I have been watching The Good Wife in real time for about a year and a half now, after a breathless catch-up binge after the epic fifth season. Last year, season six, brought a few episodes that punched you in the gut. But in the chaotic, farcical season seven—which turned Alicia’s children into little adults, reduced her love life to a mere smirking flirtation with her investigator, and separated her almost entirely from any storylines with the colleagues that once brought out the best in her, Cary and Diane—I haven’t been able to finish an episode and say to myself, “That was so fucking good.”
Eli and Alicia
If you’ll recall, and I’m sure you will, the most recent episode ended with Eli finally revealing to Alicia the secret he’s carried, often without any external signs of guilt, for almost six years: the voicemail from Will. I won’t quibble by pointing out that Will never said anything about “giving up everything” to be with Alicia (OK—I guess I am quibbling). But the point is, it was the most romantic voicemail any person has ever left any other person, and Eli deleted it, and before Alicia found that out, Will was dead.
Alicia reacts to this with predictable heartbreak and a rather unpredictable but exhilarating episode of plate-throwing. After she throws Eli out and gives in to an agonized emotional outburst, Jason shows up with one last piece of information and a good-bye, but Alicia’s too wrecked to enjoy the twinkling eyes of her investigator, and sends him on his way with equanimity.
The next day she’s off to Iowa with Peter; Ruth; the disgraced Eli; and her children, the raison d’etre of every lie she’s ever told. (Plus David Krumholtz, who has recurringly played some sort of political social media expert and has a few negligibly relevant squabbles with Ruth over campaign strategy.) Alicia’s donned a pair of sunglasses and some earbuds, and has an indomitable aura of anger and brittle defensiveness and exhilaration all bundled up into one incredibly muscular, sharp-boned package. Eli tries to apologize a few times, but Alicia drowns him out with her new favorite song, which is blaring into her headphones: No one’s more happy than you.
Meanwhile, Ruth manages to pierce Alicia’s defensiveness by somehow recognizing everything that’s going on without being threatened by it. (Isn’t that always Eli’s flaw? He thinks he’s all business, but he takes everything so personally that the least misstep from his beloved candidate is a betrayal.) She and Alicia have several conversations, many of them closer to honest than Alicia’s been in the entire seven years we’ve known her.
There was a boy at Georgetown who loved me, Alicia tells Ruth.
I wish I had said yes, she tells her.
They have a conversation about fate, with Ruth advocating for the idea that no choice matters, that each person’s fate is marked out for them. It’s mostly sophistry on Ruth’s part (I have a section about this at the end). But by the end of the episode, Ruth does seem to have injected some measure of resignation into Alicia’s anger.
Campaign-wise, Peter is trying to get second place in order to be viable as Hillary Clinton’s running mate for the presidency. So the team’s in Iowa trying to complete the “Full Grassley” (which is misnamed the “Full Monty” by the hapless reporter Ruth’s brought in), by visiting every county in Iowa by some ambitious deadline. In every county, Peter has to eat a “loose meat sandwich.” He apparently finds this about as appetizing as the rest of us, and ends up spitting the third one of the day out into a napkin. The entire state of Iowa decides this is unpresidential, and they’re not happy about the conversation surreptitiously released onto Youtube either: Eli sits next to Alicia and pleads for her to listen to him, that watching her like this is “a nightmare.” Alicia retorts that the nightmare is being in Iowa when she could be home.
Ruth solves this by convincing Alicia to apologize on camera for her comments by saying that Grace has a cold and pleading the good mother defense. Alicia agrees stonily—but completes the apology with gusto, in a way that might easily convince a casual watcher but is apparently, extraordinarily sarcastic to someone acquainted with her mannerisms. She even mentions the kitchen, in a last ironic twist of the knife.
At the caucus, The Good Wife dives into one of its favorite storytelling tropes: every character is finding out the intricate, abstruse, and absurd rules of some new, obscure system. In this case, it’s that the caucus voters vote in person, and after 30 minutes, every candidate who doesn’t have 29 people standing physically at his or her table will be eliminated. There are some shenanigans trying to win the votes of a blonde, toothy “youth minister” who may or may not have a crush on Grace Florrick, but the same character who once embarrassed Peter’s governor campaign with an overly enthusiastic “viral” video is able to rally dozens of supporters to Peter’s side. Still, though he is viable, he loses the election itself, with just four votes compared to 17 for the third-place runner, Martin O’Malley – who is apparently a real human who is really running against Clinton and Sanders, which, good luck buddy, your friendly and reasonably news-literate recapper thought you were fictional until she googled it, so.
That night, Peter sits alone in the back of the bus, looking weary and dejected. Alicia, taking pity on him, goes up to him and pulls him into an embrace, with him leaning his head on her stomach as she stands before him. But she’s staring off into the distance—and in her head, on the soundtrack, that interminable song is still playing.
No one’s more happy than you.
