Chitchat: Checking in with The Good Wife

I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS.

Hiya, folks! As you may or may not know, I am current in the midst of a period that necessitates I keep my television criticism to a minimum. But although I do not really have the time to fit much in, I cannot stay away. There are too many interesting things to discuss. That is where a feature like Chitchat comes in handy. This week, I exchanged a bunch of emails with my good buddy Noel Kirkpatrick about the second half of The Good Wife’s third season. We discussed the series’ strong string of spring episodes, our favorite guest stars and Alicia’s path to independent woman. Enjoy.

Cory: Noel, the two of us discussed The Good Wife‘s third season way back in the fall, after I think only three episodes. Since then, the series has burned through a lot of different stories, to varying degrees of success (at least in my opinion). But each one of the last handful of episodes has been fantastic, and so I wanted to check in with you and see if you’re feeling as great about TGW as I am. I know we were both a little skeptical of the series’ new direction at the beginning of season three, and apparently that’s something the Kings were cognizant of as well, but everything is firing on all cylinders now. How are you feeling about The Good Wife now, as we enter into the final stretch, and what (if anything) do you think changed that brought the uptick in quality? 

Noel: Thanks for having me back for a follow-up on TGW as we head into the final hours of the season. 

As you mention, we were both a bit underwhelmed with the initial episodes of this season. The case weren’t great, and Celeste (remember Celeste? Because I had completely repressed her, and I think the Kings did, too!) was bogging down Will in vague ways, supposedly being a threat toward Alicia, forming some silly half-baked love triangle. And then the season just became a bit of a blur to me. Part of this is that I stopped writing about the show for bit (episodes 6 through 9, an eternity in episode-by-episode reviewing time), and part of it was just…the show slowly spinning things into place for the second half of the season. There’s nothing wrong with that, really, but it does make some episodes just kind of fuse together.

But then around the winter hiatus, with “What Went Wrong”, things began falling into place. That looming threat of an investigation into Lockhart/Gardner was given a nice twist and a stronger antagonist than Peter (who is good, but not great, too close to things), there was a good case of the week (Hi, Romany Malco! I miss you!), and Alicia got angry at Cary about what he did with Kalinda (that weird shell game).

But things have generally gotten better since that episode. I firmly believe that Will being suspended was the best thing that ever happened for the show since it has given so much more time to Diane and the wonderful other characters at Lockhart & Associates, and made the fallout of that investigation arc have more impact than I think I (we?) initially thought it would. 

And the show has, since that episode, also steadily upped the troubles for Alicia in really great (and not-so-great) ways, including the recent struggles with the house, the Caitlin thing (which is something I think we should discuss), her slowly thawing relationship with Kalinda (I loved her yelling at the laptop in “Blue Ribbon Panel”) and how Alicia sees herself as, and is treated as a professional woman.

Cory: Holy hell, I completely forgot Celeste. Yeah, from the beginning it felt like the season lacked something, which I ultimately realized was a larger conflict for Lockhart/Gardner. The Kings did a nice job of explaining this in that interview with Jace, but the series works a lot better when there are outside threats on the office to go along with Alicia’s personal problems. This is partially because the series likes to take its time with Alicia’s life issues (a tactic I appreciate quite a bit) and because the series has a shockingly deep stable of supporting characters that come into play with the firm is in upheaval. The lack of firm-related conflict impacted most of the characters: Eli was mostly aimless. Diane was sidelined. Most of the Will stories were also Alicia stories, and therefore personal stories. I love Alicia, I think she is one of the best characters on all of TV, but The Good Wife works best when everyone else has something to do as well.

What is really interesting to me is how loose and even directionless this season seemed for so long, until it just suddenly didn’t. You mentioned Celeste, but there was also that random love interest for Cary that quickly went away (because the actress got another gig, I think). The Cheese Lobby was a bit too cutesy for me. “Everybody’s Attracted to Kalinda” stories are a bit tired at this point. And even Will and Alicia’s relationship wasn’t that interesting. I love the Kings because they’re willing to try new things and TGW is somewhat underrated for its ability to reinvent itself on the fly, but sometimes, trying new things doesn’t work. 

