The Good Wife, Season 6, Episode 10, “The Trial”
November 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), CBS
There’s an old legal adage that a case can often turn on what the judge ate for lunch. On the surface it reads as cynical, crassly undermining the idea that our ideal of impartiality is lived up to on the ground. But there’s a realism to it that cannot be denied. Tiny factors can alter the course of a case in a second. The smallest things can come along and knock our lives out of orbit entirely. Terrifyingly little of what happens to us on any given day is really in our control, and a lot of it may not even be in the control of the people we think it is. In “The Trial,” so much depends upon a pair of Neil Diamond tickets, on an affair between an AUSA and a narcotics officer, on a sympathetic juror with an auditory processing disorder. And yet, ultimately, it all comes down to Cary, who seizes back control of his life by refusing to make the easy choice.
In its early going, “The Trial” feels like one of The Good Wife’s gimmick episodes, putting us into the minds of Judge Cuesta (David Paymer, still as entertaining as ever), Geneva Pine, and Juror Number 11, showing us how each of these people’s lives bleed into the courtroom and how their problems are magnified by the significance of the roles they play. That gimmick fades away as the episode continues, or perhaps to be more apt, it is subsumed, as Cary Agos’ problems are pushed to the forefront. Judge Cuesta needs concert tickets for his anniversary. Geneva Pine needs to end her affair. Juror Number 11 needs some better coping mechanisms. But Cary Agos could be spending 15 years in prison. The stakes of what he faces dwarf these other problems, but not, for the most part, to the people who are dealing with them. The story of Cary’s trial has consistently played with the distance these characters generally feel from the consequences of their actions, and how Cary reacts as that gap is closed. Geneva is under pressure to win a case. Cary is under pressure to retain his freedom. This show has focused on the former as a source of stress and drama far more often, but it is the latter that lends real weight to the courtroom proceedings we watch each week.
Cary’s ongoing nightmare has probably taken things a little bit too far into parade of horribles territory, but the slowing accreting sense of inevitability that has built up behind it has been as frustrating to watch as it is intended to be. Cary loses that righteous fury that has been driving him tonight as he sees another outside the court dynamic dashing his chances at exoneration. Kalinda threatens Lemond Bishop (the show is really setting up Kalinda to get killed when Archie Panjabi exits the series at the end of the season, which I think would be a bad call) to get him to reveal the location of the last living witness that can testify that the wire was edited, and Bishop responds by instructing said witness to lie on the stand in a show of power. Bishop isn’t trying to hurt Cary here; in fact, he’s happy to offer Cary a ticket out of the country and a high paying job in Barcelona (is that still open, Lemond? Call my people) soon afterwards. He just sees Cary, in that moment, as little more than a pawn in his game against Kalinda, a way to show her that he will not be pushed around by anybody.
While all of this happens, Alicia deals with more campaign wackiness after a note she wrote threatening to stab a teacher and let him bleed out is revealed. This would be funny enough as filler if it didn’t strike me as weirdly out of character. It isn’t odd for Alicia to have a dark sense of humor, and her guilty-pleasure viewing of Darkness at Noon is well established, but her writing the note feels careless, even by pre-campaign standards. Alicia is many things, but one of those is incredibly pragmatic, and the show would have benefitted from a little more work in showing how this was a huge lapse in judgment or momentary carelessness. Instead, its just a thing that happens because the show needs a campaign story even when it has bigger fish to fry.
It does work to contrast Alicia and Cary, though, both in that she is dealing with a hugely frivolous problem while his life is falling apart, and in how they choose to approach them. Cary’s choice is starker: get on a plane, fight to prove his innocence, or take the plea. Cary refuses to run and is tired of fighting, so he does the thing he thinks is best and pleads guilty. Alicia’s choice is more interesting (query whether this is a comment on how the show spends its time focused on the trifles of the powerful instead of the much larger stakes of their clients, or just a side-effect of Alicia being a way more fascinating and nuanced character): she does not choose to leak the dirt on Prady, nor to give patronage to the teachers, but she doesn’t stop those things from happening, either.
In a season where Alicia keeps trying to act ethically while her campaign managers try to convince her she must only appear to be ethical, I am interested in how much Alicia is deluding herself, convinced of her own righteousness when in reality, she is just exceedingly good at keeping her hands from being dirty. I don’t believe for a second that she didn’t know Eli and Johnny would leak the dirt, and she doesn’t fire them or even reprimand them for doing it. She wants to run a clean campaign, but running a dirty one is much more convenient. And while she isn’t actively encouraging misdeeds, cheap tricks, or small acts of corruption, she isn’t doing a whole lot to stop them either. We’ve seen Alicia put her foot down before, and when she does, people fall in line. But here, she is projecting an image of herself as an upstanding candidate without doing all that much to ensure that her campaign comes anywhere near her ideals. Is it pragmatic? Absolutely. But is it the best she could be doing? Is Alicia Florrick taking the world as she finds it, running a campaign that can win while figuring out how to sleep at night? Or is she deluding herself into thinking she’s doing the right thing, when in fact she’s only keeping up appearances?
“The Trial” is a momentous episode of The Good Wife that doesn’t always carry the weight that it should. Its early gimmicks make some good points, and its frothy subplot raises interesting questions, but these two things combined means not enough time is spent with Cary as he gets to his darkest point of the season so far. Perhaps that’s the point, though. We’ve spent time building to this. We’ve seen Cary worn down. And The Good Wife is a show about all those little problems that seem so big for the characters they drown out the titanic stakes of their jobs. These are litigators whose work often means fighting over someone’s life. A win for the prosecution tears someone’s life to pieces. A win for the defense might help to put it back together. But its hard to keep focus on the lives hanging in the balance when there’s just so much noise going on in your own life. There are tickets you should’ve bought and notes you shouldn’t have written. There are kisses you wish you could take back, and some you just keep waiting to happen. There’s that sandwich you had for lunch, and it isn’t sitting too well.
- “This is not carrot. This is…berry or something.”
- “Oh god, this is a nightmare. The only bad people to have in your life are teachers. I trust assassins over teachers.”
- “I need to stop joking.” “They need to get a sense of humor.”
- “So we’re right back where we started.” “No. We’re even in the polls now.”
- “You know…ethics.”
- “Don’t go to jail for four years because of a law firm.”
In “The Trial,” so much depends upon a pair of Neil Diamond tickets, on an affair between an AUSA and a narcotics officer, on a sympathetic juror with an auditory processing disorder.