politics

The Good Fight’s Melania Trump Episode Is Its Boldest ‘Fun House Mirror’ Riff Yet

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

Last week, a recent clip from the quicksilver CBS All Access drama The Good Fight went viral. In it, Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) takes her son to the park only to face a reality black people know all too well: a noisy white woman calls the police on her, believing that she’s stolen the child, leading to Lucca becoming a meme after video of the incident goes viral. It’s a vivid moment that interrogates notions of race, power, internet fame and its professional consequences in ways both hilarious and nerve-racking — much like everything else about the show’s third season.

The Good Fight has made daring gambits this year — from animated segments and fourth-wall-breaking monologues to #MeToo interrogations from the black perspective — but none are more striking than what happens to Lucca in this week’s episode, “The One With the Celebrity Divorce.” And it’s even more surreal than her unexpected internet infamy.

In the episode, written by Davita Scarlett, Lucca is approached to handle the divorce of a mysterious client who speaks through proxies (including a hairdresser played with eye-catching panache by Tituss Burgess) and a boxful of flip phones. When Lucca learns the client is Melania Trump — or a woman pretending to be Melania — the situation only grows more complicated. What follows is an extremely bracing and uproarious hour that blends Hitchcockian suspense, legal thrills, and satire to become the boldest episode of the series thus far.

Given her role on The Good Fight, Scarlett offers a perspective I have been yearning to hear more about: what it means to be working your way through Hollywood as a black woman and TV writer in a moment where conversations about representation have reached a fever pitch. At 31, she’s still at the beginning of her career, having written for shows like Queen Sugar and Constantine; she’s also developing her own show, Kin, with Reese Witherspoon. Earlier this month, we had a wide-ranging conversation about writing for icons like Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, how “The One With the Celebrity Divorce” took shape in the writers room, being black in Hollywood, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

The Good Fight has made a lot of striking choices this season, but “The One With the Celebrity Divorce” is perhaps the boldest gambit yet. How did this story get developed in the writers room?
It’s funny that you ask about it in the context of the writers room, because no one episode of television is ever just one person. My name is on it and I worked really hard on it, but the whole writing staff contributed to it, and obviously [Good Fight creators Michelle and Robert King] are very instrumental in every episode. I don’t even remember whose idea it was, but that’s the sign of a good room. Whoever pitched “Melania coming in to talk about divorce or annulment,” the room just got really excited. It just felt really electric. It was a fun way to do a Melania story without it feeling like we were digging at Melania.

The audience never never gets a straight answer as to whether this woman is Melania or not. Was that always the goal?
We definitely wanted to never fully answer the question, because even though the show — and this season especially — is living in a very heightened space, the show is trying to stick to reality in a lot of ways, even though we can’t predict the future. Although I do think the show is often able to predict the future! It’s a very prescient show!

We didn’t want to do an episode about Melania coming in to get a divorce when that’s clearly not happening in the real world. We never want this show to veer off too far from reality. We pull influences from the real world, but we give ourselves enough room to not get trapped in our own Good Fight narrative that’s completely different from what’s actually happening. It’s a fine line, but I think we found the balance.

Is it Melania?
Is it Melania? Photo: CBS

It’s a very, very fine line. You’re juggling multiple tones, swerving from Hitchcockian suspense to satire. How do you balance those tones with the show’s sometimes heavy subject matter?
Mixing all these genres and tones is tricky because you’ve got comedy and suspense and legal drama, but I think it actually matches reality right now. We’re all going through phases as we move through this Trump presidency, right? Every day, every minute, I’m looking at my phone and there’s another crazy headline about something insane. The show is trying to reflect the way we’re all constantly trying to navigate this crowd of different emotions.

People talk about how it feels like we’re living in a simulation, and I think The Good Fight is the only show that really gets that weird feeling.
Absolutely. There’s fun house mirror aspects to it. It’s like, “Are you seeing things as you’re seeing them? Or are you seeing things reflected back to you in some insane way because we’re trapped in this literal circus of horrors?”

Circus of horrors. That sounds like a great way to describe America!
Unfortunately! [Laughs.]

What character has been the most fun for you to write?
I really like Diane, actually. I’m interested in, if I’m being quite honest, delving into her white liberalism because it is the face of the Democratic Party and a lot of how we see the party and politics. I think the show is good at taking Diane to task, but also really digging into her guilt and her desire to fight and what that means for her as a woman of a certain class in America. And then, I do enjoy Audra’s character, Liz, as well. Of all the characters, my politics are most closely aligned with Liz’s politics. She’s someone who works within the system in many ways, but still constantly questions the status quo. I see her as a progressive with something of a “burn it all down” streak, and that really speaks to me.

What aspect of this episode are you most proud of?
I really enjoyed writing Melania — or non-Melania. I didn’t want her to feel like a caricature. The easy comedy is to go to a place where it’s like, “Oh, we’re making fun of her accent, or the fact that English is not her first language,” but I don’t think any of us wanted to do that. I watched her interviews and tried to get a sense of how she speaks. That was more horrifying, actually, because I was like, “Oh, she actually is onboard for all of this!” She’s a ride-or-die chick, as they say, definitely riding for her husband.