But you’re right, the case against Will and its impact on the firm gave the season the macro-plot engine it needed. Even so, I kind of wish the whole “case” itself would have taken longer (and I think a lesser series would have dragged it out much further), but watching Wendy Scott Carr fail miserably is always something I’ll root for and everything since Will got temporarily disbarred has been wonderful. The series has been able to have its cake and eat it to with Will’s new situation, but they’ve also knowingly reveled in that. Any scene involving Will skirting by the rules of his new predicament is an instant favorite of mine. As you suggested, the story pivoted nicely to give us great Diane material (has Christine ever been more likable than she is on this series?) and provided the series’ patented inner-office drama. I really love how the writers give us quality character-based stories (like Diane Getting Her Groove Back a few weeks ago) without diving too deep into them or taking away from larger concerns. Few series have as many balls in the air, but The Good Wife has juggled them quite nicely in 2012, after struggling earlier. 

You mentioned Caitlin, and I think that character is a great example of how the series handles supporting characters, both positively and negatively. Caitlin was obviously set up to be antagonist (I thought both professionally and personally, since she kept going to Will with so many questions) for Alicia, and then she wasn’t. On one hand, I love how the series allows characters to exist in this world in short order, wherein they serve a temporary purpose and then leave L/G (but aren’t forgotten), because that’s how real life works. But at the same time, I was a bit disappointed to see Caitlin go. Alicia needs to be pushed at work and because of the character’s centrality to the narrative, she often comes off as perhaps more successful or prominent than she actually would be, if this were a real firm. Putting her in a situation where she’d have to compete a bit, and also recognize how she’s improved in three years, was really interesting to me. I understand the parallels the writers were trying to make with Caitlin and her decision, especially since it paired with Alicia’s home-buying, but that felt like a moderately missed opportunity, if only because the character worked so well up to that point. 

How did you feel about Caitlin’s place in the story, and what’s your take on Alicia’s personal arc this season?

Noel: See! I feel horrible that I had forgotten about Celeste because she’s LISA FRIGGIN’ EDELSTEIN, and I love her, Cory. She and I will get married and have kids and ship them off to boarding schools and live happily ever after. But, gawd, awful character. Anyway.

Like you, I also appreciate the slow burn of Alicia’s personal stories, getting to your question at the end of your last reply. It’s funny that I never think about it too deeply because it doesn’t quite have the whiz-bang-pow of the law firm plots, but when you step back from that and focus on it, I think it’s always very elegant and well-developed. This season has seen Alicia navigating waters a bit more independently and dealing with those ramifications. She’s had an affair, she’s keeping her kids happy (apart from their jaunts with YouTube ministers, they’re incredibly well-adjusted youngsters), she’s trying to advance her career, she doesn’t have any friends (except the MIA Owen), and is now buying her old house.

The house purchase is perhaps the most interesting one, aside from her slow re-establishing of a relationship with Kalinda. Alicia clearly wants the house back, and I’m not entirely convinced I know why, but I don’t think she knows why either. Is it a desire for simpler times in her life (what did you think about those flashbacks? I loved them) and a belief that it will make her happy again? I think this must be it, between the end of her affair with Will and her struggles at the firm, she needs a return to something positive and lovely, and that house is those things for her.

But as the house plot digs in deeper (How delicious was the return of Jackie, who has been gone for so long and then just swoops in and takes the house?), I feel like it’s connected to the events of “Long Way Home.” Alicia sees Caitlin and Colin Sweeney going off to their little nuclear families, however twisted they may be in the case of the latter, and it makes her nostalgic for a life she used to have (as you note yourself), a life that isn’t possible any longer, really. And with a lack of female role models in her life, apart from Diane, she has few options to figure out her life at this point.

