NOVEMBER 13, 2015
I STOPPED WATCHING The Good Wife when Will Gardner died, but I came back to the show now that Kalinda Sharma is also gone. I was curious. When Will left the show, it felt like a betrayal, and I was sure the show couldn’t go on. And yet it not only did, but with Kalinda’s absence, it’s become positively haunted by its ghosts. Characters come and go, of course, and when a show strings narrative continuity over as many seasons as The Good Wife now has, it will naturally accumulate a few ghosts. But these beloved characters departed so abruptly that their shades rest without peace, haunting season seven. We might need NSA snoops to remind us of it, but the fact that they are gone has become the invisibly central fact of the show.
Long-running shows with narrative-continuity have a choice in how they’ll handle the ghosts of absent characters. In a show like Game of Thrones, for example, there are no actual ghosts, but nearly every plotline can now be traced back to a death that needs avenging; the trauma of loss represented by absent characters is at the origin of nearly everything that’s happening on-screen. This is decidedly not The Good Wife’s style, which has always been an optimistic and forward-looking show, always dreaming about new days and new beginnings. No matter what happened in the Florrick marriage or their political fortunes, the show could go on, for one very simple reason: there would always be another case to rip from the headlines. For those, like me, who tend to find Game of Thrones a bit of a slog, it’s at least partly because of its total inability to ever re-boot. The characters just accumulate scars until they succumb to narrative sadism. But on The Good Wife, grudges are never nursed for very long. Betrayals fester and explode, and can then be forgotten. They have to be. How else could the cast keep making the same mistakes over and over again?
It might seem odd to compare high fantasy to a courtroom melodrama. But it’s a weird comparison partly because of how those genres are typically gendered: if the archetypal Game of Thrones plot twist involves swords and unmotivated rape, the archetypal The Good Wife analogue is someone’s emotional response to a message or discovered document (and, perhaps, one character watching another character’s reaction, through a glass window). The Good Wife feels like classic melodrama at first glance, while HBO’s Game of Thrones (despite its lowbrow fantasy origins) clearly scans as part of a largely masculine tradition of prestige drama, the shows Brett Martin described as being made by difficult men about difficult men (The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire, etc). These are shows with roots in the procedural drama — in the episodic television that started a new story each week — but the “Creative revolution” that Martin describes was the transcendence of the merely serial, episodic structure, the narrative continuity that was imposed. Instead of distinct, self-contained episodes, auteur show-runners made their shows into a single (if meandering and complicated) narrative, over the course of many seasons. This is what makes these shows prestige drama, not “just” television.
As Phil pointed out a few years ago, The Good Wife is just network television, and that’s another reason why we’re not likely to compare the two shows: the episodic format on network TV, the procedural-workplace drama using recent news for each week’s case, and even the show’s feminism-by-default all put it in a different category than Game of Thrones. But this is why it’s interesting to force the comparison: just as gender is a continuum, these shows have more in common than they might seem. Game of Thrones has discrete episodes, after all, and The Good Wife has narrative continuity; just as Game of Thrones is an emphatically melodramatic and shameless tear-jerker beneath its cynical and realist exterior, The Good Wife, for all its reshuffling and resilience, picks quietly at all the scars you learn to carry silently as you clock in for another day of work as a legal gladiator. This comparison favors The Good Wife, I think: Game of Thrones tries to hide its feelings and sensitivity under violence, while The Good Wife manages, rather courageously, to marry the two traditions, welding (or wedding) the narrative continuity of prestige and auteur film-television to the episodic constraints of network television. In fact, The Good Wife is arguably more epic than Game of Thrones, which promises an endgame it will never deliver; in practice, it always actually breaks down — if you look closely — into sequences of mini-episodes held together by dramatic cuts and cheap suspense. Having literally used up its source material, its engine is petering out and its ghosts are wan — Jon Snow might be back, but it’s hard to expect much from him, and poor Lady Stoneheart never mustered enough ectoplasm to get back onscreen. The show has nowhere particular left to go.
The Good Wife, which should by all rights have exhausted its premise within a season (good wife breaks bad) has proven, in contrast, to be unexpectedly robust. The show has always been (and remains) the story of Alicia Florrick, “the good wife,” as a post-scandal Hillary Clinton figure. (As the show winds towards its final destination with Peter Florrick vying to become the actual Hillary Clinton’s running-mate, the loose end of this plot seems to be tying up quite neatly.) Yet it has also never stopped being an episodic drama. As Alicia’s private life was unspooling in melodramatic fits and starts, her work-life continued with a comforting, even procedural regularity. Each week, a new case would be concocted to give our protagonists something to do when they weren’t eye-fucking each other across the room. Almost literally: for two seasons, Will and Alicia couldn’t find the time to hook up, because they were too busy working (while work gave Alicia a way to leave her relationship with Peter fundamentally unresolved, for just as long).