Making fun of people’s accents is always stupid and ignorant, so I’m glad the show didn’t do that. But I can also imagine it’s hard to write a character if you’re looking down on them. I did crack up when Melania told Luca that she liked black people, though!
Oh, that was funny. That was a line from the Kings. I read it after they put it in and I thought it was hilarious!

In the past, I’ve been upset with how The Good Wife and The Good Fight handled the racial dimension of their stories, especially as someone who actually lives in Chicago and sees the particulars of race in this city on a daily basis. But I have really enjoyed how you and the other writers are dealing with race head-on this season, especially in exploring the faults of the lead characters. How did the racial story lines take shape?
I love television writing because it’s collaborative. You bring all of these amazing minds together, and the way you write and what you write about is informed by your life experience and your interests and your passions. We had a lot of vigorous debates in the room, and as someone who was new to the show, it’s easy to feel like, “Maybe I should hold back and not step on anyone’s toes,” but they wanted to hear what I had to say. The Kings, especially this season, were very interested in the idea of digging deeper on race. We really, really went there.

I think that was a function of being in a room where people really felt comfortable to ask questions about things that they didn’t know, racially and with #MeToo and with politics. When you have that lively, open discussion between people of different genders and political backgrounds — not really, we’re all Democrats, but from various races, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds — what you come up with is what you’re seeing onscreen. When you’re working on a show, you’re trying to support the showrunner’s vision, but you also want to bring to the table what you got hired for, which is your point of view. As a 31-year-old black woman, how I see the world is I’m angry about a lot of things. I’m very aware of racial injustice.

The way the racial conversations actually came into the show was someone pitched the idea of a #MeToo situation with Carl Reddick. Once we dug in, you’re thinking, “Okay, who is Carl Reddick? He’s this civil-rights icon in the world of our show. He obviously has this huge reputation in Chicago and in the country.” Then you think, “Who are his victims?” Based on the history of the firm, his victims are black women. I was interested in telling this story because, in terms of #MeToo, I don’t think anyone wants to play Oppression Olympics, but black and brown women tend to get less out of the conversation when it comes to sexual violence.

Definitely.
It’s important that black female victims are also depicted and given a voice. We had some spirited discussions in the room about how the women in question would respond. Both of the women who were assaulted by Carl Reddick, they don’t want to make too much trouble, they don’t want to sully his legacy, and they’re not interested in coming forward and telling their story. I’ll admit, my first gut response was, “Oh my God, no! They should go public and be angry! They should be fighting this!” The more we talked about it — and this is why I think it’s helpful to have so many different voices in the room — there is a lot behind the idea of black women, in particular, not wanting to annihilate the legacy of a black figure. So ultimately I was like, “I know that myself, Davita Scarlett, would not react that way, and it’s hard for me to swallow the idea of these women feeling comfortable not wanting to tear apart a person’s legacy. But I also know that there is a lot of truth in this.”

How many black writers were in the room on your season?
There were two of us. It was me and another black male writer, Aurin Squire.

How many people in total were in the room?
There are seven of us and then the Kings, which brings the total to nine.

What do you hope audiences take away from these very complicated, fascinating story lines?
One, I don’t think The Good Fight is a show that offers solutions or is prescriptive. I just want viewers to think about it. Honestly, [“The One With the Celebrity Divorce”] is an episode about racial prejudice and bias and there’s not really an answer to that, you know? You can toss it around in your own brain and think about your own biases and what racism or misogyny you’ve internalized. Are you going to come out with a final answer? Maybe not, but if you at least have the conversation with yourself, then hopefully our job has been done. It’s really all about sparking thought, especially now.

That’s a really beautiful way of looking at it. What is the most important lesson you learned in writing The Good Fight this season?
When you write a character, you want to get into their headspace and understand why they act they way they do. This goes back to what I was saying about initially thinking, “Oh my God, the black female characters who’ve been assaulted, this is not how I’d react.” It’s a tricky balance because every character is not going to say what you say and ask what you would, and you have to be able to separate your own personal thoughts from what your character would do. But it is important to give them space! Honestly, it sounds crazy, but they’re people too. And so working on The Good Fight was a great reminder in how to give myself that distance.

Interesting.
As a black woman and as a person in the industry, you sometimes encounter people that cause you to question your vision or what you’re feeling. I’m not saying it’s always malicious, although sometimes I think it is malicious. More often it’s just lack of cultural understanding, where something is being lost in translation. This has not happened with everyone. I’ve been blessed to work with lots of amazing people who have supported me and understood my vision and wanted to help me create it and cultivate it. But because the Kings have worked on so much television and know who these characters are — Diane Lockhart has been around for, I don’t know, ten years? — there’s a confidence in the way they write this show.

When I’m moving forward in my career, I want to make sure that I always have that same conviction in what I’m writing, especially against the backdrop of an industry that sometimes isn’t as open to different points of view. My mission is to create more content about black people and black women specifically. Representation is really important. I want to do that. I want to be one of those voices behind the scenes. That is going to require a lot of conviction.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Good Fight’s Melania Trump Episode Is Its Boldest Yet