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The Good Wife: “The Line”

“Is this going to get in the way of our friendship, Alicia?”

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The Good Wife

"The Line"

Season 6 , Episode 1

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Oh, Alicia. We’ve missed you.

“The Line” is one of the odder season premieres The Good Wife has ever attempted, but coming off the high of season five—and accolades for the show and for Julianna Margulies’ performance as Alicia Florrick—it somehow makes perfect sense that the premiere would drop us in the middle of a dramatic scene that becomes more and more tense as the hour goes on.

“The Line” is good, as I’ll get to in a second. But: Is it just me, or is there something ever-so-slightly desperate about throwing Cary into prison in the first few minutes of the episode? Especially in the aftermath of a fifth-season finale that blew up so many of the show’s existing relationships, it’s kind of nuts that all of a sudden, Cary, Alicia, Kalinda, and Diana all band together, patching up ruptures with band-aids. It’s also sort of awesome—after a long dry summer, it’s so much fun to see the band back together again. But I felt a tad unmoored by the sudden shift in direction.

It’s also very interesting that Cary’s the emotional focus of this episode—a reality that we’d probably have never seen if Will Gardner hadn’t been offed last season. It feels a tad like Cary’s being used as a Will substitute—we switched this audience’s regular handsome man with another brand of pretty man! (Seriously; just in case you didn’t think it had anything to do with how cute he is, The Good Wife finds a reason for him to be shirtless for a hot second.) But Cary’s story right now is fascinating: dark and powerful and emotional in a way that character doesn’t often get the chance to be. It’s working, but there’s a clear kind of reshuffling going on here—a scrambling to pull all the pieces together, after going through the gauntlet of losing Will.

That being said, “The Line” is an engrossing hour that takes a lot of risks, and that’s always a good thing. Putting Cary in prison is one of the boldest decisions the show could have made in this opening this season—and the episode ends floating the idea that Cary could be in prison for weeks, months, or even the entire season. And it gets Cary to prison by pulling one trigger that its had waiting in the wings for five years now—that of Lemond Bishop, drug dealer, who Lockhart Gardner and then Florrick/Agos have represented throughout the years, handling the complications of having him as a client in exchange for a lot of cold hard cash.

As I’ve discussed before, one of The Good Wife’s most fascinating characteristics is that in this era of closed-ended, neatly tied-off television dramas, it’s choosing to cast itself in the older mold of open-ended network dramas—those dinosaurs that still do things like plot four-episode arcs and run for 22 weeks of the year. And a big part of network is processing the unpredictable—severed contracts, life changes, football broadcasts, natural disasters. It’s only recently that television drama has offered the seamless, polished escapism of cinema: For almost all of its existence, television has been a medium of the cheap, the slapdash, and the knowing wink.

But having that sprawling playground gives it a lot of play to do something surprising, and The Good Wife often doubles down with something game-changing. This case with Bishop is one of those times. Five years of Mike Colter waiting in the wings, showing up in a sharp suit and tie to argue over custody or navigate around prosecutors, showing up from time to time as a case of the week, to remind us he exists. And now this, where it all comes to a head. The chickens are coming home to roost.

Because when Lemond Bishop shows up, he always forces the characters—who are for the most part rich, highly educated, and white—to consider where they come down on the side of right and wrong. (Colin Sweeney episodes, too, though that’s typically just with Alicia. Bishop ropes in the whole firm.) Because that’s the thing: Bishop is a drug dealer. And the lawyers who are our protagonists are outright helping him do his thing. And it’s not because they all secretly believe in legalizing drugs. It’s because he makes them a shit-ton of money. We’re drawn into the story because we, like Alicia, Diane, Kalinda, and everyone else, are attached to Cary, and have known him for a long time. But stepping back for a second, it’s hard to deny that Finn Polmar, Assistant State’s Attorney, and Sophia Russo, the blonde agent that Kalinda’s been flirting with, have a point: They’re trying to shut down a drug operation, and all our protagonists have done is help it along. Bishop’s influence is felt in prison, where his guys threaten Cary; it’s felt by Kalinda, who is packed up and moved away from his territory for asking too many questions. It’s even felt by Alicia, when she tells him breathlessly that Cary Agos has been taken by the police, and he responds indifferently with, “…who?”

The Good Wife rarely presents situations with clear-cut solutions—and it almost never endorses any actions, one way or another. It’s not exactly amoral, because it knows that there is morality you could attach to all of these branching paths. It just typically refrains from coming down on one side or another, so that the characters can come to their own conclusions. So we sometimes are treated to just a shot of Alicia’s face, coming to a decision, or holding back tears; or Kalinda, staring into space, biting her lip; or Diane, sipping a tumbler of whiskey. This is as much as we’ll get from the show, sure, but that weighing of ethics is demonstrably felt by the characters.

But those moments are few and far between, and they feel out of reach in “The Line,” even though the title of the episode indicates the possibility of a black-and-white, a right-and-wrong, a this-not-that. “People on this side, scum on this side,” a warden yells at Cary, after badgering him to keep his head down, to not make eye contact. “Step behind the line,” Judge Karpman says to Finn and Diane. Both are peeling-paint yellow lines, put down years ago by someone who had no conception of what would follow them, what one side of the line might mean to the other.

