It’s a universal truth that our past has a tendency to follow us around. As such, it makes a good theme, and a lot writers have put it to good use. Just last year, How I Met Your Mother devoted an episode to the concept, literalizing the metaphor of baggage by forcing its characters to lug around actual suitcases (if only in Ted’s fevered mind). “Killer Song” isn’t quite that unsubtle, but it comes pretty close.
The Good Wife always goes big, and that’s one of the main reasons it’s the best the drama on (at the very least) network television. But the downside to going big is that when it doesn’t quite work, it can come off as sort of goofy. And that’s the case here. “Killer Song” is about a killer who writes a song. Specifically, it’s about a killer who’s been locked up in an insane asylum for 30 years, who’s set to be released after a writing a song about raping, torturing and murdering a woman, which is just the sort of thing he did. The daughter of his victim is taking him to court to prevent him from getting rich off the song. But the case is complicated by the fact that the song apparently isn’t specifically about the murder he was convicted for. It turns out, instead, that it’s about a murder he committed but was not convicted for. He ends up winning the case, only to get dragged off in handcuffs afterward, arrested for the murder he more or less admitted to by writing the song that made him rich.
As I said, this is all a bit goofy. But goofy’s better than boring, and The Good Wife is never boring. It also consistently manages to use sensationalistic stories like this without making them feel exploitive. This particular story frequently pairs a serial killer’s lyrics with photographs of his horrible violent crimes and features a subplot in which the serial killer makes creepy advances on Alicia. That could be an episode of Criminal Minds, right there. But the show’s obvious ambition and Quality TV sheen* keeps even its goofiest, most sensationalistic plots grounded.
(*A Quality TV sheen isn’t always a good thing, but The Good Wife earns it.)
In this case, the show grounds itself by suggesting that just as the serial killer can’t outrun his past of torturing innocent women, Kalinda is finding it more and more difficult to keep her past life and the things she had to do to change it hidden from the prying eyes of those who would damage her both directly and as collateral damage. The metaphor here is obviously wildly outsized, but Kalinda has always been the show’s most outsized character. The problem is that to this point, Kalinda’s mystique hasn’t felt entirely earned, and that problem persists in this episode.
The Good Wife is quite clearly indebted to The Wire. Like The Wire, it seeks to create a sprawling social commentary touching on as many social institutions as possible, ranging from the legal system, to politics, to religion, to schools and so on. Though The Good Wife is more obviously stylized,* each show generally tries to present a realistic portrayal of the people and institutions it depicts. But each show has exceptions to that rule. In the case of The Wire, Omar Little is the glaring exception, a flamboyant rogue in a trench coat with a sawed-off shotgun. But Omar clearly serves a purpose beyond simply being awesome. He’s a hero in a world desperately short on heroes, a Robin Hood who rights the wrongs of his universe in the only way he knows how. No matter how deeply flawed he is (and he is pretty deeply flawed), it can’t take away the hope his mystique provides.
(*Note that this is not to say that The Wire is not stylized, as it most certainly is, just in a more nontraditional (for television) way.)
Kalinda is The Good Wife’s Omar, but she lacks the depth of that character, both in theme and characterization. She’s undeniably awesome. Archie Punjabi’s performance is consistently fascinating. Her charisma is arresting. Her sexuality is impossible to ignore. Her boots are relentlessly stylish. And she wields a baseball bat like Omar wields his shotgun. She’s also been given the soapiest of the show’s plotlines this year. But none of it has really added up to anything more than that. It’s all endlessly entertaining, but it also all feels thematically hollow. In this sense, Kalinda is both the show’s most fascinating character and its most disappointing. The current storyline is clearly meant to rectify this, but given how frustrating her feud with Blake has been, it’s hard to give the show the benefit of the doubt on this particular front.
Blake has been a fairly serious misfire, with the character ultimately failing to amount to much of a character at all. His motivations were always extremely murky, and the majority of the time, his actions seemed designed entirely to cause trouble for Kalinda. Even the source of their feud was far from clear. In the end, he amounted to little more than a cheap villain used by the writers to set up the current plot twist. But that’s pretty representative of Kalinda’s storylines in general.
The question now is whether the show will be able to turn Kalinda’s past life and regrettable dalliance with Peter into anything substantial. I have little doubt it will be fun to watch, but it would be nice if it lived up to the rest of the show’s thematically high standards.
Unlike Kalinda, Eli’s role in The Good Wife’s thematic fabric has always been clear. He is a representative of the political system, and as such frequently has to do things that are morally questionable to win elections. In the case of the current storyline, that has meant outing America Ferrera’s Natalie (who, for the record, is not ugly) as an illegal immigrant in service of destroying Wendy Scott-Carr’s political burgeoning political career. Ever since then, Eli has been trying to help her, either out of genuine affection or guilt. The show has been cagey about the exact motivation, in part because even Eli himself seems unsure. His daughter sees it as the latter, chalking it up to Eli’s savior complex:
You always find some crush in the last month of the campaign to fixate on … You need to act as savior to someone, or you’ll have to face the fact you do bad things.
Most likely, it’s a little bit of both. The Good Wife is a good show, and so characters behave in ways that are honest without being obvious. Eli’s no different.
Eli finally gets to make up for this recent transgression (and as his daughter implies, a thousand past transgressions) in this episode by preventing Natalie’s father from getting deported. Luis hasn’t done anything wrong. Rather, he’s the victim of racial profiling, a compassionless justice system and an outright cruel immigration policy. He’s in a position to get saved by Eli because his daughter just happens to have been collateral damage in one of Eli’s political machinations. And because Eli’s wealthy and powerful. All of the nameless people in line around him, of course, aren’t so lucky. Eli’s a very a limited sort of savior.
So you can’t outrun your past. But if you have enough money or know the right people, maybe you can pretend you can. But only for a little while. Eventually, the cuffs come out and you have to find a new victim to save.
- Eli’s C-plot is really the only part of the episode that works without reservations. It’s a shame it’s so buried.
- I really do think there’s a way forward with the Kalinda story that will make it thematically relevant, and I think Eli’s arc here suggests the show’s heading in that direction. But Blake’s storyline was such a misfire that it gives me pause.
- I’m not going to lie, the killer’s song is kind of catchy.