There’s a dry-erase board over my desk upon which I keep a running list of individual episodes of TV series, half-hour and hour. To end up on that board, the episode has to make such an impression on me that I think about it constantly for a week or more. As the board fills up over the course of a calendar year, I get a clear sense of which TV shows I seriously watch and value, and which are most likely to knock me out from week to week. Right now The Good Wife has more citations than any current drama series on the board, including Mad Men, Scandal, True Detective, and The Americans, all of which I adore.
This was the show’s year, and deservedly so. It has always been consistently entertaining; throughout its fifth season, it was consistently great. The storytelling was continually clean and propulsive, the characters psychologically complex but clearly motivated, the details of legal and political chicanery insider-believable yet never show-off-y. But this year, everything on Robert and Michelle King’s CBS drama felt even more exact and confident than before. Each of the last nine episodes was damn near perfect, starting with the flashback-driven “A Few Words” and continuing through this past Sunday’s season finale “A Weird Year” (what a heartbreakingly direct but emotionally fraught title). The season worked on many levels: as a crackerjack case-of-the-week legal drama; as the ongoing story of heroine Alicia Florrick’s evolution from humiliated political spouse and lowly associate to tough and almost unfailingly coolheaded leader and public figure (Julianna Margulies is as sneakily deep on this show as Jon Hamm is on Mad Men); as a portrait of a rough-and-tumble legal and political battle zone that often feels like Bonfire of Vanities moved to the Windy City, and with better female characters and more compassion; and as a borderline-screwball comedy filled with sharply etched supporting characters delivering quotable lines. (My favorite? It’s a toss-up between Alicia’s response to Eric Bogosian’s snide ethics investigator Nelson Dubek (“Your incredulity is excused”) and Elsbeth Tascioni telling her impromptu accompanist Clarke Hayden, “This city inspires me,” and Clarke responding, “Really? I find it makes me sweat.”) The show’s filmmaking is crystalline (the opening montages and sinuous tracking shots are Scorsese-worthy). The Machiavellian maneuvering in courtrooms and law offices is complex but never confusing (the formation and dissolution of splinter firms here is as exciting and funny as Mad Men’s game of musical partners). On top of all that, this season featured a wrenching and unexpected violent death (Will Gardner) that was dealt with honestly but mercifully (the brutality of the courtroom shooting concentrated in the synecdoche-like close-ups of Will’s missing shoe) and that played out realistically over the ensuing weeks, with the major characters pushing their grief down deep beneath the surface of their lives, then reacting with inconsolable pain whenever it broke through.
But something else happened this year that emboldened the series and kicked everything up a notch: The Good Wife distilled its worldview and communicated it, subtly but plainly, in every episode, line by line and shot by shot. More than anything else, it’s become a show about the irrevocable erasure of the line that once separated public and private behavior.
The gist: There are no secrets anymore, only things that people haven’t found out yet.There’s no safe harbor now, not just for the major characters, but for their clients, indeed for anyone who inhabits their world. There’s no place that’s off limits to the press, the government, or our curious/prying families or friends. Some intrusions are forced, others invited, and we’re not all that consistent about what sort of consent we give, or whether we’re even aware that we’ve given consent. But it doesn’t matter. Facts are facts. Everything everyone does is public now, and (seemingly) permanent, thanks to social media and other forms of electronic paper trails. Real life has become a division of virtual reality: a wholly owned subsidiary.
So many crucial moments, both in the courtroom and the court of public opinion, hinged on the realization that it didn’t matter what really happened, because appearances are everything.
The show has always made this point before, but it made it mainly through plot twists and the behavior of individual characters. In this season, it made those same points visually, until the show’s whole universe seemed to be under continual surveillance. The NSA-eavesdropping plotline was a masterstroke. It added another meta-layer to a show that already had several (including the ongoing mockery of “quality” cable drama in the form of AMC’s Darkness at Noon, a macho underworld series whose “previously on” montages were scored with a gravel-voiced pop balladeer who moaned like Tom Waits passing a kidney stone). But it also connected with our world by looming menacingly before us and then fading into the background. We went inside the NSA in early episodes of season five, and viewed parts of scenes via audio and video on the eavesdroppers’ computer screens, and the effect was chilling. But then the series stopped showing us those images, and we forgot the characters were being surveilled, until the evidence came into play later in the season and the characters and setting reappeared. This is pretty much what most of us know and feel about actual government surveillance of American citizens: We’re creeped out, even horrified, until our attention moves somewhere else, at which point it’s as if the uncomfortable realizations never happened.
Beyond the NSA material, we saw many of the characters realizing that an enemy’s attack on some appearance of wrongdoing was, for all intents and purposes, fact. What’s changed between early seasons and more recent ones (particularly four and five) is the speed with which the characters resign themselves to the fact that, like it or not, this is how the world works now. This continues right up through the finale, in which Eli tells her about surreptitiously gathered “evidence” that she’s sleeping with Finn and she knows immediately that in the practical sense it doesn’t matter what really happened.
Alicia’s become increasingly less outraged about this sort of thing as the show has unfolded. One of the best examples of this was in season four’s “Invitation to an Inquest.” An aide to wannabe-governor Peter Florrick intimidated Alicia’s son over his new Muslim girlfriend, whose dad gave money to an Islamic charity with alleged terrorist ties. Alicia’s anger wasn’t about the fact that her son’s love life shouldn’t be a factor in anyone’s political campaign, much less the truth or falsity of the accusation. It was about the aide approaching her son without her permission. In season one, she might have spent at least a few seconds being irritated about the situation, but by that point, it was all about the protocol. All the major Good Wife characters know that the appearance of a thing is the thing, and there’s no point raging against the cosmic injustice of it all. That’s why Eli subjected that pretty young aide in the governor’s office to an impromptu restraining order after catching Peter flirting with her in his office, and it’s why he blanched at hearing that Peter and Alicia had agreed to a laissez-faire policy about their respective sex lives. “This is not about the facts,” Eli said this season, “It’s about what the facts can be made to represent.” That maxim isn’t just true for politicians. It’s true for everyone now. The Good Wife gets this, and its skill at articulating the idea in so many different ways makes it as perceptive about the present as Mad Men is about the past.