Spoilers ahead for episode six of The Good Fight, now streaming on CBS All Access.
There are times when The Good Fight’s “ripped from the headlines” approach to storytelling feels exhilaratingly current, and then there are times when that immediacy hits a bit too close to home. This week’s episode, “Social Media and Its Discontents,” which tackles online abuse from the alt-right, is a bit of both.
Now that he’s moved all of his business to the new firm, Neil Gross has a massive task for his new lawyers. ChumHum (God, it will never not be depressing to type that word) wants to develop a new terms-of-service agreement to limit the rampant harassment on its platforms, especially its Facebook-like site. While I’ve tried, with limiting degrees of success, not to compare The Good Fight to the real world, this story line feels especially unrealistic. The CEOs of social-networking platforms have demonstrated that they’re much better at pretending to care about harassment than actually taking action against it. It’s too much to hope that that Facebook and Twitter’s leadership find inspiration in Gross’s proactive response, right?
That said, the framing of the story line is incredibly effective, and it opens with several men against a plain backdrop, reading offensive comments aloud. The language is spot on, from its use of “cuck” and “SJW” to the specificity of its rape and death threats. (Still, I did find it a little surprising that the episode’s writers chose to include a threat naming a specific female celebrity, who is a woman of color. Using the very real harassment she’s faced as a plot point feels tone deaf to me.) As they review thousands of pages of comments, the firm’s lawyers are immediately besieged with questions. Does the N-word have to be censored, considering how that might limit the posting of certain hip-hop music videos? Does a rape threat have to include “I’m going to” instead of “I want to” in order to be taken seriously?
Ever the voice of reason, Lucca realizes they won’t be able to develop a one-size-fits-all set of standards. What they need is an appeals process. She suggests that after a certain number of threats or harassing statements, a user should be banned until a panel can review their activity on the site. It’s a good idea, though it’s a bit baffling that no one mentions how many employees would be needed for such a task. Still, problem solved … right?
Wrong. Enter John Cameron Mitchell, playing Felix Staples, a Milo Yiannopoulos–esque alt-right provocateur. His ChumHum account is almost immediately suspended under the new terms, which he interprets as a challenge, not a warning. He comes before the panel at the firm — side note: why are they the evaluating body, rather than ChumHum staffers? — and tells them his heroes are Christopher Hitchens, Wyndham Lewis, Andrew Breitbart, Yitzhak Rabin, and Lil’ Kim. I have to wonder if the inclusion of Rabin is a nod to Mitchell’s musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which features a character named Yitzhak. It’s clear Felix will be trouble from the start — he immediately proclaims himself a martyr to the firm’s “political correctness.” (Mitchell nails this performance from start to finish.)
The firm’s lawyers start reading Felix’s online posts back to him, in which he calls for a selective holocaust, but he’s prepared for their onslaught. Although his rhetoric is incredibly wrong, he’s well-spoken and smug, comparing himself to Ferris Bueller and bringing in a gay male prostitute to give him a blow job in front of the panel to prove a weird point about homophobia. (Seriously.) He eventually leaves the office, but not before “warning” Diane that a barrage of online harassment is about to come her way.
When Felix comes back to continue his appeal, the firm examines his harassment of a pro-choice activist, complete with threats of doxxing, the invocation of the Second Amendment as a scare tactic, and abusive speech like “bitch, bitch, bitch, double cunt.” The latter is a strong example of The Good Fight using its online platform to tell stories that The Good Wife couldn’t on network TV. It makes the episode harder to watch, but online abuse shouldn’t be anesthetized in a story that’s truly trying to get at the depths of digital cesspools.
The trouble with Felix is he’s funny and engaging — and, as Diane ruefully points out, sometimes he’s right. He’s also far too knowledgeable about the firm’s review process, and directs his minions to stop at 12 harassing posts each, knowing that the arbitrary number of posts in the new terms of service dictates suspension at the 13th offensive post. Jay and Marissa investigate the leak of that information, but everyone automatically suspects that Julius is the one who let it get out. He’s furious when he finds out that he was a suspect, claiming that Barbara and Adrian are targeting him because he voted for Trump. There’s a lot of paranoia at work here. Were Julius thinking about it rationally, he might realize that his colleagues suspected him because he took such a devil’s advocate role in determining what constituted online abuse. But Julius quits anyway.
Meanwhile, Maia’s Uncle Jax comes to her office and warns her about her father’s motivations. He assures Maia that Henry is going to wear a wire the next time he sees her and try to get her to say something incriminating. Maia talks to Elsbeth, who tells her she has two options. She could feed her father false information, and if it gets repeated, she’ll know her father is trying to set her up. Or she could record their conversation. In the end, Maia does both, even though it’s clear she desperately wants to trust her father.
Colin comes to Lucca at the end of the episode and repeats back the fake story Maia told her father, which means he told Mike Krestiva about it. Given that Maia’s story fell firmly into subplot territory this week, I’m really impressed with how far it was advanced in a handful of relatively short scenes. In Good Fight’s first few episodes, the balance between Diane’s story and Maia’s felt a bit off, but it’s felt much more even as the series has found its footing. The only unfortunate side effect? Lucca’s story in this episode felt scant. While her chemistry with Colin is compelling, and I’m enjoying seeing her developed as a person, I don’t want to see her relegated to sexy phone calls and car makeout sessions.
By the end of the episode, Neil is fed up with the whole affair, especially when ChumHum users start using his name as a replacement for the N-word in posts. Neil decides that the whole thing with Felix needs to end, and directs Diane to throw in the towel. “He has too many followers.” Ah, now that feels more like the leaders of tech companies in our world. Diane, Barbara, and Adrian tell Felix they’ll be overturning the ban, and he’s devastated about the sudden loss of attention. “We took the oxygen from your room,” Diane says. “Go home.” She all but says, “Shoo!” to him, and it’s incredibly satisfying.
What’s less satisfying is Diane’s final conversation with Neil Gross. She knows that the leak came from the ChumHum offices, and she’s not particularly diplomatic about telling him. Neil asks why ChumHum would leak the deliberations, and Diane replies, “You wanted to censor your sites, but if you failed, you could to point to us as the problem. A liberal, African-American firm.”
Neil’s incredulous, but he doesn’t say she’s wrong. “That’s why we’re here, sir. To make you look good,” Diane continues. Later, Neil asks Barbara and Adrian to come and speak with him about some international business, explicitly excluding Diane in a retaliatory move. She’s left sitting alone in a conference room, a stark contrast to the strut of victory she took out of Adrian’s office at the end of last week’s episode. That’s one of the core strengths of The Good Fight. Where The Good Wife felt almost oppressively static in its later seasons, Fight is incredibly dynamic. It’s tempting to feel sorry for Diane as she’s shut out of the meeting, but it’s encouraging to know she’ll have every opportunity to turn things around.