As John Lennon would have said, if he were a television critic: multi-season melodrama is what happens to you when you’re busy making an episodic procedural workplace drama.
This elegant, stressful back-and-forth has been the show’s work-life balance for six seasons. We’ve watched Alicia occupy the impossible position of The Modern Woman. To be a good wife, she had to be at work. But, to be a good wife, she also had to be at home. In formal terms, the show had it both ways: episodes of work, case after case, but a rich, somewhat coherent home-life as well.
Two people made that balance possible: Kalinda Sharma and Will Gardner. Both are now gone.
How planned were their exits? Josh Charles was reportedly written out of the show because he wanted out, but the show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King (who just happen to be husband and wife creative partners), have been cagey about Archie Panjabi’s exit (a personal conflict between Panjabi and Juliana Margulies is rumored to be the cause). But what’s interesting about their absence is the effect it’s had on the show’s delicate work-life balance. These characters were magic, and together they enabled the show’s fantasy of having it all. In their absence, that fantasy has crumbled magnificently.
First, Will Gardner was the primary fantasy for the long-term plot — the ideal solution for the good wife who stood by her man and went to work. Could a “good wife” leave her kids? Could she work? Could she be faithful to a cheater? Will made it possible for Alicia to have it both ways, the fantasy of having it all: Lockhart-Gardner gave her a “home” when she needed a job but no one would hire her, and Will gave her a love interest after her character had been publicly defined by her spouse’s infidelity.
At the start of season seven, Alicia finds herself in a similar position, but Will is gone. Her name is poison, and she needs a job. But with no Will to scoop her up (and alas, no Finn Polmar to take his place), she must choose between two versions of hell: Louis Canning and bond court. Tempted by Canning, she wanders the wilderness of Judge Schakowsky’s bond court, where there is no place for idealism, no romance, no fantasy. There is only the clock, the process, and the ceaseless churn of new bodies, new cases, and the same repeated questions and answers. Will made the law glamorous and sexy, even ethical; he let her work and have romance. Now she has nothing. The only camaraderie available to her involves seeing who got through more clients — measured in pounds.
Kalinda’s absence is more subtly felt. The drama between Margulies and Panjabi can make us forget the structural role that Kalinda played on the show: in case after case, her job was to prove that justice could be done if the truth would only out. Hers was the private detective story behind each publicly argued case. And Kalinda always found the truth, and just in time, in the false suspense of episodic television. In theory, the clock is ticking, but in practice, you know how the show will end, and exactly when. That was Kalinda, the Siri of real life: tell her what you need to know, and she will find it and deliver it with immaculate timing.
If Will was a fantasy of the work-husband, then — such that being a good wife was also being a good worker — Kalinda enabled a different, more unsettling fantasy: she was the magic helper. If Archie Panjabi weren’t so incredibly good — if she didn’t bring such deep, understated character-work to the role — it would have been easier to see what a wish-fulfillment she was. Kalinda was not quite what Spike Lee named the “super-duper magical Negro,” but she came close, a super-assistant for the (white) bosses who subordinated every aspect of her life to theirs. For all her psychological depth and formidable presence, the character was always a function of whatever Alicia and her employers needed her to be. In theory, she was an independent contractor who spurned commitment — and the show made a big deal out of her seductive elusiveness — but in practice, she was sexually available but lacked a personal life. Sex was a function of her job, and she was a master manipulator: she virtually never used people for herself.
In short, Kalinda got the work done so Alicia could play The Good Wife. And in a show that routinely compresses hundreds and thousands of tedious and painstaking billable hours into a 40-minute episode, Kalinda Sharma was the plot device that literally dramatized that compression. In real life, it takes time and work and luck to find out the exact piece of information you need; with Kalinda, the fantasy was that you just have to ask. Kalinda was magic.
What happens to this show without Kalinda?
We’re meant to see her replacement in Lucca Quinn, the bond court attorney played by Cush Jumbo. The parallel is all but explicit: on Alicia’s first case at Sterne, Lockhart, and Gardner, Kalinda took pity on our heroine, showed her the ropes, and took her drinking. On Alicia’s first day at bond court, Lucca Quinn is the new tough-but-kind brown lady who brusquely helps her then bonds with her over drinks afterwards. Lucca Quinn even pops up with the perfect game-winning piece of information to win the big court case at the last minute. That’s Kalinda work.