What did you think about Caitlin decision? I saw some anger about it and its post-feminist implications, and was curious as to your thoughts. I grapple with it since I know women who have made this choice, or will make this choice, and as Diane noted, the glass ceiling as broken so it was a choice and not a default position. At the same time, I am frustrated by it since Caitlin is only able to make this choice because her husband. Alicia cannot stop working to maintain her kids happiness (I’m not even sure she wants that, really), but I think she longs to have a choice, any choice at this point, and maybe the problem is simply that Alicia cannot make one, and that’s why she’s (potentially) so frustrated by Jackie snapping up the house.

Tossing out three questions for you: 1) What do you think about Cary this season so far? We talked about him a little bit last time (I think), but I’m curious as to how you feel about him so far. My love of him is no secret. 2) You mention guest stars and supporting characters, and what a deep bench the show has. Who is your favorite? Whose presence do you dread? 3) We talk a lot about writing and acting with TV, but only sometimes about directing and visuals. I have really been loving the aesthetics of the show lately. What about you?

Cory: Alicia’s journey is, like you mentioned, secretly engaging. This season, going all the way back to that, uh, awesome, poster, has been all about Alicia’s growing independence, but the story has gone a lot deeper (without being that flashy) than a new haircut and some steamy sex. Although I wish that her relationship with Will lasted longer (I tend to feel that way with so many of the series’ stories, apparently), cutting it short made a lot of sense, both in the aftermath of the issue with Grace, and for the larger. So much of the first two seasons was about Alicia dipping her toes in pools she always wanted to swim laps in, and a relationship with Will was the ultimate pool, one of those Infinity pools or something. The temptation was overwhelming, but as these things often do, the realities of a relationship with Will weren’t exactly like the dreams of a relationship with Will. Not that either of them was really at fault in the break-up. Will didn’t do anything wrong, but once Alicia went “there” with him, it complicated things instead of solving them. 

But even in that break-up, Alicia made the choice. She was an active participant in her own life, and I think that’s been a big theme this season (and one that carried over from the tail-end of last season for sure). She wasn’t just going to let Kalinda off the hook (as stubborn as that might be at this point). She wasn’t going to let Peter slink his way back into the family. She wasn’t going to let Caitlin take her spot and she wasn’t going to keep working at L/G if she thought she was underpaid. Even in “Blue Ribbon Panel,” she stood up, both for herself in the panel itself and for Kalinda in the faux-IRS investigation. I love how this season has been about Alicia, independent woman without being about Alicia, INDEPENDENT WOMAN. 

With that in mind, the house story confounds me, and not necessarily in a bad way. You make a great point about nostalgia and the timing of the decision (not to mention the fact that she’s basically being forced out of her current spot), and I don’t think Alicia is aiming to explicitly reconnect to her old life. Instead, she sees the possibility of returning to that house as a way to bring back the good memories, while still flushing away the bad ones. She wants to do this for her kids and it’s something “old Alicia” couldn’t have done. So even though buying this house might be slightly regressive on the surface, it plays like just another way that she’s asserting control over her own life. She wants to buy that house and that’s all that matters. 

If we’re making considerations for larger gender relations, Caitlin’s decision was certainly…curious. Like I said, I was disappointed to see her go because of the potential I saw in the character and looking at her choice through the prism of feminism makes it more troubling. I’m not qualified enough to speak about post-feminism, but I do think the series could have handled it a bit more elegantly. They tried to cover their tracks and did fine with that attempt, but I see where the outrage came from — especially since she seems so adept at her job. Obviously, it’s not one thing or the other for women, the whole thing just felt very sudden. Again, that’s how real-life works (I guess), but the criticisms are valid in my eyes.

To your questions (there are so many): I’m with you, I adore Cary. He’s gotten lost in the shuffle just a bit this season, but any time we spend time with him, good things happen. The Kings and Matt Czuchry don’t get enough credit for taking Cary from primary antagonist to morally-centered, basically heroic supporting character. I don’t really care about his various flings but the way he fell on his sword with Peter a few weeks ago was a great moment for a character who seemed entirely interested in rising through the ranks and self-preservation when we first met him. I think he and Alicia need more scenes together though, right?

