Who are you? A citizen of some country. Of some region. Of some state or province. Some city or town or locality. You’re a man or a woman. A son or a daughter. A husband or a wife. A mother or a father. Or single and unattached. Gay or a straight. You have a job with a title. You’re a coworker or a boss or an underling. Or you’re unemployed or a housewife. You’re rich or poor or middle-class. You’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Agnostic or Atheist or indifferent. You’re a Republican or a Democrat. You’re a member of some ethnic group, determined by who you’re ancestors slept with and the color of your skin. You’re an optimist or a pessimist. A snappy dresser or shy or fat. Or you’re a lot of these things at different times, depending on who you ask and who you’re with. Maybe once in a while, when you’re all alone or with a couple of close friends or a spouse and you’re not really thinking about it, you’re just you. But then, who’s to say that’s “you,” anyway?
People occasionally point out–not as a matter of opinion, but just as a fact, as though it were the weather–that The Good Wife is poorly titled. And I accept that it’s possible that the title might have some sort of negative effect on viewership, though I really have no idea why, unless people simply don’t want to watch shows about married women (and the long run of Desperate Housewives would seem to beg to differ). But in every way that matters, The Good Wife is the perfect title for this show about the roles society makes for us and our sporadic, thrilling, messy attempts to break out of them. It’s show about identity.
Todd VanDerWerff has a piece up over at the AV Club (which is just slightly more read than this blog) calling The Good Wife the spiritual successor to The Wire, and it’s a comparison I’ve made before as well. It’s a good match, not just because of all The Wire alums that have guest-starred, but because both shows are deeply interested in the way social institutions grind people up and destroy them. The Wire went about illustrating this in an extremely methodical way, famously building each season around a different institution while constantly circling back around to show how they’re all connected.
The Good Wife is a lot messier. It began with a premise that allowed for a frothy mix of legal and domestic drama. But over the course of its first season, the show slowly piled plot upon plot, theme upon theme, institution upon institution, until by the start of the second season each episode would begin with a whirlwind of action that in general accomplished more than most shows do over the course of entire seasons. It’s often disorienting, but always exhilarating, and it works for the show because that’s exactly what it’s going for, not just with its world-building or its plots, but also with its characters. Whereas The Wire sought to methodically expose the invisible hand of the institutions that trap unsuspecting people, everyone in The Good Wife is at least partially aware of what’s going on around them and trying to push back against it.
The title of the show is on some level a relic from its earliest episodes when it was still reliant on its premise, but everything that’s come after has grown out of that premise. Just as The Wire originally presented its central theme of institutional rot in the guise of a cops and drug runners procedural, The Good Wife originally presented its central theme of finding an identity within these institutions in the guise of a domestic drama about a betrayed wife. Early in its run, the show focused on Alicia and her attempt to figure out who she was and what to do in the wake of her husband’s betrayal. She had grown accustomed to certain roles, had wrapped her whole sense of being up in them, only to discover they weren’t metaphysical, immutable constants, but creations of a social order to which she no longer belonged. And in losing those roles, she gained others: in the eyes of her old friends, a disgrace; in the eyes of the public, a jilted wife; in her own eyes, what exactly? And all of that is still part of the series. This isn’t a show that has jettisoned its premise. This is a show that has rapidly, impressively, but entirely naturally expanded its premise by building around this central theme of identity.
Much of the first season was about Alicia building a new life for herself, integrating herself into a new social setting and coming to terms with the public’s view of her. The second season has been about regaining what was lost to her and about just how much of it she actually wants back. She doesn’t, for example, want to return to her old social circle or stop working. At the same time, however, Alicia had been slowly reconciling with Peter over the course of the season and supporting his campaign, going so far as to give an interview to the local press expressing a forgiveness she may or may not have genuinely felt. She seemed to do all this at least as much out of obligation as anything else, as just what (if anything) she got out of her relationship with Peter emotionally was unclear.
But the betrayal at the center of the series’ original premise continues to seep into every facet of her life. Her friendship with Kalinda–which seemed as genuine to her as all her old relationships seemed fake–collapses upon discovering that she had slept with Peter several years before she and Alicia ever met. This revelation informs the last arc of the season, with Alicia kicking Peter out and deciding to cast off the role of the good wife (see what I did there?) once and for all.
I’m not an Alicia-Will shipper by any stretch of the imagination–the tension has often seemed forced and at times gratuitous–but the final scene of the finale, with the two of them leaving a bar and heading up to a hotel room together, is pitch-perfect. The scene feels giddy and reckless, and the elevator door device (which looked awful in the previews) lends just the right sense of heedless disorientation to the situation. Ultimately, in the moment, it’s less about Will and Alicia than it is representative of Alicia pushing back against what she’s supposed to be and trying something new. She may regret it or she may not–we’ll have to wait until next season to find out–but either way it’s darn good television.
Peter, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to go back to the way things were before he, in Alicia’s words, “banged a hooker 18 times” and got unjustly thrown in jail. And in fairness to him, he does appear to have changed, not only in regards to his feelings for Alicia, but also in the way that he views the District Attorney’s office–witness, for instance, the scene in the finale when he helps an innocent man get off at the expense of his predecessor’s legacy (not that he much cares for Childs, of course). His feelings for Alicia may well have changed in part because of all the ways she has changed in the wake of his betrayal. Unfortunately for him, those changes seem to have rendered her incapable of reciprocating those feelings. What hasn’t changed in Peter is his ambition, and it’s clear that he’s bought into his role as the redeemed politician that he used to win the DA election, which is why he seems genuinely surprised to discover that Alicia hasn’t entirely.