These characters are gone, and the show is structured by their absence. This means it has stopped being fantasy. Instead of the various gorgeous conference rooms and corner offices where the workplace drama took place, we’re now crowded into Alicia’s modest home-office, Eli’s tiny little closet-cell, or Peter’s overstuffed waiting room. Instead of the cinematic prison sets where Peter and Cary were incarcerated — or the immodest grandeur of various imposing courtrooms — bond court is a grubby, grease-streaked holding cell-courtroom hybrid, marrying the aesthetic grace of an airport lounge at 4 a.m. to the architectural grandeur of a grocery store bathroom. The show used to convey information by having one character look dramatically at someone in another office and guess at the conversation they were having. Now, instead of dramatic reveals through glass windows, Eli’s tiny cramped office is the comic set-piece du jour. There is never enough room.
There’s also no more romance in the show: Peter and Alicia’s marriage is as dead as Will Gardner, and along with Finn, Kalinda seems to have taken the show’s sexual tension with her. You can practically smell the sex pheromones emanating from Kalinda’s replacement as investigator — Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Jason Crouse and his bedroom eyes — but Alicia is all business, checking his references as part of a discussion of insurance rates. She very palpably lacks the time for his nonsense and this is the key: there used to be plenty of time — in part because, as Phil put it, it was the fastest show on television — but now time is always running out.
At the level of the show as a whole, time is running out because it can’t go on forever: whether or not the single-word episode titles indicate that this is the last season, this show is almost done. But the individual episodes are now built on deficits of time: Alicia only has her investigator for three hours. The campaign needs more days from Alicia. And — most importantly — bond court’s only imperative is not to take too much time. This turns out to be an ethical principle, in fact: If you take too long with any individual client — if you care too much for one person — you will screw over everyone else. Justice for one person can mean that everyone waiting has to spend the night in jail (“away from their families,” as Judge Schakowsky pointedly notes). But the thing is, he’s right, and so is Lucca Quinn when she tells Alicia she cares “too much” for her clients: it isn’t a badge of honor to screw everyone else over in defense of your one client. The court has a full docket. As Schakowsky puts it, quite correctly,
“This is not To Kill A Mockingbird. This is not Anatomy of a Murder. This is a constitutionally mandated necessity. It is Lucille Ball wrapping chocolates on an assembly line.”
Put differently: this is not a legal drama anymore; this is comic farce, Modern Times. When the show’s fantasies of infinite time and space were enabled by the setting and the cast, it could indulge itself with dreams of courtroom justice and the romantic life of the well-off. But I’m fascinated by the turn the show has taken — in every sense — because it now refuses to indulge those fantasies. Not only is bond court for the working class, for whom there is never enough time and space, it’s also for black people. And this is the true significance of Kalinda’s replacement by Lucca Quinn: Kalinda could be anyone, go anywhere, do anything, omni-competent, omni-sexual, and (magically) never singled out for her race. We have yet to learn much about Lucca Quinn, but these things do not seem to be the case with her. Kalinda wore her non-whiteness lightly; Lucca Quinn will not. She will be patronized by opposing counsel, and offered “advice” (in a mirror of Diane’s offer of “help,” in this last episode’s racial discrimination sub-plot).
In this way, so much of what the show is doing now seems to quietly invert what it has previously been. What’s left of the old firm — whatever it’s called now — has been left to the 1%, and they only hire lawyers with Ivy League spoons in their mouths. Cary is suddenly too old for the young associates, and after years of being “into ethnic women” — as Matan Brody once observed — he accidentally comes on to a young white man (who, in an another inversion, is immediately ready to trade sex for career advancement). Eli Gold is working against Peter, while the lecherous old racist Howard Lyman bizarrely becomes the subject of workplace discrimination. Meanwhile, Diane Lockhart finds herself arguing cases for the pseudo-Koch brothers: having reclaimed her seat at the head of the table, she has leaned in, working for the embodiment of what she has always been against. She even becomes the face of discriminatory hiring when the firm declines to hire a black associate (while Howard Lyman speaks up for the historic civil rights solidarity of Jewish and African-American activism). It’s bizarro world.
But it’s Alicia who, in being cast out, accidentally puts her finger on the show’s deepest and dirtiest secret, that the justice is a sham, built and sustained by top-to-bottom racialized injustice, a fact against which personal good intentions are totally insufficient. In bond court, race turns out to matter a great deal, and intentions a lot less: so much of the show has been about the question whether or not Alicia Florick was truly good, whether or not she was truly Saint Alicia, whether the law was a thing you could believe in or whether it was better to be cynical. But in bond court, where most of the defendants are black, nothing is as irrelevant (or as unhelpful) as a saint: the only thing that matters is the ticking clock, the machine that grinds up bodies, and which side of the racialized line you’re standing on.