Jackie and Howard
Lucca and David Lee face each other over Howard Lyman’s pre-nup with Jackie Florrick. Somehow, Howard Lyman becomes almost endearing. Jason’s investigative work (“You flirt with everyone,” Lucca chides him when she realizes he’s gone off to California and her sketchy so-called partner neglected to even mention that to Lucca—do those two have a history we don’t yet know about?) turns up over two million dollars that Howard didn’t reveal in the first draft of the prenup.
But it turns out that Howard’s not trying to keep anything from Jackie. David Lee created a shell company in his name while trying to hide money from Alicia two years ago, when she left Lockhart Gardner as an equity partner.
“You committed fraud,” Diane exclaims.
“No, I committed… selective depositing,” David says.
Lawyers: you gotta love ’em.
Anyway, exhorted to fix the issue by Diane and Cary, David tells Howard a slimy half-truth about the money, trying to get him to lie about it for a mere ten thousand dollars. Howard still has enough lights on upstairs to figure out that if David deposited the money in Howard’s name, David has no rights to it—so no way is he going to play along for just ten thousand. But once they land on a price, Howard plays along, trying to convince Jackie that he just forgot about a couple mil, no big thing.
Jackie manages to best him in the battle of wits without even knowing she’s in one: she decides he’s senile and demands full power of attorney in the prenup. This puts a damper on the negotiations for awhile, but Jason saves the day by discovering that David Lee made the deposits.
Jackie is too relieved that Howard’s not senile to ask many questions. Plus, with Peter losing the election in Iowa, she doesn’t really need a prenup. Instead she goes into Howard’s office for a cute cuddling session (I’m shocked to be using that word in connection to Jackie or Howard, but there you are). “I hope we have some time together,” she says.
They close their eyes and lean their heads together, and Howard says sweetly, “We will. Promise.”
If the Kings were any other pair of writers, this would almost certainly mean Howard is going to die in a Very Special Episode come February sweeps. But I have faith that they wouldn’t hint such an event to us quite so brazenly.
Cary and Diane
But we aren’t going to sympathize with Howard entirely, even when he’s at the mercy of various much sharper and more cunning figures, from Jackie to David.
It turns out Monica called the EEOC when she was rejected for the job, and even though she withdrew the complaint when she got hired, it’s too late: Lockhart Agos Lee (is that the name now?) is under investigation by FEPA, which shares information with them. It’s worth noting it is totally illegal for Cary and Diane to ask her if she filed a complaint, but Monica points this out with a smile and then pretty quickly gives in and admits to it. Without apologizing, because why should she?
It’s one of the first times the show has given us a deeper sense of her character than the sketchy outline presented of a millennial social justice warrior and ambitious overachiever. A few more shades start to fill in now: she seems to have made her peace with being the woman who has to educate everyone else about race, and she’s saving her battles for that (which, as we’ve seen, might be a long slog). So she’s a curious balance of fierce idealism—she will fight racism when she sees it—and pragmatism—if she has managed to benefit in the current system, she’ll educate from within, and she will even learn to like the people she’s educating. But she won’t apologize for standing up for herself. (That part we knew already!)
Diane blames it on Cary’s remark that they don’t hire “people like Monica,” which to be absolutely fair to Cary was clearly intended to be about her educational background rather than her race—even if in practice it ends up being racist because the educational backgrounds Cary does like are so much more available to white people. Cary, of course, blames it on Howard. He agrees to apologize under Diane’s pressure, but as soon as they have the investigator in the room he pulls an impressively Will-like maneuver by double-crossing Diane and announcing on the spur of the moment that they’re going to be forcing Howard to take emeritus status.
Diane is angry, which I don’t 100% get: why would she want Howard around? He is a racist, a sexual harrasser, and generally not the shiniest plate in the china cabinet, in terms of actual lawyering. She thinks Cary used this to get his way. Which, he did. But that’s always been how things are done in their world. They say they’re partners, but as soon as they disagree they become fierce enemies. Cary is acting as Will taught him—and Will, presumably, was acting as Jonah and Diane taught him.
Culpability, Fate, and Responsibility: Some Thoughts
Throughout the episode, in many little side conversations about “first loves,” Ruth tries to wrangle Alicia. What she’s wrangling her into, I can’t quite parse. It’s not exactly to wrangle her into playing the good wife, because in fact, Alicia is already on board with that. I think, in fact, she’s trying to wrangle her into acting less, well, terrifying. Less Glenn Close on the warpath, which is the vibe she’s giving off with those sunglasses.
One conversation they have is particularly irritating on Ruth’s part, and I’m going to delve into near-tiresome depths in analyzing it, so I’ve transcribed it below:
Alicia: Do you think you could ever be happy? If you had taken a left instead of a right, or went up instead of down… you would have been happy?
Ruth: You can’t control fate. It’s in your genes. You can’t change that.
Alicia: So whatever I do, whatever I did, I’d end up right back here?