The guest stars on The Good Wife are unbelievable. I don’t think that’s hyperbolic word choice at all. The obvious ones are right there, and have been around lately: Michael J. Fox, Dylan Baker, Gary Cole, Paker Posey and Carrie Preseton. I’m not sure any series on TV right now (or over the last five years) knows how to seamlessly fairly high-profile performers into its world without being distracting at all. The guests don’t just come on and play their public personas (or go the SVUCriminal Minds or CSI: route where they play the opposite of their persona), they actually, you know, act. The recency effect might be taking over here, but Matthew Perry was great in “Blue Ribbon Panel.” After two minutes, I immediately wanted him to be a series regular. Can’t his character try to buy the firm? Or make Cary a partner at his firm? Something. Perry is a lovely comedic talent, but he’s just as a good of a dramatic performer. It’s simply a shame he hasn’t had better luck. Who are your favorites from this season? And do you think there’s any law of diminishing returns with the regular guests like MJF or Dylan Baker?

Honestly, I haven’t really noticed any specific visual moment lately. Not that the series isn’t great-looking (because it is), but nothing comes immediately to mind. You asked the question, what were you thinking? Maybe it will jog my memory. 

Noel: You provide a nice correction of my notion that Alicia hasn’t had, or even made, choices by mentioning, well, ALL THE CHOICES she’s made so far. Smarty pants. My lack of thinking on these issues is that Alicia is making these choices in a really subtle manner, going to your idea of “Alicia, independent woman” as opposed to “Alicia, INDEPENDENT WOMAN.” I do wish we got a bit more of Alicia, devious lawyer, like we did in the premiere and how I like to read her situation of playing Diane off against Louis (or vice versa, or whatever). But she’s also not very good at be conniving. (Luckily for us, everyone else around her is.)

I do agree that Caitlin’s departure was too sudden, and I feel like they rushed to make the parallels more pronounced before she ran off, which in turn made it feel a tad ham-fisted (the promos didn’t help matters, I think we can agree). Perhaps this is what raised the concern: Suddenly she had a husband and was pregnant, and now she was leaving as a result, but that she framed it as a choice is the issue…Hm.

Yay! Cary is awesome. We’ll start a fan club! No, I agree, Cary’s hook-ups don’t feel developed enough to me to care about (though I’m fascinated by the notion that the show is only recently, slowly, giving its primary male characters sexual lives; the show’s take on sex is certainly something I haven’t given much thought, but deserves more), but like you I relish that Cary has become what would’ve been an antagonist to someone who genuinely cares about right and wrong, and is willing to do what it takes to keep that idea live in Cook County, including pushing for his own demotion.  

I do think he needs more scenes with Alicia, but I think Cary needs more scenes with everyone. The juxtaposition of his goodness (for lack of a better word) against the cynical nature of Cook County is always a delight. I like when he sticks it to folks looking to undermine others for no justifiable reason (see the blue panel testimony, his behavior toward the end of the grand jury, etc); it gives the show some sense of a lighter gray than anyone else.

I do think there’s a slight law of diminishing returns with some guest stars. I do think Colin is probably best tucked away for a while (until he kills poor, underused Morena Baccarin), and while I absolutely adore him, Judge Abernathy has become a bit one-note (even if that note is absurdly funny). But MJF’s Louis is someone who I thought would see this happen quicker, but the show has managed to keep him fresh and engaging each time, so no I now longer get antsy when I see Fox in the credits.

But if there’s an MVP of guest stars for the show, it’s Carrie Preston. Her Elsbeth is such an amazing breath of fresh, quirky air (remember when she and Eli met in s1? It was magical), and everyone is so bemused by her presence, and then totally in awe of her skills. I was disappointed that she didn’t get to go toe to toe with Wendy Scott Carr beyond that one scene. 

I do have one guest star I would like to see return. Hopefully they can make it happen next year.

