With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They’re might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
The Good Wife never has a “previously on.” It’s hard to believe: The carefully curated clip reel at the opening of an episode is the way serialized dramas have gotten their audience up to speed for the episode to follow since time immemorial (or at least, since soap operas started doing it). The Good Wife just doesn’t have them. There are no carefully selected clips foreshadowing a confrontation between Will and Alicia. There is no non-diegetic narration from Julianna Margulies or Josh Charles or Christine Baranski reminding us that they exist outside of the show. Where other networks have responded to heavily serialized drama by making pre-episode recaps longer and longer, The Good Wife has handled the increasingly unwieldy form by getting rid of it entirely.
It’s a move that characterizes The Good Wife in a nutshell: a network drama stripped of network foibles. Five seasons and 112 episodes in, The Good Wife embraces the ensemble casts and procedural elements that make network hits, but is also steadfastly interested in flouting conventions that don’t suit the show. Showrunners Robert and Michelle King give the impression that no detail on The Good Wife is unconsidered. Leaving off the “previously on” is just one detail of many.
Another one is the title sequence. The show doesn’t even bother with opening credits that introduce characters one by one in their regular contexts, so that new viewers can get their bearings. There is no syrupy montage where Julianna Margulies is Alicia Florrick—hugging her kids, posing with her husband, talking businesslike on a phone while walking quickly, and exchanging longing glances with Josh Charles, who is Will Gardner—passionately defending a client, kissing Alicia in an elevator, smiling with his hands in his pockets, and clinking a champagne flute with Christine Baranski, who is Diane Lockhart—you get the idea.
Instead, devoid of the “previously on” and establishing titles, new viewers tuning in on Sunday night at 9 p.m. are plunged into a world of labyrinthine personal and professional relationships, punctuated with unexpected, stark shots of place settings, protestors, or guest stars, sometimes staring directly at the camera. After what is, at times, a good 10 minutes of establishment, The Good Wife deploys its title sequence, almost as an afterthought. And like most everything else on the show, it is restrained: just three chords, three black-and-white stills, and a mere 10 seconds on-screen.
CBS’ story of Alicia Florrick, wife of a disgraced politician caught in a public sex scandal, has quietly become one of the best shows on television. Describing the premise does little to sell the show—the hook of The Good Wife is not the idea, but the execution. In the early ’00s, every network had its own legal drama with powerful character arcs—Julianna Margulies starred in her own, Canterbury’s Law, a scant year before the premiere of The Good Wife. The crucial difference is style, and The Good Wife has that in spades. In fact, one of the reasons The Good Wife eschews traditional network framing is because the show has found its own ways to establish context. The Good Wife knows what to do with costuming, pacing, scoring, and camera angles—it knows how to use these dramatic conventions to make the plot obvious, even when the story is catching up. And failing that, it falls on structure and dialogue, those two old standbys that The Good Wife mastered a few seasons ago. Robert and Michelle King have taken to outright replaying cliffhanger moments from the episode before, to put the audience in the right mood—especially in the fourth and fifth seasons, where numerous episodes pick up directly after the last one left off, offering the audience the exact same five-second shot of Alicia opening the door or picking up her phone. And where that doesn’t work, The Good Wife does flashbacks—so adroitly that it makes Mad Men’s meanderings through the Whitman house in the Depression seem sloppy by comparison. As The A.V. Club’s own Kate Kulzick said on Sound On Sight’s The Televerse podcast—“The Good Wife is to memory what Buffy was to dream sequences.”
It’s an incredibly apt comparison—not just for memories and dreams, but for the way the two shows made their bones and expanded over the seasons. Both The Good Wife and Buffy The Vampire Slayer offer range within the constraints of network; they are both fresh twists on tired premises, and executed with a lot of understanding of how other television shows normally do things. The Good Wife, hilariously, often has its characters watch fake television shows in between doing whatever they normally do; squirreled in the show-within-the-show, the Kings offer their critique of contemporary televisual culture, just as Buffy’s Joss Whedon had his characters make snarky comments about their own character development. Both shows are as comfortable working within the bounds of their conventions (legal drama; sci-fi/fantasy) as they are breaking those conventions.
