Now that’s more like it.
After spending last week tying up more loose ends than a shoe-store clerk — the departure of two major characters, the unsettled plotlines of a pandemic-shortened fourth season, the sheer craziness of 2020 — The Good Fight had the freedom to be itself again this week and delivered a corker of an episode. It was everything a great episode of the show should be: political, surreal, funny, provocative, audaciously weird. And on top of that, it introduced two new characters in Carmen Moyo (Charmaine Bingwa) and Judge Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin), who give the season the jolt of energy it needed.
Let’s talk Carmen first, because she’s poised to be a major character on the show going forward. Her introduction as part of a cattle call of junior associates echoes the trial by fire that awaited Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie) in the first season, when she had to grapple with a high-stakes legal case while dealing with the fallout from her Bernie Madoff–like father getting arrested for running a pyramid scheme. The Madoff angle initially gave a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency to Maia’s early days at the firm, but once that cooled off, the show’s writers could never figure out what to do with her. Toward the end, she got some good moments from a heel turn into minor legal villainy, but there was never enough personality to build from, which may be a consequence of defining Maia as the listless center of an economic storm.
There’s no such crisis of confidence from Carmen, whose nonconformist instincts immediately set her apart from the other new associates and put her thrillingly at odds with her superiors. Bingwa plays Carmen as a shrewd customer who knows how to leverage power, but keeps her motives and emotions close to the vest. Now hastily reborn as a first-year associate herself, Marissa tips Carmen off to a hazing ritual where the new people have to take toilet paper from a roll and say one personal thing about themselves for each square they have. With her one square, Carmen shares three words, “I hate games,” and nothing else is revealed about her — at least until she’s the only associate to volunteer for “client maintenance” duty at a maximum-security prison.
What happens next is a combination of luck, savvy, and a night-school course in Spanish. When the senior attorney accompanying her fails to bring proper ID, Carmen goes alone to visit this special client, a drug kingpin named Oscar Rivi, with the proviso that she listen to his grievances about the prison accommodations (bad Wi-Fi, gross food) without complicating things. In the room, though, Carmen hears enough selective translation to get the official translator dismissed and Oscar uses the opportunity to convince her to meet with another inmate who will confess to the murder that landed Oscar in the clink. What’s more, Oscar’s sleazy manager (Wallace Shawn) makes it clear that Carmen is to serve as his lead attorney from now on, despite her inexperience.
Strike that. Because of her inexperience. Oscar correctly wagers that Carmen will argue for his innocence in court and arrange for another man to take the rap by leading the authorities to the as-yet-unfound murder weapon. Carmen’s betters try to make it clear to her that she’s being manipulated — the judge gives her counsel from the bench, then Liz follows through later — but she wins her day in court and wins a little security and status for herself at the firm. Yet she doesn’t do it by winning over her superiors at Boseman Lockhart. Quite the opposite: She has swiped a rich client for herself and there’s nothing Liz or anyone else can do about it. That’s one hell of a first-week power move.
As for our other new character, Judge Wackner, The Good Fight pays zany homage to Judge Wapner, whom ’80s kids will remember as the cranky arbiter of The People’s Court, a TV show that settled small-claims disputes under Wapner from 1981 to 1993. Situated in the back of a copy place, Wackner’s court operates exactly like Wapner’s in that both the plaintiffs and the defendants agree to have their cases settled in this unofficial forum. It appears to be Wackner’s mission to liberate justice from the musty inefficiencies of a real courtroom and allow for speedier trials conducted and determined by one person who can cut through all the bullshit: himself. Objections are snorted at, hearsay is admissible, non-lawyers can yell at witnesses from behind the tables, and points and demerits are tallied on a chalkboard so everyone can keep track of who’s winning.
In this topsy-turvy courtroom, legal amateurism is a plus, which makes a combative first-year like Marissa a more effective lawyer than a veteran like Diane, who needs to listen to the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty just to get on Wackner’s wavelength. The case in front of the judge is fun, too, with Marissa and Diane defending a teacher of a private quarantine pod-school from parents accusing her of introducing socialism to their children. One of the parents talks about her child referring to her as a “Karen” and making reference to the family in the Bong Joon Ho film Parasite, inspiring Marissa to do a hilarious cross-examination about the film winning Best Picture before the pandemic started.
For years on The Good Wife and now The Good Fight, we’ve been treated to a succession of eccentric judges, so it’s only natural to imagine one of them presiding over an eccentric courtroom. Robert and Michelle King, the creators of both shows (along with Phil Alden Robinson on this one), are great at following the letter of a law while flouting its spirit: These shows follow the basic template of hourlong CBS courtroom dramas, but wildly upend expectations within that structure. Wackner’s court is the purest example of that philosophy yet: It’s a courtroom drama all right, located at the magical intersection of Judge Wapner and Harry Potter.
• The way Diane convinces herself and Liz to allow her to retain her partnership at an ostensible Black-led law firm is pretty brilliant. First, she talks about the issue with her conservative husband Kurt, knowing full well that when she makes the argument against herself, he will roll his eyes at “identity politics.” She wants him to make the case that she can’t make on her own behalf. Then, she graciously and self-servingly offers Liz the primo corner office vacated by Adrian and suggests that they add a third, Black partner to the firm. This allows her to seem deferential and fair-minded without sacrificing her place in the hierarchy.
• “I like the truth that is found in sudden utterances,” says Judge Wackner. Courtroom outbursts are not only allowed but encouraged.
• The battle over Lucca’s replacement as senior associate appears to be tilting in Julius’s direction, even though his experience as a disgraced-but-pardoned Trump judge makes him a toxic asset. Hopefully the show will find a place for Hugh Dancy’s Caleb, too, after his scene-stealing supporting turn last season.