As for the visuals, I’m thinking very specifically about the show’s great use of “looking at things”-ness, if I can sound like a pretentious asshole for a moment. The show has always done a nice job of utilizing looking at things, but this season, and I think I started to notice it around episode 9, but it may have been happening soon. The show doesn’t use close-ups too often on people’s faces, but they love a tight shot on documents, evidence, pictures, and I just really really love it. I feel like it’s an extension of the show’s overwhelming (but excellent) sense of voyeurism, and for me it’s just always exciting. It’s not as flashy as some of the work on Breaking Bad (but then what is?), but the show’s sense of stillness attached to looking at these objects just isn’t done. We’re always zooming or cutting or swooshing around things and Good Wife pushes back against those things.

I’ll turn myself over for questions now from you! 

Cory: Ah, that visual convention! Now I see what you’re talking about, and it is quite impressive. Recent episodes have also featured that quasi-sudden zoom in to someone’s face at the beginning of the episode that I really enjoy. The series does a wonderful job of throwing the audience into the deep end (I’ve made a lot of pool- or water-related references in this conversation, I apologize) each week. You’re right about the lack of unnecessary cuts, zooms and swooshes, as TGW simply lets the actors do their work while staying visually appealing. 

As we wind down here, let me ask you this: Where do you see this season heading in the last few episodes? We thankfully already know that Good Wife will be back for another season, do you think that will impact how the Kings conclude the season? I don’t know about you, but this season feels… transitional. There’s an assumption that the election stories will ramp back up next season (both for Peter and Eli’s wife, which should be unbelievably juicy for Alan Cumming to work with), and the Kings hinted that Alicia’s relationship with Kalinda will be on somewhat better terms come 2012-2013 as well. I can’t imagine Will’s suspension will conclude over the next three or four episodes either.

So where does that leave us? Alicia and Jackie are certainly going to butt heads over the house — though I assume Jackie will end up giving it to Alicia, if only for the kids, right? — and there will likely be a bit more scrambling between various power-players inside the firm, but other than that, I don’t really know what to expect. Last season, we knew the Kalinda bomb was about to go off, and we knew that Will and Alicia would at least talk about things (and they sure did more than that). The lack of clear end-points is both compelling and odd to me. Are there any stories you think we’ll see resolved, even temporarily? Are there stories you want to see resolved? 

Noel: I think the season does feel transitional, but I feel like that’s purposeful. It’s been a new day this season, and that day, I think, is coming to an end. Alicia is looking at her previous home, Jackie is angling to get back into the mix, Peter will be running for office again, and Will will be back in his nice office (like you, I assume next season).

I certainly think there’s a lingering plot this season in the form of Wendy Scott Carr and her axes to grind with Will and Peter, so I imagine she’ll be back, and hopefully better equipped (her complete collapse during the grand jury, while satisfying from a plot perspective, made no sense from a character perspective for me). I don’t know when she’ll be back though, but it could very well be this season.

There are still the L/G power plays. I will be curious if Howard Lyman (how great was his sudden reappearance as the solution to Will and Diane’s problem?) will go quietly into that good night once Will’s suspension is over.

I would like this Kalinda tax thing to go the hell away as I feel it’s a bit of a non-starter, especially this late in the season, but it does mean that Kalinda and Alicia have to spend time together, and I am very pro Alicinda (is that the name?). But, man, Jill Flint’s character may be one of the least engaging the show has made, right up there with Blake.

Likewise, there’s still the issue of the divorce. But this has been an on-going plot for the show since season 1, and one I suspect will receive more of a profile in season four, should Peter begin his campaign for the governorship. I don’t know where Alicia and Peter stand on this, however, since their time together has been pretty limited (and understandably so).

On the whole though, yes, there seem to be no loose ends for the show to tug on for the last few episodes. Maybe that’s okay due to the show’s rich narrative world that has created for three seasons. Maybe they don’t need a big finale this year with any number of other plots already set up and ready to go.

Plus, you know, four word episode titles will be awesome.

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