in different places logistically. How do they deal with each other when they are suddenly part of the competition? As much as you might like a former colleague, what happens when it seems like they are trying to undermine your firm? That's what's going to be fun.
In a recent interview, Julianna Margulies said that the Alicia/ Kalinda dynamic was “kind of played out because of the circumstances. I doubt she'll be able to trust that friendship fully.” Do you agree with her assessment?
Robert King: These are two really key characters to the show, and indifference is something that doesn't play dramatically. What's fun dramatically is either love or hate. It's very difficult to play somewhere in between. Look, Jules is a collaborator here and actually Archie is too, all the actors are. We don't have a flag planted either way, and we are leaving ourselves open on that.
Just to reiterate, you are saying that it is possible that they might continue to have some kind of dynamic.
Robert King: We leave all options open. We won't get into a public fight with Julianna on this because she knows this character almost better than anyone. When you're playing with a full deck of cards with a lot of characters you'll find that there is a potent mixture that you can create that you didn't expect. We can only say to the fans that we don't close any door at all. Wow, that was three mixed metaphors. It started with poker and moved to chemicals and now to doors closing and opening. (28 April, 2013 Daily Beast Interview)

Their words open a larger realm of potential regarding the development of the Kalinda/Alicia relationship against Margulies' opinion that it was already played out. But as we launched into season 5, the Kings' indication that they had not closed any doors seemed to Peter out because, for the entire season, the two never shared a scene, coming closest when Kalinda called Eli to speak to Alicia about Will's death. But, even death could not get them in a room together.

It’s arguable that Kalinda hasn’t been “essential” to the show in at least a year (that’s what those disinterested in Panjabi’s departure have noted in saying Good riddance to her departure) but what’s intriguing about Robert’s words is his admittance that indifference doesn’t play on TV. And, yet....with no contact between the two their relationship has resorted to something of an indifferent situation of stasis. They don’t interact, they rarely mention each other and suddenly it’s as if all that came before was a dream. Did something end up on the cutting room floor between the beginning of season 5 and season 6? Did the Kings just change their minds? (As is their prerogative?) But saying that the Peter affair is the reason for the lack of screen time between the two seems to be an especially flaccid answer. When have private problems kept people who hate each other from uncomfortably bumping into each other? Especially when they share a common workplace? Surely, there must be a better (if more uncomfortable) reason?

And then in last week’s “Oppo Research” Alicia revealed the Kalinda/Peter affair to Eli, with a bitterness that hasn’t clouded their interactions since early seasons 3 and Kalinda disavowed Eli’s claim that she was ever Alicia’s best friend with a quickness that seemed almost like a ret-con disavowal of a relationship that was essential for the first third of the show’s life.

Let it be stated, I love The Good Wife. It's my favourite show right now, so much that it feels churlish  to complain about it. It feels like looking a gift horse in the month, and yet the oddness of this single issue continues to confound. The underground rumblings of behind the scenes drama unnerve me and make me want to bury my head in the sand, because when you like a show, and the people behind it, you'd like to imagine all is great. And, yet, even as I adore The Good Wife, I've always felt a sense of great solidarity for Panjabi (and her Kalinda) that makes the news of her imminent departure that much more devastating. A sense of unfulfilled potential because she's been wasted so much in the recent past. 

Of so many different responses the news of Panjabi's departure, the one I’m most worried about is the way that the show’s recent lack of good usage of Kalinda becomes conflated with a belief that Archie wasn’t adding much to the show. And because the show has been so good this past season, the absence of Kalinda becomes conflated as a weird case of: the show was good this past season, Kalinda was rarely used this past seasons. Ergo, Kalinda's absence is the reason the show is great. Not so fast.

It’s a weird dichotomy between what’s on the page and what’s on the screen and from a purely story stand point Kalinda has suffered from a confounding case of being shut out. And yet, when the genesis for this article began before the announcement of the Panjabi exit it was based around the most recent episode “Oppo Research” which sees Kalinda having two scenes – one a taut conversation about her Peter affair with Eli and the other an even tenser one with Lemond Bishop. It’s a sliver of two scenes and yet it reminded me of how excellent Archie Panjabi can be with – and even in spite of – what material she’s given. Even worse than the arbitrary dissolution of the Kalinda/Alicia relationship is the way Kalinda as a character has stalled. Every main character from Cary, to Diane, to Eli have been allowed to change over time from their original relationship pairs. With Kalinda's arc with Alicia ended, though, Kalinda's role on the show has been curbed. Yes, this will always be The Good Wife not, the friends of The Good Wife but the way Panjabi has faded into the background in the face of newer stars on the show is unfortunate for someone, like me, who finds her contribution to the show inimitable.