And though this may be anathema to fans of both, new viewers don’t have to watch all of the episodes of either show to have a good sense of what’s going on. Part of The Good Wife’s play with various elements of the legal procedural—recurring guest-star clients and judges, forays into the ever-changing intersection of privacy and technology, and episodes that are told entirely from a third-party point of view, or in near real-time—means that while some episodes are absolutely essential to understanding the show and its driving narrative, an equal number are extremely enjoyable oddities or diversions. And in between there are a whole bunch of episodes that flesh out the daily grind of Alicia Florrick’s friends, family, and co-workers: political kerfuffles surrounding her husband, romantic escapades between her boss and a gun enthusiast, trials defending the same guilty clients over and over again, and the drama of mergers and acquisitions. Almost all are worth watching, but to get the gist of the show—to fall under its spell—one only needs to watch a handful.
One of the reasons this guide to the show is so important now is because the end of the fifth season puts this show at a crossroads; after spending five years building a slow burn, this last season—arguably its best—forced the show to rebuild itself around the loss of one of its integral characters. Josh Charles’ Will Gardner had electric chemistry with Margulies’ Alicia from the very first episode, and much of the last five seasons has focused on their tragic relationship, a collection of near-misses and might-have-beens. The show executed Will’s death beautifully—making the episodes around it an examination of the character, his relationship with Alicia, and the process of grieving. Will’s death might be one of the best things to happen to the show, in terms of the blockbuster episodes that came out of it: Three of the 10 episodes below are from Josh Charles’ last hurrah. Now, with this fantastic season under its belt, the Kings are looking forward to a season six without Charles’ reliable charm, without the fundamental “Willicia” dynamic that underwrote the show’s first five years, and without the love triangle that caused so many longing looks in the halls of Lockhart Gardner.
The Good Wife has everything—great writers, a fantastic cast, superior direction, elevators as plot drivers. Even its musical direction is unlike anything else on television, a combination of careful sound mixing, classical music, and original score. But where it really stands out is in its dedication to routinely doing something different. The Good Wife has not found its groove in its fifth season—because it doesn’t have a groove. At its best, the show blows things up, and one of the reasons the fifth season was so talked-about is because that’s exactly what it did. But in order to get how powerful those explosions are, new viewers need a recap reel. What do they need to watch in order to know what’s going on with the show CBS is flagrantly making a play at the Emmys with? Well, previously, on The Good Wife…
“Heart” (season one, episode 17): The first season takes some time to find the voice that would become the show’s signature, moving less than gracefully between character drama and procedural. “Heart” is where The Good Wife first finds its sweet spot balancing the two. The show revisits the themes introduced in “Heart” over and over again in the following five years—because it’s the crucial struggle at the core of its lead character Alicia, who is always grappling with duty, loyalty, propriety, and her own unruly desires. The first season sees Alicia throwing herself into her work to avoid the issues in her personal life—Peter’s infidelity, media scrutiny, far less spending money, and a social circle that has entirely abandoned her. The Good Wife is not about a love triangle—but Alicia’s internal conflicts are easily externalized in Peter and Will, who are two compelling but very different men. In “Heart,” passion for work—a case against an insurance company that is trying to deny an expectant mother a surgery—translates into the other kind of passion, as Will finally kisses Alicia, after months of seeming just about to. Alicia’s attack of conscience plays out beautifully and bittersweetly, and the two spend the rest of the episode searching for each other and never quite syncing up. The next day, Will says to her: “We’ve never had great timing.” It is a pronouncement that rings true for the rest of the series.
