It was a little bittersweet to switch over to The Good Wife last night after the series went home from the Golden Globes empty-handed. I can understand Alan Cumming losing to Matt Bomer, whose work in The Normal Heart was the role of a lifetime, but watching both the show and Julianna Marguiles lose to Showtime’s frequently wobbly The Affair was … disappointing. But conveniently enough, last night’s episode of The Good Wife was every bit as wrapped up in speeches and grandstanding as the Golden Globes were. (This might have been a total coincidence of scheduling, but it’s more fun to think of it as a parallel the show’s writers drew on purpose.)
That’s right, it’s debate night on The Good Wife, and Alicia and Frank Prady are headed into the highest-stakes State’s Attorney debate in the history of democracy, complete with fancy staging, TV cameras, and Chris Matthews as moderator. (For contrast, here’s an actual Cook County State’s Attorney’s debate from several years ago — while the sorts of questions asked are relatively similar, it’s a far less fancy affair than The Good Wife would have us believe.) Alicia’s gone from being statistically almost tied with Prady in last week’s episode to a six-point deficit in the polls, and though no one says it in these exact words, it’s pretty clear that she’s required to perform well if she wants to stay alive in the race.
But there’s a wrinkle in Alicia and Prady’s last-second debate preparations, and it’s a wrinkle the show presents with multiple caveats. The episode begins with two text screens. The first reads, “This episode was written and filmed prior to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island,” and the second reads, “All mentions of ‘Ferguson’ are in reference to the events in August, 2014 after the shooting death of Michael Brown.” As those screens appear, camera-phone footage of a black man, Cole Willis, being shot and killed by two shopping-center police officers plays. After only a few minutes of Alicia and Prady’s debate, the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict, exonerating the two police officers. Fortunately for Alicia, the debate is put on hold so news stations can cover the breaking story — she was off to a rocky start, save for a pretty spectacular takedown of a reporter who asks about photos of Peter leaving Ramona’s apartment taken a few days before.
What unfolds from there is difficult to watch. Religious leaders gather with Eli and Peter to try to figure out what next steps should be. Eli fights with the mayor’s chief of staff (Rachael Harris, rife with bravado and apparently wearing fur) over the fact that the mayor’s basically cowering and waiting for Peter to respond. Everyone says “another Ferguson” a lot. Protesters start marching and police officers turn up in riot gear. With their televised debate on hold, Prady and Alicia run into each other in the hotel kitchens and start freestyle-debating there, talking about the issues in the prison and justice systems that make tragedies like the Cole Willis murder commonplace. A group of young men of color slowly drift in — they’re hotel workers — and act as a Greek chorus, pointing out how ridiculous it is seeing two white people who are running for office arguing about how more people of color need to hold political offices. That critique works pretty well as an acknowledgement of the fact that this story is coming from a television show with an overwhelmingly white cast and creative team.
But it’s not hard to watch because it’s exploitative or overblown. It’s hard to watch because, if anything, it feels like a less dramatic take on everything that’s unfolded across America since the time this episode was filmed. It’s horrible to think how “another Ferguson” means something even sadder and more complicated than it did when this episode was filmed. But television doesn’t promise us easy storytelling, and the best shows trust us enough to keep watching when it’s hard. I’m glad The Good Wife tackled this as broadly and respectfully as it did, but I’m wondering how (or if) this story will carry into further episodes. Peter and the victim’s widow urging everyone to remain peaceful and having the crowd listen was far too tidy.
As an aside: I try not to spend too much time comparing The Good Wife to The West Wing, largely because once I get wound up, my ability to extoll the virtues of The West Wing’s early seasons is positively Sorkin-esque, and that gets old very quickly. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how strongly elements of this episode reminded me of The West Wing, especially when Prady and Alicia debate in the hotel kitchen — Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits’s characters, both West Wing presidential contenders at the time, negotiated the terms of their first debate in a hotel kitchen as well. While I often see other story-related parallels, last night’s episode actually felt similar to The West Wing in its tone, too. While The Good Wife is typically a bit darker and more cynical, there were moments in last night’s episode that had that same strong hopefulness that The West Wing is so infused with. Listening to Prady and Alicia debate, even though they disagreed, reminded me of those moments on The West Wing where you knew everything would be fine, solely because smart people who cared had shown up to make things better. After the darkness of the first half of the season, with prison looming over Cary’s head, it was nice to have that spark of optimism on The Good Wife, even if it was just a fluke occurrence.
Meanwhile (and as I said last week, it seems odd that there’s space for a “meanwhile” in episodes like this), Cary’s back to work at the firm, and he’s thrilled navigating “all the usual disasters” once more. He and Diane and Kalinda are trying to wrest divorce-settlement negotiations away from one of their own partners, who’s “become nice” after his child survives a surgery and won’t go after the settlement he should. They finally resolve the settlement but have to bring David Lee back into the partnership in order to do it — which they do without consulting Alicia.
Alicia is understandably livid, and Diane is, too — they FINALLY have a conversation about the fact that Alicia’s running, which is something that hasn’t happened all season. Diane points out that Alicia had originally said she was running to beat Castro and help Cary, but now Castro’s out of the race and Cary’s free. Alicia sort of snaps and tells Diane that her objection to Alicia running is sexism. It’s a really odd thing to throw at Diane, of all people, who’s never had a problem leveling criticism equally at men and women, and who has a point: Alicia needs to tell her business partners what role she’s planning to take in the business that they all own together. It’s not a question of Cary and Diane being unsupportive; they just want to know what, exactly, they’re supporting. And it’s odd to see Cary so clearly taking Diane’s side here after everything he’s been through with Alicia, especially in the past several months. Alicia storms off to her office and glowers into the distance as Elfman gets her up to speed on campaign tasks and piano=music plays. Nothing good ever happened on The Good Wife after one of its main characters glared during classical music played. Mark my words.