“A good fight is one you WIN!”
Those are the ferocious words of James Woods in the 1989 courtroom drama True Believer as he brushes off a young legal clerk who suggests that merely fighting the good fight was enough. Woods’s defense attorney is focused on winning an acquittal for a client who could have taken a plea bargain but has been convinced to risk a potential 40-year sentence to win at trial. This is not the first time The Good Fight has evoked True Believer — or the first time I have, either; surely Robert and Michelle King, masters of this domain, know the film well. But whenever the title of a show that has run for six seasons is mentioned explicitly in the dialogue, you have to sit up and pay attention.
Here, it comes up in a provocative context: Eli Gold, a bare-knuckle Democratic operative, is talking to Diane about possibly ending his career. He has just witnessed another Democratic power player — and current legal adversary — Frank Landau, take a bullet to the head that was meant for him. He is also facing the prospect of his own daughter, Marissa, giving damning testimony against him on the witness stand or else risk perjury, which would end her legal career nearly as soon as it started.
In her current blissed-out state, Diane lays out the stakes just as Eddie Dodd does: “This country is worth fighting for. It always was. And our enemies want to stop voting from happening. That’s not just galling — that’s the end of America. And we can’t let that happen.” She continues, “Eli, I need you to fight the good fight.”
The good fight is one you win. That’s what Diane is telling Eli in this moment, and that’s what Marissa takes away from their conversation, which she overhears in the doorway. She will finesse her testimony to protect her father, because winning is too important to take satisfaction in merely doing the right thing. You have to be willing to fight dirty to win, even if your soul winds up as thoroughly coarsened as Eli Gold’s. Because losing with so much on the line is unthinkable.
That’s a radical stance for a television show to take given the simple morality that usually prevails in situations like the one Marissa is facing. If Eli did indeed authorize a Watergate-like infiltration of Mark Burnett’s office to get those coveted outtakes of The Apprentice — the ones that many Democrats in real life believed would feature Donald Trump using the N-word — and he tasked Marissa with hacking into its computer system, then most shows would end with Marissa telling the truth on the stand and Eli accepting that he has gone astray. The show even sets us up for this conclusion after Landau is shot and Eli laments, “You come in the world wanting to make a better place, and you end up just making a mess.”
But The Good Fight loves operating in a much grayer area, even if it takes the shine off characters we’re supposed to like. Don’t forget the season in which Diane and Liz were operatives in an underground anti-Trump network, plotting legally dubious guerrilla tactics as part of the liberal resistance. Though the show got some laughs from this bourgeois subterfuge, it was serious about the dangers of bringing a knife to a gunfight. If Diane and Liz and the other major characters in The Good Fight want to make a difference, the show suggests, they have to recognize that they’re operating at a level at which backing away due to a crisis of conscience can have consequences worse than a tarnished victory.
From a dramatic standpoint, Landau’s shooting is a truly shocking moment, both in gore and invective. Violence has been encroaching on the show all season, from the distant screams and booms of protesters downtown, to the car bomb that shattered Lyle Bettencourt’s office window in the last episode, to the anti-Semitic assassination in the middle of this one. While the vast majority of TV shows and movies are trying to distract from the current, fraught moment in history, The Good Fight aims to shake viewers up about where things may be heading. If it takes a gunman calling Eli “a filthy Jew” and splattering Landau’s brains on the camera to do the shaking, the show is willing to go there.
The one downside of the Gold subplot is that its urgency and importance — as close to a thesis statement as the show has ever gotten — casts a shadow over the B-plot about the continued power struggle between Liz and Ri’Chard over the future of the firm. Ri’Chard isn’t shy about moving forward on major initiatives without consulting Liz first, and it gets under her skin, for the obvious reason that they can’t call themselves partners in stewardship. Ri’Chard’s solution is to invite Liz over for dinner the night of the Democratic fundraiser, which ends with a better understanding and perhaps some low-level romantic tension. Their scenes together are solid, as you’d expect with Andre Braugher and Audra McDonald sparking off each other, but it still feels like setup for bigger payoffs down the line.
The end of the episode brings us back down to ground level for a father-daughter reconciliation between the Golds. Behind them, a crowd chants, “You will not replace us!,” which is the chilling white-supremacist credo from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August 2018. (“You” would also be replaced by “Jews.”) With these barbarians at the gate, does it matter that Marissa lied so her dad could live to fight another day? The show makes its answer clear.
• What a wonderful episode for Alan Cumming, who is his typical hilarious self on the stand when he’s asserting his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination but devastating in the wake of Landau’s murder. Eli is some distance from the person he was when he entered politics, and the incident prompts a moment of circumspection that Cumming handles beautifully.
• The revelation about Ri’Chard’s secret connection to Liz’s father presents some intriguing possibilities about his motives. Could he be seeking revenge on the firm that spurned him? Or perhaps it’s as simple as Ri’Chard wanting to succeed in the place where he was not admitted.
• “If you break the law, you do it through intermediaries.” That’s Eli with a lesson in political ratfucking.
• Lee Atwater did indeed apologize for his campaign tactics in representing George H.W. Bush in his election fight against Michael Dukakis. Atwater fought dirty by using the Willie Horton case in a racially loaded attack on Dukakis as “soft on crime.” It was awful, and it worked.
• How long will Diane stick with Kurt? She fantasizes about her doctor in the same scene as when she sighs over the blanket “thoughts and prayers” language Kurt offers to his clients in the NRA. But Kurt always seems to manage to bring her back.