“Ham Sandwich” (season two, episode 17): “Ham Sandwich” takes place in that golden era of The Good Wife where Kalinda and Alicia were good, even best, friends—where they traded observations on the cuteness of Cary Agos, co-worker-turned-rival, and drank beers together after work. For that alone, “Ham Sandwich” is worth savoring. The joke of the title is that a Chicago grand jury will indict anything—even a ham sandwich—meaning that when Kalinda’s subpoenaed by the state’s attorney’s office, she’s afraid she’s in serious trouble. “You need to call a lawyer,” Alicia tells her, staring at the summons. “I did,” Kalinda replies, looking at her. So Alicia goes to court with her friend, and Kalinda and Alicia square off against Peter’s rival, Glenn Childs, and their former co-worker, Cary Agos—who isn’t above making eyes at Kalinda, but is also trying to keep his job. And buried in the relationship dynamics of the episode is a startling revelation, so slow in coming that when the truth hits, it’s like the audience knew all along: Kalinda slept with Peter, well before she ever knew Alicia. “Ham Sandwich” also brings satisfying stories to a few members of the cast whose arcs didn’t always land—namely, Eli Gold, Alan Cumming’s weaselly political operative, and Alicia’s children, Grace and Zach. “Ham Sandwich” even finds a way to make the tedious “Grace gets religious” subplot from the second and third season interesting, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
“Getting Off” (season two, episode 22): One of the best things about The Good Wife is how little it makes its viewers wait. There’s so much information packed into this tiny episode—it zig-zags through multiple exploding relationships and a well-executed case of the week with aplomb, signifying a show that is at the top of its game. The late second season was a very good time for The Good Wife—the show got a chance to play with plot points it had seeded since the pilot. In “Getting Off,” almost all of them are at their peak: Peter’s re-election bid; Kalinda’s unstable friendship with Alicia; Will and Alicia’s undeniable attraction for each other. And in between there’s Sarah Silverman, guest-starring as a client who runs a dating website for married people, arguing with Julianna Margulies about the nature of fidelity, lust, and love. It’s the episode where Alicia decides to be with Will, and the one where she confronts Kalinda with the knowledge that Kalinda slept with her husband. Margulies won an Emmy for the second season of The Good Wife; so did Archie Panjabi, who plays Kalinda. Watching them work off of each other in the scene where Alicia tells Kalinda she never wants to speak to her again is heart-wrenching. Margulies says all the powerful lines, but Panjabi allows Kalinda’s emotions to come through in subtle ways—her hands shake throughout, and she barely makes it to the elevator before breaking down in tears. It has been three years since this moment, but Alicia and Kalinda’s relationship has never recovered.
“Executive Order 13224” (season three, episode seven): Season three opened with a whole new world for The Good Wife, one in which Will and Alicia were dating each other—or at least assiduously boinking each other in all possible venues, at all hours of the day. At times, the show struggled to make their relationship compelling, but in part, that might be because the relationship was too good to be true—despite real affection on both sides and near-excessive sexual tension, Will and Alicia were not figured out enough to be together for very long. “Executive Order 13224” offers a glimpse of the cracks in the relationship—in the midst of an episode where Lockhart Gardner is sifting through a deposition dump, and Alicia is being targeted by a rather creepy government lawyer representing the interests of homeland security (played by a reliably creepy Bob Balaban). “Executive Order 13224” is a bit less punchy than the other episodes on this list, but it serves as a solid, excellent example of The Good Wife’s bread and butter: legal complexity, social commentary, an examination of the cutting-edge in technology, and humor. Because yes, “Executive Order 13224” is very funny. Largely because when Alicia needs legal representation, she looks outside the firm to Elsbeth Tascioni, a fellow lawyer played by Carrie Preston in what is possibly the best recurring role on the show. Elsbeth is scattered but brilliant, and up against Margulies’ steely reserve and Balaban’s insinuation, Preston shines. But The Good Wife makes humor out of characters and situations that are not inherently funny, too—in fact, Elsbeth’s appearance is the exception rather than the norm, for exactly this reason. Because although she is brilliantly funny, the most comedic moment in the episode is when Diane discovers that Will and Alicia are likely sleeping together, and responds by making them—and the rest of the firm—sit down for a very bad sexual harassment education video that apparently dates from the early ’90s. The video both illustrates and makes a mockery of Will and Alicia’s relationship, and they watch it together in the dark in an uncomfortable silence, unwilling and unable to dismiss the video’s warning entirely. It’s the kind of humor that is as painful as it is funny.
