The Good Wife, Season 6, Episode 4, “Oppo Research”
October 12, 2014, 10 PM (EST), CBS
This season is quickly shaping up to be about Alicia Florrick’s morality, or rather, he frequent lack of strong ethical convictions. Alicia spends less time thinking about “right” and “wrong” than she spends thinking about “convenient” and “inconvenient.” Bad things people do are often obstacles to their long term goals, and when Alicia conceives of morality, it frequently seems to be in those terms. There are things people should and shouldn’t do, in her mind, but not because they are inherently right or inherently wrong. Alicia Florrick is a pragmatist, a realist, a consequentialist. The law is her morality, not because she believes in its morality, but because she appreciates its clarity. It gives her something to work within.
“Oppo Research” is a phenomenal episode of The Good Wife, reminding us throughout that even though this is Alicia’s first campaign as candidate, she has long been a political animal. She thinks in terms of expediency and spin, she solves problems with reference to what the solution will look like rather than whether the problem will actually be fixed. Alicia doesn’t care that her mother spanked a kid in a department store. She cares that the story might get out.
The image of “Saint Alicia” is one that has been bandied about a lot in the lead up to her campaign, and will likely be thrown out more once she is officially running. It is a perception she carefully cultivates for the people around her. But that image, like much about her, is more focused on what it provides her than whether it resembles the truth. This season is quickly shaping up to be about Alicia’s creeping fear that there is no truth, that beneath the various masks she wears, behind all the spin she throws out, there is no core. It only comes out in brief moments here, like when Zach asks Alicia why she’s running and she snaps back “Have fun in college, Zach.” She’s angry, in part at least, because she doesn’t know the answer to that question, or, more accurately, hasn’t yet figured out how to spin the truth into something more palatable. The truth, I think, is that Alicia is running for State’s Attorney because it seems like the next step. She became a partner at Lockhart Gardner, then a named partner at Florrick Agos, and the clear next step up the ladder of success and prominence is public office. This is, ultimately, why a lot of politicians run for office (“most” might be accurate, but your mileage will vary with your idealism). But it isn’t the answer they give to that question. Alicia has the real answer. She just doesn’t have an answer she can sell yet.
One thing Alicia values, perhaps above all else is loyalty, but even this comes largely from her pain at a series of betrayals. She values loyalty because it is such a rare thing in her life. Peter was unfaithful, Kalinda was dishonest, and now Zach has lied to her (Alicia’s fury is not a result of Zach’s abortion, but rather his dishonesty). In this, she and Will were a good match. The funny thing about that, though, is that Alicia, who fears betrayal to the point that she has increasingly isolated herself from close friends, betrayed the one person in her life who valued loyalty as much as her. Of course, Will was no saint either, and his life was full of betrayals as well. But the question arises, then: how much does Alicia value loyalty if she is willing to discard it the moment it becomes inconvenient. Alicia seems to value others being loyal to her, but she is more ambivalent about the value of her being loyal to others. Loyalty is a tether, and Alicia likes to feel free. The law provides clarity, but it also provides plenty of wiggle room. Loyalty is tougher to bend, outside of her rationalizations about the reasons behind her betrayal. Alicia’s fury is righteous when she is betrayed. But that fury comes more from the image she projects. Saint Alicia could rightfully be as angry at betrayal as Alicia is. But Alicia’s anger comes, in part at least, from self-deception, from the idea that she’s been slighted in a way she would never slight someone else. Or perhaps from the idea that anyone would dare to slight her at all.
Morality in The Good Wife is entirely situational. But this season is asking the question of who decides the situation, and whether a morality as flexible and fact-dependent as the one these characters trade in is even morality at all. I’ve talked before about the show’s reticence to engage ethically as one of its strong points. Unlike The Sopranos, for example, The Good Wife isn’t interested in telling you how to feel about its heroes. It just displays them and lets you go from there. I greatly respect this about the show, but it also makes what is going on this season all the more interesting. Because The Good Wife is Alicia Florrick’s story. And while Alicia has tended to take this same detached, flexible view of morality in the past, she will be unable to do that on the campaign trail. Alicia may not be forced to actually develop a moral system, but she will be forced to appear to do so. It will be interesting to see whether the show mirrors Alicia on this journey.
If I have sounded hard on Alicia this week, it’s because I think “Oppo Research” is focused on some hard truths about her character. Alicia Florrick is an all-time great television character, and I love her to death. But the show is increasingly confronting some uncomfortable facts about its complex heroine. Alicia isn’t without some sense of morals—she feels bad when she finds out Lemond Bishop is behind her PAC, even though he is careful enough that will not be likely to get out—but she has no idea what her morals are, and is unwilling to admit that they may, in part, be drawn up conveniently to benefit her. Alicia lets herself off the hook with rationalizations, but she is fiercely black and white when it comes to the actions of others. When she views her own actions, Alicia Florrick is a lawyer, finding loopholes and crafting arguments in support of her argument (Alicia actually might compare to Walter White in terms of her ability to rationalize away anything she does, though obviously that’s a lower bar for someone who isn’t a murderous drug kingpin). But when she looks at the actions of others, she passes judgment as if she was, in fact, Saint Alicia. This dichotomy is only going to become starker as we enter the campaign storyline. Alicia Florrick is going to have to ask some questions she doesn’t have answers to. And the more she searches for answers that sound plausible, the more she will be forced to contend with the fact that, deep down, the truth is relative for her. She may learn to live with that, especially since it serves her very well. But she may also find that she needs answers that don’t just sound good. She needs to know why she is running. She needs to know what she wants. She needs to know who she is and what she stands for. And she may be about to find out.
- “Alicia, things just move faster today. They just do.”
- “I just don’t think it lasts. Good news tends not to last.”
- “Irony is dead now. You’re campaigning.”
- “It doesn’t seem like there’s time to reserve judgment.” “And yet here
I am, reserving it.”
- “I’m not your superhero, Mr. Elfman. You want to go find someone to
restore your faith in humanity, don’t waste my time. Or yours.”
- “Why’d you get into law?” “I like clarity. I like rules that tell me
what’s right, and wrong.” “And you wanted to help people with those
rules?” “No. I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I just wanted to be
inside something that made sense to me. I never thought about…”
“People?” “Yeah.” “Maybe don’t put that in a stump speech.”
- “It’s the affair with the married man that’s most important.” “And
the… Bare backed gay porn.” “Yeah…and the porn.”
- “Christianity 3, Atheism 0.”
- I love the Darkness at Noon jokes for their willingness to be completely non-specific. At first, it felt like a strained satire of Low Winter Sun, but it has quickly expanded to encapsulate True Detective and Hannibal as well as AMC’s post-show tendency to talk its art to death. Increasingly, Darkness at Noon is the show’s way to mock a pervasive strain of television that it is very much not a part of. I like this, even if not all of the jokes land because of its vague, shifting targets.
“Oppo Research” is a phenomenal episode of The Good Wife, reminding us throughout that even though this is Alicia’s first campaign as candidate, she has long been a political animal.