What is going on with this schizophrenic season? We've gone from last week's disappointing placeholder of an episode to something almost excellent (but not quite) this week. Is it a sign that this confused third season has finally found its footing, or that the pattern of one episode that's "on" and one episode that's seriously, seriously "off" is merely continuing?
If season one was about a woman sifting through the ashes of her husband's indiscretions and season two was about her not only rising from those ashes, but rising above them, then what is this one about? That the Kings don't quite seem to know themselves is perhaps why this season feels like whiplash, like the lingering pain of having run into a wall. As my colleague Ben Williams has pointed out, the challenge with this season is trying to figure out where to go when you've removed both the "good" and the "wife" portions of the original premise from the show. And so far, that challenge hasn't been met.
What does seem to be clear from this season's stuttering start is that the show does best when it directs its gaze inward toward the characters we already know and care about. This becomes much harder when half of the core cast is no longer interacting with the other half of the core cast. See: The separations of Peter and Alicia, Peter and Eli, Kalinda and Alicia, Kalinda and Cary, and Peter and Alicia and Jackie. Of course, new characters have to come in to shake things up, and they can't always be kooky judges or Mamie Gummer or Martha Plimpton. (We miss you, ladies!) But the show has been faltering badly by spending too much time on weird distractions like Eli's vomit-and-cheese subplot and Will's innuendo-laced Cheerios poker with Cudi. Add to that the whole diversion into the Arab Spring in the season premiere. God, this season has been a mess.
All this is particularly troubling given an interview I did a long while back with the Kings on their showrunner philosophy. In it, Robert King said that they'd learned from shows with long story arcs that it's a mistake to "hold onto plot thinking, Won't this be cool when this happens or this happens?" since you could get cancelled before ever getting to the good stuff. Of course, this isn't a problem for a show in its third season with major network backing, but doesn't it feel like they're backtracking on their own philosophy? What are they waiting for? What are we building up to? What is this season supposed to be about?
That said, last night's episode showed shades of some of the best episodes in the past, and the case reminded me of the Leelee Sobieski episode, full of surprising twists and great moments when Cary finally found his mean streak. The clever direction starts us off with a young white man, Travis Dolan, going to the ATM to find out he has insufficient funds, then heading to the convenience store with the few dollars left in his wallet to buy a toy for his son. While there, a robber enters. The clerk pulls out a gun and gets shot twice in the face. Seconds later, the police run by; our young father is hiding in the back of the store and is brought in as witness to the murder, even though he never saw the robber's face.
Cary is fast becoming the most enigmatic character on the show. Did his conversation with Kalinda last episode -- possibly revealing that he had feelings for her but knows she's only using him for access to cases -- harden him to empathy? We know something's up the minute Cary starts making small talk with Travis at the police station. Travis has just gotten off the phone with his worried wife, and shoots Cary a man-to-man look about the missus. "Oh, I know," says Cary, nodding with commiseration. No, you don't know, Cary, you perpetual sexless bachelor, you! Stop being a manipulative liar!
It quickly gets worse. Cary has noticed that Travis and his wife applied for passports last week for a trip to Cabo, but Travis is an unemployed and broke parks department worker. Why was he planning to leave the country? Where was he planning on getting the money for this trip? And Travis's story doesn't add up. He said he didn't touch anything in the store, but his fingerprints are on some greeting cards. If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that you shouldn't absent-mindedly thumb through something in a convenience store, because it might lead to you getting accused of shooting someone twice in the face. Within seconds, Travis has gone from being an innocent bystander to the guy who committed the robbery and then pretended to be an innocent bystander. The SA's version of events is that Travis got desperate with his financial situation and decided to rob the convenience store. Mid-robbery, he got surprised by the swift arrival of the patrol car, so he put the gun down and hid in the back of the store pretending to be a witness. It all happened so fast that he wasn't able to take any cash. There's also a solid eyewitness who says he saw Travis do it, an African American named Sterling Brown with a clean record and decent eyesight (in glasses, which he was wearing). Alicia is assigned to the case as part of Lockhart Gardner's pro bono commitments. Cary lays down his theory and then asks Alicia, "I don't suppose you'd let me question him more. He is innocent, right?" It's a sharp way to both show how cynical Cary has become, and to plant a seed of doubt in our minds: Maybe Travis really did do it.
The case goes through a bunch of false leads until Sterling Brown turns out to be the one who shot the clerk and pretended to be the eyewitness. And once again a compelling case falls into the "Lockhart Gardner must win everything" trap. There was so much promise with this one, particularly the subject of racial politics. If white eyewitnesses frequently confuse black faces, thinking they all look alike (God, wait till we have a case that takes place in Chinatown), then who's to say that black eyewitnesses don't do the same with white faces?
There was also a subplot involving a hot new AUSA (Assistant U.S. Attorney) named Imani Stonehouse* whom Peter has brought in at the government's request to monitor any racial biases in plea bargaining in his State's Attorney's office. The point is to show that Cary is unyielding about giving Travis a plea bargain because he's trying to overcompensate for having been soft on white defendants before. It's a fine point to make, but why did the writers choose to completely undermine the point -- that this white family guy could have just as easily committed the crime as some black guy down on his luck -- by finishing out this case with "the black guy did it" conclusion? It makes no sense.