“Alienation Of Affection” (season three, episode 12): The middle of the season is often a difficult time for television shows—the arcs of the season are less relevant when passing time right in the middle. The Good Wife never has this problem, though. If anything, mid-season, in the thick of it, is where this show is at its best—many of the episodes on this list are in medias res, as it were. “Alienation Of Affection” is an excellent example of one of those interstitial episodes—one where nothing really happens, but a whole lot goes down. Alicia, still a junior member of Lockhart Gardner, fresh from an affair with her boss, is put at the center of a firm-wide crisis: A couple is suing them in the wake of their divorce proceedings, arguing that their lawyers alienated them from each other for their own profit. Enter a massive paperwork search, driven by a whole lot of money: Did Alicia sign a piece of paper, or didn’t she? The real heavy-hitter here is Zach Grenier’s David Lee, a pitch-perfect smarmy lawyer who is both indispensable to the firm and constantly, actively undermining it. He’s not above forging documents, manipulating clients, and skimming off the top to make a deal—in his mind, it’s just good business. In “Alienation Of Affection,” he shows up in late 19th-century military regalia, pulled from his own performance in a Gilbert and Sullivan play. Plus: Diane flirts with the Australian guy who is delivering summonses, and Elsbeth returns, to represent Will during his deepening suit with the state’s attorney over a 15-year-old bribery charge.
“Another Ham Sandwich” (season three, episode 14): If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it is: “Ham Sandwich” is one of the show’s best episodes from the second season, and “Another Ham Sandwich” is one of the best episodes from the third. It’s the same setting: a grand jury hearing, which the audience has already learned is ripe territory for indictment. This time, instead of Kalinda, it’s Will Gardner who is the titular ham sandwich, being offered up to a grand jury for a stale bribery case. All season, this case churned in the background, threatening but abstruse, and then “Another Ham Sandwich” blows it wide open. The episode is edited and shot beautifully, and offers moments of pure, fantastic badassery, like when Alicia gets up from the witness stand and refuses to answer questions about whether or not she’s slept with Will, and Will himself handling the questions of the special prosecutor with astonishing grace. Tying together Peter’s work life at the state’s attorney’s office with Alicia’s at Lockhart Gardner was always daunting for the show; in “Another Ham Sandwich,” though, it’s effortless. Peter’s appointed special prosecutor is his former rival who is trying to make a name for herself; she thinks targeting his cheating wife and that wife’s ex-lover is a good place to start. It isn’t, as it turns out. Besides the deft intertwining of the personal and the political, this is also an episode about Kalinda and Will’s friendship, examining their mutual loyalty to each other. It’s a loyalty Alicia never totally understands, because by this time in the show, she’s ended things with both of them.
“Red Team, Blue Team” (season four, episode 14): Season four was a rough one for The Good Wife—it had pursued a lot of its original ideas to fruition, like Alicia’s affair with Will and Peter’s re-election. In season four, the show attempted to get into Kalinda’s backstory—and failed miserably, in one of the show’s rare missteps. The first half of the season, as a result, is a messy endeavor, hastily resolved by midseason and since then largely ignored. “Red Team, Blue Team” is the first strong episode of the season—one that takes the focus away from Kalinda and brings it back to Alicia. The writers know what they’re doing with Alicia in a way they don’t with Kalinda, and that knowledge comes through beautifully in “Red Team, Blue Team.” It signals a sea change for Alicia and her time at Lockhart Gardner, which was always characterized by being too old for the associate’s position but not experienced enough for a partnership; dating Will only complicated her position in the firm. Four years in, she’s tired of waiting around. Lockhart Gardner has her and Cary team up against Will and Diane for a mock trial that turns into the two of them battling for their right to become partners of the firm they’ve spent so much time at. The result is an episode that reveals a great deal about Alicia’s priorities and her foibles—her desires and her fatal flaws. It hearkens back to “Heart,” in the best way possible.
