The Good Fight
In a very short time, Judge Hal Wackner and his zany alternative courtroom have become the closest thing The Good Fight has had to an authorial voice, a reflection of the show’s methods and values. Observers of Wackner’s courtroom can expect a lively good time, provocative and weird and stripped of the stuffy formalities of real courtrooms and more austere courtroom dramas. And Wackner himself presides over an arena where anything goes — the more uncomfortable the discussion, the better — and justice is as imperfect as the characters devoted to administering it. We just had an episode that cast Diane, the anchor of the entire series, in an absolutely terrible light. Nothing is off the table.
And in this hugely entertaining episode, the fake courtroom grants itself the freedom to adjudicate cancel culture, which is notably something that the culture itself cannot do. Some people who are “canceled” come back after an indeterminate cooling-off period. Some find ways to appeal directly to those who don’t believe they should have been canceled at all. A select few have committed sins so egregious that a comeback doesn’t seem possible at all. And many aren’t actually canceled, but enjoy the benefits of martyrdom. What’s missing in all these cases is the sentencing phase. What does justice actually look like? Could there ever be an agreed-upon penance in the nebulous realm of public opinion? The free market is the closest thing we have to a judge, and it often seems unfair in either direction.
Then again, the episode takes great pains to show that Judge Wackner is imperfect, too — and, by extension, so is the show. But it’s fascinating to watch two cancel-culture suits brought to his courtroom, with Marissa as the prosecutor in each. One mirrors the Louis C.K. case almost exactly: Joey Battle is a popular stand-up comedian who’s been accused by multiple women stand-ups of cornering them backstage and masturbating into a plant. One such victim, a Black stand-up of less renown, claims that speaking out against Battle led to a lost headlining gig and a backslide into obscurity. The other case is brought by a college professor who lost her job when Black students complained about her repeated and provocative use of the word “niggardly,” which is a synonym for “miserly” or “stingy,” but obviously has a triggering effect in a modern classroom. (This is more or less the plot of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, in which a New England professor gets fired for using the word “spooks.”)
Both trials are thrillingly combustible, but the Battle case has the added bonus of undercutting the integrity of Wackner’s court for the first time. Wackner has been going out of his way to seat fair, independent-minded jurors and keep his own biases in check, but his new collaborations with conservative dark-money maestro David Cord and reality-TV producer Del Cooper have muddied the waters. The very notion of presiding over cancel culture is a political benefit to Cord and potentially great TV for Cooper, and now they’re the ones bankrolling Wackner’s experiment. Wackner may have been temperamentally inclined to do so anyway, but this is a plan the three of them have hatched together, and Marissa, for one, sees right through it.
Cord and Cooper both have a stake in Battle’s exoneration — and so, it would appear, does Wackner. A favorable ruling is a victory for Cord’s rogue’s gallery of canceled white men, and it would secure a scheduled slot on Cooper’s broadcast calendar. After Marissa’s witness testifies about her experience with Battle, Wackner humiliates her by forcing her to do stand-up from the box to refute the argument that bad reviews are the reason she lost her headlining gig. (She bombs, of course.) When Marissa challenges Wackner directly over whether he’s “pre-judged” the case in Battle’s favor, he summons an almost Biblical fury in kicking her out of the court. It’s only later, when he looks back on the footage, that he apologizes to Marissa and starts down a path more favorable to her side of the argument. Battle gets an actual jail sentence — in one of Cord’s private facilities, no less — and the witness has the privilege of cuffing and jailing him herself. And the three-week sentence just happens to be enough to push him off Cooper’s schedule.
Is that justice? Or has Wackner made a ruling that has more to do with preserving his integrity and independence than punishing Battle fairly? That’s up to the viewer to decide. It’s also up to the viewer to decide whether Wackner is right to exonerate the college professor by accepting her argument that feeling “challenged” and “uncomfortable” are part of higher education. The show sets up Wackner’s ruling by having Marissa talk about “N-word-ly” with two Black colleagues, Carmen and Jay, who disagree strongly over whether it’s appropriate to use or not. The Good Fight, like Wackner, errs on the side of free speech. But at least the arguments for and against the professor are well articulated. It’s likely many viewers will come away believing the professor should have been fired.
As if that subplot weren’t scorching enough, the other big subplot takes on the issue of police brutality, making reference to the real-life 2015 incident where a Texas police officer dragged and pinned a Black girl to the ground at a pool party. Here the details are elevated to a Tasering that cost the victim her life due to a preexisting heart condition. Liz and Diane, still raw over Diane’s power play last week, are representing the girl’s family members, who are bringing a $5 million civil suit against the city of Chicago for excessive force. When the cop involved gets shot and killed mid-trial, Liz and Diane’s hopes for a victory evaporate, so they work toward getting enough jurors disqualified for bias to force a mistrial.
The show seems to know that it’s already getting itself into enough trouble on one hot-button issue without making it a double with police racism, so it winds up having fun on the margins. When a Fox News commentator goes after Diane for remarks made before the cop’s murder, it starts to play out like Tucker Carlson’s targeting of women like Taylor Lorenz or Brandy Zadrozny, who were harassed by his cadre of followers. But it takes a turn for the silly when the wingnut speculates about Liz and Diane’s steamy lesbian affair, which has the double benefit of tipping the liberal judge in their favor and ironing out some of the tension between them. Only in the topsy-turvy world of The Good Fight could Fox News turn into a catalyst for unity and healing.
• “You sound like that Canadian guy. The one who wrote that book about that thing.” If you instantly knew, as I did, that Marissa is referencing Jordan Peterson, you are Extremely Online.
• Before their alleged lesbianism brings them back together, Liz and Diane have their sharpest exchange to date over who should question the white cop in the Tasering case. Diane thinks the jury will see a white lawyer as more “dispassionate,” which leads Liz to accuse Diane of feeling entitled to a partnership position and arrogant for thinking she could be the top dog at a Black firm. It’ll be interesting to see if tensions between them rise again. This fight doesn’t feel over.
• Mandy Patinkin is notably superb in his blow-up at Marissa, partly finding a tone that we never expected from such a loosey-goosey, Grateful Dead–quoting judicial crackpot.
• Judge Wackner using his power and connections to give Joey Battle a sentence in a real prison seems like something a more official court might scrutinize a bit. He’s lucky to have a top firm on retainer.