Of course, that image of the redeemed of politician is largely Eli’s creation, because that’s what he does. He is the architect of identities. He puts people into roles and then sells them to the public. This presents certain ethical dilemmas, as illustrated earlier in the season when he basically ruins an illegal immigrant’s life in service of getting Peter elected. Natalie was an innocent, but Eli knew the public would simply slot her into the role of illegal and vote against Wendy Scott-Carr on the basis that she hired her as a nanny.* Similarly, Eli wants to respect Alicia’s wishes because he likes and respects her, but nonetheless needs her to play the role of the good wife to achieve his and Peter’s political ambitions. In the final few episodes of the season, Alicia is ready to leave all that behind, but Eli successfully intrudes on that plan by bringing his consultation service under Lockhart Gardner’s umbrella in what is sure to be a central third season plot.
(*Eli would later save her, but the show was very careful to make clear the damaging, outright cruel toll the political and legal systems take on immigrants.)
Not that these ethical difficulties are limited to Eli or the world of politics, as they also show up constantly on the legal side of the show, where once again Alicia, Diane and Will are always trying to redefine their clients’ identity in the eyes of the jurors to make them see not a guilty person, but an innocent (or at least sympathetic) one. They do seem to honestly believe it’s important to defend the accused and to generally try to do the right thing. But they rarely defend clients for purely altruistic reasons. Generally speaking, they’re perfectly willing to ignore their personal ideals for the sake of their firm’s money, power and prestige (especially Will). Whether the people they defend are guilty or not is not their concern.
But as the show often points out (including in the finale), it’s not really the concern of the DA’s office either, which is more concerned with getting convictions and looking good in the eyes of the public than making sure justice is served. Carey might protest this description, given his stated reasons for leaving Lockhart Gardner for the DA’s office. Whether he would protest it privately is another question, as he was more than ready to return to Lockhart Gardner in return for the right employment package.
These are all characters who straddle the line between wanting to do the right thing and cynically doing their institutions bidding, in part for personal gain and in part because they believe their institution’s success is on the whole good for society. Politicians may be sniveling panderers and lawyers on both sides of the aisle may not have much interest in personal ethics, but the institutions they serve do work a lot of the time. But sometimes they don’t work, and as a result a lot of people fall between the cracks. But what, ultimately, is someone who’s caught up in these institutions supposed to do about it? The show ultimately doesn’t have an answer to that.
Kalinda is a fascinating character because she’s attempted to free herself from institutional and moral constraints. She sleeps with whoever she likes, man or woman, married or single. She works at her pleasure, not the firm’s. She didn’t like who she was, so she changed who she was. But this season has seen all of those attempts come crashing down. Achieving that kind of freedom requires cutting yourself off from emotional attachment. But over these two seasons, Kalinda has become close with Alicia. But in the past, before she knew her, Kalinda had slept with Peter. When Blake comes along and threatens to expose her old identity, it’s at least in part the possibility of Alicia discovering this secret that makes Kalinda so focused on ruining Blake. In the end, it does get out however, and ends up destroying their friendship. And when Kalinda tries to escape this situation by jumping to another company, that company ends up getting hired by the DA’s office, leaving Kalinda with the choice of working with Alicia or Peter, which isn’t really any kind of choice at all. Which is all to say, there are consequences to playing outside the bounds of polite society.
But figuring out how to live within it–or whether you want to live within it–is a challenge too. That’s where Grace’s arc has taken this season. It’s a very recognizable teenager storyline, but it fits perfectly within the show’s thematic fabric, because it’s all about growing self-aware and establishing an identity. When a Jewish lobbyist comes over for Passover, she questions his stance on Middle East policy. When her mother tells her they’re supposed to be trying to help Peter win the election, she asks why he would be a better DA than Wendy Scott-Carr. She develops religious ideas that flummox her nonreligious mother. She back on her school’s dress code by wearing an explicitly Christian T-shirt. In every case, she’s pushing up against what she believes her parents, her school, her society expect her to be, just as the adult characters do in more subtle ways.
At the risk of gender stereotyping, I think it’s also worth noting just how many of these significant characters (including the main character) are women. Most of the great modern television dramas (including The Wire) have been dominated my male characters, with strong female characters few and far between. They’ve also been dominated by male writers and creators. The Good Wife, on the other hand,is full of strong female characters and was co-created by a husband and wife team. It’s true that The Good Wife is a glossier, more upper-class-focused, network version of The Wire, but it’s also something like The Wire from a female perspective, focusing less on the hardness of institutions and more on the emotional lives of the people–and especially women–who live within them. This shows up not only in theme and plot and characters, but also in the show’s style of humor. Whereas The Wire derived laughter from McNulty’s wacky, drunken antics and general crassness, The Good Wife gets laughs out of talking lion telephone attachments. I don’t want to go too far with this, but I do think the show’s more feminine perspective is part of what makes it so good and refreshing.
As for the season as a whole, it’s probably clear at this point that I’m a huge fan. Not everything the show does works, of course. Kalinda’s storyline was neutered somewhat by Blake’s complete lack of characterization. The case of the week plots vary significantly in quality and are at times too on the nose, though that’s more or less bound to happen given the procedural format. And the writers sometimes drop story threads unexpectedly, apparently having written themselves into a corner or simply not having any idea what to do with them; the arc about the church politics in the middle of the season just sort of ended with no real conclusion, for example. But in no small way, the narrative messiness is in fitting with the messiness of the show’s world and characters. It’s a messiness borne of ambition, bursting at the seams, pushing in every instance at the bounds of its genre, like a slightly drunk couple spending $7,800 to do something they might regret in the morning, trying to carve out an identity for itself in the cold, hard business of network television.