“What’s In The Box?” (season four, episode 22): The Good Wife’s finales and premieres are consistently dramatic—wonderful slice-of-life episodes that end in an unexpected, devastating cliffhanger. The first season ended with Alicia choosing whether or not to answer a very important phone call; the second ended with a lot of kissing in an elevator; the third ended with Alicia and Kalinda both poised on the thresholds of their own choosing, but desperately wishing they were elsewhere. Part of the comedy of The Good Wife is that most of its characters have no morals; in “What’s In The Box?” that’s upsettingly made clear, as Alicia, Diane, and Will switch positions more than once during a trial in an attempt to keep a set of ballots from being either counted or not counted, depending on who those votes are for. It’s a comical, fast-paced episode, where the case of the week is underwritten by the drama of election day—for Peter is about to become the governor of Illinois, and Alicia, his first lady. The episode offers her an array of options, ones that have been developing all season: In the last few minutes, she makes a phone call, pours herself a glass of wine, and then throws open the door. It looks like she’s about to throw herself at Will, for real this time. But she’s not—she’s going to leave her own firm and join Cary’s venture. The episode ends with her staring into the future, making a life-changing decision. In the face of an attraction that won’t quit and a husband she doesn’t have faith in, Alicia chooses the only thing she has come to trust: power.
“Hitting The Fan” (season five, episode five): It would be impossible to discuss this show without including this episode. The A.V. Club determined it to be the episode of the 2013-14 TV season in our Tournament Of Episodes, and enough was written about it there to justify that decision. For a new viewer, though, the episode is still a delight—it’s a 42-minute-long whiplash, as so much of it happens in real-time. It also showcases Josh Charles’ and Julianna Margulies’ respective performances, both playing off of each other and on their own. Rupturing the basic goodwill and affection between Will and Alicia is series-defining for a premise that is built, literally, on the idea that Will decided to take a chance on Alicia when no one else would. Amid all the madness, The Good Wife reminds the audience of a sad truth: Hatred is a kind of intimacy.
“A Few Words” (season five, episode 14): This is the episode before The Good Wife’s greatest trick—the death of Will Gardner, which the show managed to keep a secret until it aired. Josh Charles wanted to leave the show, and Robert and Michelle King chose to bow him out with a season-long goodbye that showcased how important he was to The Good Wife while setting up the show for the world without him. Of all of these, “A Few Words” is most clearly Will’s swan song, an episode dedicated to him without explicitly foreshadowing his death. The story takes our lawyers—now members of two rival firms—to an American Bar Association event in New York, where Alicia is asked to give a speech on how she made it in this world. Alicia cannot tell the story without discussing Will, but she is loath to. As she gets incredibly drunk in an effort to make writing easier, she remembers Will, and the way they once were together. There, the show’s investment in memory pops up again, changing the present—and shifting in meaning itself, as time goes by. And for a brief moment in the present, she and Will accidentally share a cup of coffee, as they both try to escape each other at the same crappy diner. He’ll never forgive her, and she is relieved to have finally pushed him away, so he can’t tempt her anymore. It’s a sad kind of victory, but Alicia convinces herself to be content with it.
“The Last Call” (season five, episode 16): And then Will dies—suddenly, violently, without a moment of reflection. In “Dramatics, Your Honor,” we see his body, and know it is over. But in “The Last Call,” Alicia finally finds out. What follows is an episode that is unparalleled in its unstinting depiction of the grief around the sudden death of a loved one—especially that type of love that was more complicated than rewarding. Alicia replays his last voicemail to her over and over again. It is just a few seconds long, and he says, “Alicia—never mind, I’ll call you later.” The Good Wife is able to deploy bitter irony primarily because the show does it so rarely; Will’s relationship with Alicia was always about bad timing, and this last call proves it. Robert and Michelle King have often stated that to them, The Good Wife is about “the education of Alicia Florrick.” “The Last Call” is a window into Alicia’s lesson on the immutability of loss—the incomprehensibility and the inevitability of it, too.
And if you like those 10, here’s 10 more: “Pilot” (season one, episode one), “Boom” (season one, episode 19), “Real Deal” (season two, episode 13), “Foreign Affairs” (season two, episode 20), “Marthas And Caitlins” (season three, episode five), “Blue Ribbon Panel” (season three, episode 19), “The Dream Team” (season three, episode 22), “Death Of A Client” (season four, episode 18), “The Decision Tree” (season five, episode 10), “All Tapped Out” (season five, episode 18).
Availability: All five seasons are available on DVD and iTunes; seasons one through four are available on Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus.
Next time: Alasdair Wilkins takes a look at the space-opera joys of Enterprise.