Ruth: Well maybe not here, but someplace like here. Whatever you think you could have changed in your life, or in his, you couldn’t have.
I found this irritating because, first of all, the argument that a person’s choices don’t change fate seems almost philosophically incompatible with rational ethical thought. But on a craft level, Ruth’s argument takes away from the impact of this event by adding the distraction of a nearly irrelevant perspective on what’s going on.
On some level, it’s absolutely true that Alicia would have ended up “someplace like here” no matter if she’d gone off with Will or not. But not because there is some fate in her genes. It’s because of her tragic flaw, that one great failure of character that lies behind the plot of a tragedy. (To be clear, I don’t see The Good Wife as a tragedy overall, but I think the tragic flaw is a useful concept for analyzing, at least, Alicia’s love life.)
In Alicia’s case, the flaw is her staunch refusal to consider any option beyond whatever narrow path she has set her feet upon. At any moment, she might have been happy if she had decided she had the same claim to self-determination that Peter, that Grace, that Zach, that her mother and Will and Diane and almost every other character, have always had. But at every step she flinched away from it as some betrayal of the role she’d taken on: Mother. Wife. Dutiful.
And I don’t think it is merely a matter of having failed to see herself as equal to others. She also deliberately (if not consciously) has used her role as a way of avoiding the immense responsibility of existential freedom, on the level that Simone de Beauvoir demanded for women. Instead of facing that burden, she takes on so much responsibility in unnecessary areas that she can convince herself freedom is impossible. Does anyone even find it convincing that Grace and Zach were better off living with two parents who they were both perfectly aware were out of love and lying about it? Does anyone think Alicia helped anyone other than the undeserving Peter, and herself, by playing the good wife for all those years, by turning Will away, by lying over and over about who she was and what she wanted?
And similarly, to blame Eli for this, as Alicia’s clearly doing, is essentially another abnegation of responsibility. I believe part of her devastation comes from facing the fact that she loved Will and did close to nothing about it; it’s not Eli’s fault, this information just confirms that if she had snatched at her chance, she’d have found Will waiting for her reaching hand. She already knew, somewhere deep down, that she had refused ever to snatch at her chance.
But Eli also fails to see the full tragedy of Alicia’s plight, in a different way than Ruth. It’s interesting that Eli’s guilt about sending Jason away was part of the motivation behind his confession to Alicia. He thinks, I will not make her unhappy again. He thinks, If I tell her this and she goes to Jason, I will be expiated. But Eli doesn’t realize, or doesn’t want to realize, that what’s happening between her and Jason is on an entirely different and much smaller scale than what happened between her and Will. Reopening the great wound that is her loss of Will makes Jason borderline irrelevant to Alicia.
That’s what the Will-Alicia tragedy was about (see the Kings on this topic, “the tragedy of bad timing”), and on a larger picture, that is what Alicia’s self-abnegation means: she doesn’t merely deny her desires until she feels she deserves them, as, for example, “I can have sex with the nearest interested man now because Peter has had X other affairs.” She denies her desires until it is too late. And there is no bargaining, no amelioration, when something is too late. It’s a quantized thing; you either are not too late—or you are, and it’s a permanent state.
Eli’s essential optimism doesn’t allow him to think, “I have destroyed her chances of happiness forever” (and as I’ve argued, it’s not really Eli who did it at all; Alicia had plenty of other chances to grasp at her own happiness). But Alicia’s grimmer outlook on life, as fittingly represented by her dark shades, lets her see the truth: there was a moment in which she might have been happy, and it is now permanently gone.
She is unhappy not because it’s in her genes, but because she chose it: because given the choice, she will always choose the most constricted, self-punishing life.
Oh, God. I was so invested in the Will/Alicia relationship, heartbroken that she ended it and then inconsolable when he died – I’m still not over it. Reading your thoughts on culpability, fate and responsibility really struck a chord with me. I would disagree a little in that I think Eli does bear a good portion of the blame – to my mind, not hearing the voicemail gave Alicia an additional excuse to justify giving Will up at the time by thinking Will wasn’t going to commit to her anyway, whereas if she’d heard it at the time, she couldn’t have pretended otherwise and her choice would have been a lot less easily made. But you are so, so right about Alicia’s defining, tragic flaw, and how her choices have sabotaged her happiness (and ours!) throughout. Sob. This whole storyline has reopened MY “loss of Will” wound as well.
Thanks for reading! I love to hear that people have thoughts about this topic of fate and responsibility because it was such a thought-provoking episode. When you say “not hearing the voicemail gave Alicia an additional excuse to justify giving Will up at the time by thinking Will wasn’t going to commit to her anyway,” I definitely agree that if Eli hadn’t done it, then that might have been the one little thing that tipped Alicia in the other direction, and he’ll rightly regret it forever! But she *was* looking for excuses to give Will up, because she was afraid — and without Eli, I personally suspect she’d have found another.