It’s not that our lawyers are the bad guys, really. It’s that no one knows what the hell they’re doing. In lieu of morality, everyone in the space has made a play for power, and that’s just kind of how it is. It’s not new, or surprising, or even a bad thing. It’s just how it is.

Which is why, as usual, the only morality that matters in The Good Wife is the ethics of the powerful—of Governor Peter Florrick, chatting lightly with an intern who isn’t wearing underwear, or the detective who won’t give Cary his phone call, when he’s had the man handcuffed for six hours. And this episode is streaked with gray areas: Lemond Bishop showing up with Dexter Roja (played by J.D. Williams, so I’m just calling him Bodie) and a bag full of cash; Sophia pulling Kalinda out of Cary’s arms (and therefore out of the arrest); Alicia calling in Finn as a favor before it blows up in her face. The partners from both firms courting Diane’s clients. And even though this give-and-take of power and influence, all of which constantly blurs the lines between right and wrong, are all in a day’s work on The Good Wife, we’ve until now almost always seen these games from the point of view of the wealthy and privileged in charge. But now that Cary has been so intensely disenfranchised, the clever, light banter of the lawyers trying to get him out takes on a grotesque cast. A bad day at work for them is another week in jail for Cary.

This actually bubbles to the surface from a surprising direction—from the very first scene, in fact. Eli stares at Alicia (in a beautifully choreographed scene) and has an idea: He can make her the State’s Attorney. Then he meddles, out of service to his own interests—and Peter’s interests—and maybe the Democratic party, insofar as he cares. His daughter Marissa (played by the ever-delightful Sarah Steele) is interested in the machinations, and following along. And while she handles the panty-less intern with surprising ease, Eli orchestrates a tiff between Peter and Castro. But the consequence is that Castro, the State’s Attorney, turns to Cary’s bond hearing into his battleground for his vendetta with Peter—he can target Alicia that way, after all, and make some motions that make him feel more like a powerful person. So the bond hearing goes south. So Cary’s in jail for longer, now with a sliced hand and 15 years hanging over his head.

One of the more fascinating coups this episode pulls is in creating a situation that seems like a momentary, silly mistake and rapidly transforming it into something that may well end up defining the entire season. “Dawning horror” is the best term for it, and dawning horror is what I felt, watching Cary get so violently arrested, then jerked around, and then held for $1.3 million, facing charges of felony drug transport. Matt Czuchry has rarely had to carry the emotional weight of an entire episode, but he has to do it here, and he makes it work. Watching Cary’s face in the episode is like watching a flan collapse in a cupboard—a slow and inevitable deflation, from righteous indignation and measured patience to fear and outright despair. It’s fucking terrifying.

It’s encapsulated in this shot of his face as, after hours of processing and waiting and being jerked around, Kalinda pulls some strings to have a five-minute conversation with him. He’s been stripped of his possessions, relieved of his dignity, denied his right to a call. It’s the worst possible setting for anyone to see a woman they’re sleeping with. He has nothing left to posture at all: He’s nakedly relieved and nearly undone.

As always, this show lives and dies around Alicia. And what’s interesting about this episode is that she’s having fun of some variety, arguing with Finn in bond court. They’re flirting, sort of—or at least bantering, in a way that is kind of carefree and lighthearted. It’s always good to see Alicia happy, but I was struck with Finn’s remark to her on the floor: “Is this going to get in the way of our friendship, Alicia?” She’s coy; he’s eager to please, and they shake hands. But honestly? Why isn’t it getting in the way of their friendship? What does Alicia Florrick stand for? And what would be the final straw, from Cary, Peter, Kalinda, Diane—anyone?

Stray observations:

  • “We don’t have time to gush, okay?”
  • Trust The Good Wife to take the horrible prospect of Cary being in prison and milk it for dry humor: The fellow inmate can’t remember the lawyer’s name, and comes out with “Craig… Larson? Vargas.”
  • My first thought, watching Cary get processed, was of Orange Is The New Black, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert and Michelle King are paying homage to that show in some way by taking one of their characters to prison. But it differs starkly in contrast to that show. Orange Is The New Black is a minimum-security women’s penitentiary in upstate New York. Cary is in a holding cell for felons in Cook County, which encompasses a huge urban area. The level of indignity and fear is ratcheted up a few notches.
  • “Just ignore her, that’s my daughter.” So excited to see Sarah Steele again—looking forward to her being here for a while, now that Marissa’s shown an aptitude for politicking.
  • It’s good to see the summer break has not altered David Lee in the slightest.
  • “Hey, it’s only money.” Alicia, allowing herself a moment of self-deception.
  • Interesting that Diane insists on having Kalinda come with her as part of the arrangement. My assumption is that it’ll succeed—because it would be awesome—but does that mean we see less of David Lee? Because if so, that’s unacceptable.
  • Most heartbreaking moment of the episode: Cary spotting Kalinda and trying to say hello, but she ignores him, because he looks just like every other inmate there, and she’s talking to Sophia. Cut me to the quick.