September 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), CBS
The Good Wife is a show about crisis management. It’s a show about how people handle themselves when everything is out of their control, how they approach problems that seem completely intractable. In both their personal and their professional lives, the characters on this show are constantly challenged, pushed to solve problems they were never prepared to deal with, forced to come up against their limits and just keep pushing or crumble under the pressure.
“The Line” literalizes this idea in its opening minutes, as Cary is arrested and imprisoned, becoming a victim of the system he fights against or helps to perpetrate, depending on what is convenient or advantageous in the moment. The episode immediately sets about putting the band back together, as the various tensions and recriminations between Alicia, Cary, Diane, and Kalinda are all set aside in favor of getting Cary out of a bad situation as soon as possible. This process elides the bumpy process of putting various relationships back together that the show can often excel at, but it does so for reasons that are understandable: The Good Wife has been gone all summer, and its both comforting and invigorating to see all of our friends teaming up to solve problems and get themselves out of a bad situation.
In some ways, Cary Agos is slotting into a story where Will Gardner realistically belongs. The idea that Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda would rally around Will is more immediately obvious than that they would rush to Cary’s defense, which hurts “The Line” slightly. Cary has always occupied an interesting position within the show, in that he is the man who never quite fits. He didn’t fit at Lockhart Gardner, so he went to the State’s Attorney. He didn’t quite fit there, so he went back to Lockhart Gardner. He didn’t fit there again, so he started his own firm, where he is ill-at-ease in the role of named partner. Part of this is the show’s never knowing exactly what to do with Matt Czuchry, but it is also baked into the character. Cary didn’t fit in his family, he doesn’t fit in his relationship with Kalinda, and he barely fits into the partnership he built for himself. Cary is an outsider. Its what makes him hungry. Its what gives him an advantage in the courtroom. It’s what makes him a fascinating character, even on a show that very rarely recognizes his full potential. The way the characters interact with Cary and the problem he currently presents this episode feels a tad idealized, but the story of Cary being sent to prison on charges of colluding with Lemond Bishop feels like an excellent direction to take the character. Cary is now an outsider in a system he is very familiar with. He’s become an outsider in his own life.
All of this comes from the ticking time bomb that is Lemond Bishop. Throughout the series, Bishop has always been less of a character than a symbol, a periodic reminder of the moral sacrifices these characters are required to make, and of their modulating levels of comfort with making them. Bishop shows up when The Good Wife needs some of its characters to do something bad, to be pushed right up against their ethical lines, and forced to contemplate what it would take for them to cross those lines, and what they might look like on the other side. After years of Lemond Bishop existing at the fringes of this show, appearing occasionally with troubling legal issues to be resolved in slightly unconventional ways, it appears things are finally heating up. The costs of representing Bishop, of climbing into bed with a drug dealer in exchange for his blood money, are finally becoming clear.
The episode reminds us periodically that the antagonists in a situation like this are, in fact, the good guys. It probably hits the point a little too finely by having Finn Polmar, white knight and defender of all that is good and just in the world, acting as prosecutor, but Finn has a point when he tells Alicia that he isn’t trying to screw her or Cary—he’s trying to shut down the operation of the biggest drug dealer in Chicago. He isn’t trying to score cheap points; Finn is playing to win in a game we would want him invested in. He’s the good guy here, even if he is pulling some pretty irritating tricks to score his point. But if Finn is the good guy, what does that make Alicia? That’s the sort of question I hope to see her grappling with over the weeks to come.
The morality of The Good Wife is always complicated by the fact that all of its characters are deeply calculating people engaged in often amoral professions. The law and politics are both, in their ideal form, deeply moral fields. Both are, in theory, about fighting to make the world a better place. But in practice, they are all too often about calculations, tabulations, scheming for an upper hand that can be exploited. The show itself tends to be fairly reserved about the choices its characters make. It isn’t burdened by the Catholic guilt of The Sopranos nor burgeoned by the “ends justify the means” morality of Game of Thrones. This is a show that plays its cards close to the vest. It leaves its characters, and the viewers, alone with the choices that have been made, to contemplate the effect those choices will have on their lives, their careers, and their souls. In this sense, the show matches Alicia’s avowed atheism. The Good Wife exists in a world where all of the apparent rules can be bent or broken, where a loophole can be found or a weak gatekeeper exploited. It exists in a world where morality is inherently personal, where all you have is the choices you make. Others may have to live with the consequences, but only you are fully aware of the calculus you made. Only you know the compromises you entered into, and what you got in return.
What does matter on this show is power. “The Line” returns again and again to the role that power plays in our lives, to the way the powerful can glibly, thoughtlessly ruin everything around them. Watch as the Detective refuses Cary his call for no real reason beyond the fact that he can. Look at Peter as he chuckles off the effect he may be having on his intern, or the idea that this might be something that he should be worried about. Listen as the judge (Fred Melamed, who I hope returns, if only because he can be deeply funny when given the chance) coldly dispenses his rulings, without much bothering to see whether the opposing arguments might have merit. See the look of dark glee on Eli’s face when he knows he has outsmarted the other players in the game, when he’s played his hand just perfectly to get what he wants. The show underlines this constantly by showing us the effect it has on Cary. Normally, a loss at a bail hearing is a bad day at the office for the partners of Florrick Agos. But this time, it means Cary is going back to prison. Of course, it always means that. It’s just taken Cary a whole lot to begin to realize that. The stakes of the game are becoming clearer to him. The grotesqueries of treating it thusly are revealed as well.
“The Line” asks us just where, exactly, that streak in the sand might fall for these various characters, and hints that it might be much further than they are comfortable with. Alicia takes Lemond Bishop’s money, not because she’s comfortable with it, but because she’s more comfortable with that than with taking a second mortgage on her condo. Kalinda backs off on investigating Bishop’s crew, but then blackmails a woman who saved her from arrest for little more than a lead. Other Cary wants to help his jailed colleague out, but he has rent to pay. Alicia coyly tells Finn she hopes this conflict won’t ruin their friendship, but she never really pauses to ask what might. On The Good Wife, people do their jobs, usually without asking the difficult questions if they can avoid them. They grab for power because power breeds convenience; power lets you dictate the compromises your willing to make. They manage crises, but they rarely, if ever, take the time to actually tally the cost. There’s a reckoning coming for all of them, not in a biblical sense, but in a personal one. The price of the choices they have made is becoming increasingly obvious. The only question left is what choices they’ll make next, and whether those choices will allow them to go to sleep at night knowing they’ve done something good.
- The Good Wife continues to be a breeding ground for my favorite potential spin-offs on television. This week: Eli and his daughter (Sarah Steele) opening up their own consulting firm, and David Lee and Louis Canning doing, well, anything together. Maybe baking. Or fishing. Or scheming to take over a bunch of different law firms.
- “This is harassment!” “Nah, its worse. Its inefficiency.”
- “We’re saving money.” “I thought Chicago was corrupt. Can’t you just steal more?”
- “I want to learn your job.”