The pros of this case include the always wonderful Harvey Fierstein as "Justice Tie-Dye," offering zucchini bread to the court and clearly favoring the defense in all cases except when Imani Stonehouse appeals to him by quoting her grandfather, Reverend Roy Stonehouse, who marched at Selma. I didn't realize this until I saw her credits, but Nicole Beharie, who plays Imani Stonehouse, also costars with Michael Fassbender in Shame, which is coming out in December and which I saw at the Toronto Film Festival. She has an incredible sexiness about her, a way of sparring intellectually with cocky men that makes her a perfect Cary counterpart. Their chemistry was palpable from second one, and is enough to make anyone forget about the sorely missed Kelli Giddish, at least momentarily. (Kudos to Czuchry for that amazing attracted-nervous-suspicious laugh he did in response to Imani's first joke, "You're all under arrest.") And she's sexy in a way that makes Lisa Edelstein's grating Celeste seem downright vulgar with her frequent references to past sexual liaisons.
Though the press releases list Beharie as a newly recurring cast member, they do the same for Edelstein and this makes me so, so sad. I'm all for a brassy dame who stirs the pot and is maybe going to draw out Will's bad side again, but does Edelstein need to play her with such desperation? It's bad enough that she's bringing her past with Will into the courtroom and getting all jealous of Alicia. Does she also need to broadcast that she had a torrid one-night stand the night of 9/11 with a crusty old guy who can barely read his lecture notes, let alone remember her face. EWWWWW! If you're going to sleep your way to the top, at least do it with some dignity, woman!
In last week's episode, Cudi 2.0 had told Will that her law firm was breaking up and she needed a new home. This episode we learn that Lockhart Gardner turned her down, but that her firm's bankruptcy and tax departments are coming with her, and now she's more appealing. Lockhart Gardener has expanded beyond their means, and, says Diane, "We need bankruptcy. If there's one department that will survive a double-dip recession, it's bankruptcy." She dispatches Will to sweet-talk Celeste at the Midwest Bar Association conference, a hilariously depressing sea of crudités, cocktails, and Lutz from 30 Rock trying to lure Will to the 34th floor with the promise of strippers. (Someone who knows the law, please explain this to me. Are dudes in acquisitions notoriously debauched? Is Celeste right that all criminal lawyers are straight? If so, where do I go to meet them?)
Part of the reason why Diane and Will are so desperate to get Cudi 2.0 and her bankruptcy department in their court is that Eli is fast amassing power at the firm. His new relationship with the cheese lobby is bringing in almost as much money as the firm lost last year. And he's demanding that Alicia and Kalinda work for him full-time. He does this, of course, without ever asking Alicia and Kalinda if they want to work for him full-time, and without having any clue that those two hate each other right now. The new "Alan Cumming Reacts To Stuff" should be Eli's Deluded Declarations (we can work on that). Such as: "I don't like sharing," and "I need both Alicia Florrick and Kalinda -- what's your last name again? -- Sharma dedicated to me full-time," and "No! Ten minutes!," screamed to the random secretary he seemed to have hired from the set of The Jeffersons.
Whatever keeps those crazy kids together, I'm for. The episode's best moment by far was Eli getting Kalinda to explain the political cross-currents of the office. According to Kalinda, Diane and Will hold equal power; it's just that Diane holds more power in criminal and Will more in legal. If it seems like Diane controls the purse strings, it's only because Will hates dealing with that stuff. But if he says no, it's usually the firm's definitive no. Julius doesn't like Eli, but Julius doesn't matter. David Lee is who you have to persuade if you want to persuade Diane, and Alicia is who you have to persuade if you want to persuade Will. So when is Eli going to figure out exactly how Alicia is getting and exercising those persuasive powers? It's unfathomable that he hasn't read into things yet. Is he just in denial because he wants to believe that her marriage to Peter can withstand this separation and that he will still have her in pocket when Peter runs for governor?
Back at the bar convention, Celeste is making Will's life miserable, orchestrating a "chance" meeting between Will and Peter, in which she broadcasts that she had her first threesome with Will, and then basically intimates to Peter that Will and Alicia have something going on. Her end game, she says, is to get Will to join her new law firm. She has Major League Baseball as one of her biggest clients and the future Baseball Commissioner will come from her firm. It's the one job George W. Bush wanted more than the Presidency, and it could be Will's. She also seems determined to draw Bad Will out of his new "domesticated" hovel with his "apple-cheeked lawyer." As she tells him, "Eventually, you have to feed the rat, return to the wild. You are killing yourself trying to be normal."
Has Will truly changed? It seems out of character for him to do so. He folds during a poker came with Celeste, saying, "I didn't like that life when I was living it, not knowing when I was doing the conning or being conned." Why would he give up the good thing he has going with Diane and Alicia for the chance that ten to fifteen years down the line, he could be one of several guys vying for Baseball Commissioner? She wants to know when he gave up on winning, and how he can walk away when he knows he'll never win as big at Lockhart Gardner as he will with her. Then Will gives this big ol' speech about how "not everybody can follow their dreams; some of us have to work." When Celeste tells him "that is so sad," it's kind of true. It's hard to believe any of this "hard work" bullshit could be coming out of Will's mouth.
Then again, he's clearly devoted to Diane. When she proposes that they move Legal Aid into their offices since the non-profit lost its funding, he gives the okay. And he's clearly fallen hard for Alicia. When he slips and tells Alicia "I love you" on the phone, it's very much a slip that comes from actual sentiment. If she wasn't constantly on his mind, why would he be calling her around noon just to check in and tell her he misses her? At the end of the day, Will tries to talk to her and tells her he's not interested in anyone else. Alicia deflects the "talk," saying that she gets that the "I love you" was a meaningless accident, the same kind of accident that might occur if she got off the phone with Grace and Zack and then immediately got on the phone with Jackie. (Love that Jackie is the example of someone she definitely would never say "I love you" to on purpose.) But is she deflecting to protect herself from getting in too deep and getting hurt again? Or is it because she actually doesn't feel for Will what he feels for her?
*This post has been corrected to change the character name "Morehouse" to "Stonehouse." It had been incorrectly printed as "Morehouse" in the CBS press notes for the episode.