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How one scene changed The Good Wife’s fortunes

For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our  readers’ poll. 

Myles McNutt: It would be easy to look at the conclusion of The Good Wife’s fourth season as the “moment where everything changed.” When it was revealed that Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) was the one at Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) front door, it set the show on a whirlwind path that would carry into an almost impossibly good start to its fifth season, cementing its status as one of television’s finest dramas.

But how much did The Good Wife really change in that moment? Although the splitting of Lockhart and Gardner is one of the most dramatic shifts in the series’ ongoing narrative arc, what was so compelling about it was how consistent it was with the show’s goals to that point. Alicia’s decision represented the collision of her romantic relationship with ex-lover Will Gardner, her evolving relationship with husband Peter, and her professional goals and desires that need not be exclusively tied to the fate of her love life. When the series began, it asked the question of who Alicia was in the wake of her husband’s infidelity. When Alicia made that phone call to Cary, she was answering a similar question, now inflected with four seasons’ worth of character development.

The Good Wife has had a touch-and-go relationship with serial storylines playing out alongside its cases-of-the-week, with 2012 marked by the abject failure of Kalinda Sharma’s husband and 2013 on thin ice with question marks like Jason O’Mara’s Damian or Melissa George’s Marilyn. Through all these hiccups, however, Alicia’s central arc and the series’ episodic storytelling have remained an exemplary case of how procedurals can accumulate a sense of history and purpose without abandoning their basic structure. Alicia’s decision was not about wiping the slate clean, but rather about the show stepping up, acknowledging its complicated past, and committing to following through on the chaos Alicia’s decision would create.

The fifth season hasn’t backed away from that chaos, living in the mess of Florrick/Agos and Lockhart/Gardner’s co-existence and finding a new status quo amid the uncertainty. The show hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been ambitious, and has shown a seemingly endless capacity for moments pregnant with meaning. Alicia’s decision was the first of such moments, but it ushered in an era of the show where such moments have become the rule, rather than the exception. 

What defines that era for you, Phil?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’ve always loved the way this show uses both sex and career ambition to keep its pot boiling. They’re the twin battlefields that Alicia returned to when she dusted off her law license in the wake of her estrangement from her husband, and some of the show’s most exciting moments have come when it had flare-ups on both fronts. I think that even the Kalinda’s-husband-from-Hell storyline almost worked when it was restricted to the law offices. When he was a secret that Kalinda was keeping from her employers and a potential threat to her livelihood, there was something simmering there. It thinned out quickly when they were out in civilian life and he was a possible threat to her life. 

Part of what makes that season finale feel so emblematic of the series is the way it brings the two together, in a ticklish, teasing way that tops even those scenes of Alicia and Will polishing the furnishings at Lockhart/Gardner with each other’s butts. The series shows Alicia stewing in her own dissatisfactions, strings viewers along with the possibility that she’s inviting Will over to resume their affair, and then, when it turns out that she’s plotting rebellion with Cary, it practically whispers, “There. Isn’t this sexier?”

I’m in awe of the way this show just blows itself up every so often, then puts the pieces back together. My recollection is that it was not one of the greatly anticipated new shows of the fall 2009 season, but for four years now, it’s been a great example of a network show refusing to calcify and settle into formula. There was a scene in a recent episode where Robin came to Kalinda to beg for her old job back, and Kalinda instead counseled her to make herself invaluable to her new bosses; it was what Kalinda had to do herself, and she tells Robin, “Losing a job changes you.” That line could be on this show’s coat of arms. 

The whole point of becoming a successful network drama used to be to find a cozy rut and serve up a flavor of boring repetitiveness that the viewers seemed to like getting; that and a good time slot could keep you on the air for 10 years. The Good Wife has found a way to stay alive and charged in a changing TV landscape by remaining in a near-constant state of evolution. Do you find this as arousing as I do, Myles? Or am I just being a perv?

MM: There is undoubtedly something thrilling about The Good Wife, a term I doubt anyone who’s never seen the show could imagine describing the series, based on its basic premise.

What changed this year, for me at least, was that the show’s most thrilling elements have been in big scenes in addition to small ones. Last year, as you note, the show tried to use Kalinda as a source of aggressive sexuality and “edge,” but The Good Wife has always been at its most electric when it shows Alicia hesitating for just that split second as she leaves Will’s office after finishing a case or when Kalinda and Alicia share a brief moment of silence as they reflect on their messy relationship, one that the show has largely put on the backburner this year, building more tension to be played out in future silences.

By committing to Alicia’s split from Lockhart-Gardner, The Good Wife risked losing the small-scale thrills of characters interacting in the workplace amid the full-out war between two competing firms, but the writers have managed the balancing act well. For as much as the show has committed to “game-changing” twists that reinvigorate the series and reached new, thrilling heights in the process, the buildup and fallout from Alicia’s decision have primarily focused on how this new landscape adds to—rather than replaces—the series’ small-scale thrills. For as much as you’re right that the show has blown itself up, Phil, that core remains, stronger than ever.

PDN: It’s exciting to see a show that offers the kind of narrative pleasures and the satisfactions of checking in with favorite characters week after week, but that manages to keep surprising you.

Some other ambitious shows that have been on for a while now have tried to do it by adding greater levels of mystery to their storylines, in the hope that people will spend hours on the Internet just trying to figure out what the hell is really going on, or through escalating levels of violence and brutality, until every new outrage visited on the characters—and the viewers’ eyeballs—seems to count for a little less than the last one. This show does it through smart writing and by finding new areas of the characters for the writers to explore, and it does it as brilliantly as any series I know of since The Wire.

When it started, it was basically about a woman heading into middle age trying to navigate a law career, and that’s for the most part what it’s still about. But I have less of an idea about where it’ll be in five months than any other show I follow religiously. On that level, it’s more surprising from week to week than even Sleepy Hollow might be on its weirdest night. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.