It’s why the exit news fills me with ambivalence. Even as Kalinda’s presence on the show has been mitigated the protectiveness one feels for a beloved character doesn’t lessen when the use of the character falters. Since the expertness of Archie in Season 1’s “Hi” I’ve found her to be, consistently, the performer on the show who does the more with less. She’s at an explicit disadvantage because there’s little inherently cinematic about investigation – her other Lockhart Gardner cohorts got court scenes, Eli and Peter have political scenes against their campaign scenes. Kalinda’s entire character has been shrouded in the unknown, leaving her to play scenes dependent on stillness. 

I think of the evocative ending to season 2’s “Ham Sandwich” which reveals a bombshell and focuses just on Panjabi’s face. The art of stillness. Panjabi as Kalinda was my favourite of the show’s main performers – when given her best to do she was rewarding in a way few other characters on TV were. And, it’s possibly there’s an element of be idolising the character as a person of colour because there aren’t many of those on TV even less of those like Kalinda. The idea of a character’s importance stemming from any more than just explicit importance to the show's narrative is, admittedly, problematic.  But, there was an importance in Kalinda as a bisexual Indian woman, a distinct other in many ways, that I’ll admit has always endeared me more to her.

Nonetheless, I’m excited to see what’s next for 42 year old Archie Panjabi. There’s a worry which comes when a character you see every week on TV for half a year leaves because you wonder if they’ll fade into oblivion. As a woman of colour, a woman over forty, a non-American actor, the cards seemed stacked against her and I wonder if she has a strong future in television. I won’t love The Good Wife (my favourite show of the year) less for her absence, necessarily. I’ll, invariably, love it differently. And that’s all right. There’s just that sense of possibility that looms especially in the face of all the things which could have been done with Kalinda that weren’t over the last two seasons. Maybe something will give before the end of the seasons and her departure.

In either way, I’ll raise a glass of tequila for Kalinda. (And the Alicia/Kalinda rapport which, alas, is no more....but the Kings have nineteen episodes to send it out with a bang.)


Anonymous said...

This was truly a beautiful piece of writing. I really appreciated the caring and gentle approach to a character that was not easily defined but added so much to TGW. Like you I have been puzzled and at times disappointed by the King's response to the death of such a wonderful friendship/interaction.
Nevertheless I wish Ms. Panjabi the absolute best; this is a revolutionary time for women of color on television.
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the piece :) Cheers

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Great writing and perspectives.

Anonymous said...

My conspiracy theory was that after Archie won the Emmy and almost to a person was everyone's favorite character on the show, and the point of interest revelation for any fan, Julianna wasn't interested in that revelation, and simply nudged hard enough, for long enough, until she became an executive producer, that the character was simply not very relevant to the series anymore. And thus, Alicia and Kalinda never stand together in a scene again. Kalinda becomes about as bland and ornamental as possible (which for her is still decently compelling regardless), and now Archie is leaving. Because she's not stupid to what's happened. She went from the 3rd lead of the show to the on-again-off-again girlfriend of a lead who's not that important.

Anonymous said...

I love the good wife but I have felt it weird that Alicia and kalinda not being on screen together. Even when Will died it was more Alicia and Diane. Kalinda and Alicia didn't even discuss it. It also feels awkward when there is like a group and then Alicia will be on the phone or Kalinda will be on the phone. It feels like if it was just about showing their distanced friendship they could just not have any private moments together. Why are they never with a group of people? But I enjoyed reading your summary, nice work 😀

Sandy Tran said...

I have just started watching season 6 after catching up on all of the past ones. I think the relationship between Alicia and Kalinda was one of the best female-female relationships on TV because it was the perfect balance of professional and personal. I think Julianna was wrong when she said that Alicia and Kalinda could never get past Kalinda sleeping with Peter. It just reinforces the belief that women can be friends until a man gets in between them. I think that the separation has to do with something in the background. Josh Charles abruptly left the show, due to "unforeseen circumstances", and I think Archie is leaving for the same ones. I think Archie winning an Emmy may have upset Margulies, in fear of being overshadowed. It's sad that behind-the-scenes politics have made the show fall into a downward spiral, with so many good characters leaving the show, and therefore cutting their story short.

Adrianna Lesniak said...

Thank you for writing this. You hace expressed what i felt in my heart about Kalinda this season

mona reed schurr said...

This was lovely and spot on. Thank you!