In an essay published in The New Yorker a year ago, Emily Nussbaum praised The Good Wife for “its unprecedented emphasis on technology.” The show is fascinated by the ways that technological advances are changing our politics, our legal system, and even the shape and dynamics of families—in particular, the way children grow up and the degree of control that parents have over them. The title of tonight’s episode, which sounds like the title of the most uncomfortable episode of Community ever, seems to promise a grueling debate over everything that makes rape such the hot-button subject, like that 2004 episode of Law & Order: SVU where Shannyn Sossamon claimed that her professor, Billy Campbell, had raped her, and Campbell insisted that they’d had consensual sex, and Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni practically came to blows over which of them was telling the truth.
Instead, the word “modern” in the title is the tip-off that the episode is about the ways that technology, especially social media, warp a seemingly simple legal case into something misshapen and unmanageable. When The Good Wife threads its journalistic legal plotlines seamlessly together with its regular characters’ stories, it can generate the special excitement of good drama that connects to things people are talking about but that they haven’t seen chewed to death in a hundred other TV shows and movies. When the show’s torn-from-the-headlines aspect gets out of control—and this episode brought back Jason Biggs’ mysterious bitcoin magnate and online provocateur, tossed him into a version of the Steubenville rape case, and managed to squeeze in the death of Aaron Schwartz and a passing reference to the pseudo-science of rape denial for good measure—the total effect can be a little like an all-day marathon of Law & Order reruns, compressed into an hour. It’s still exciting, but the sheer weight of all the issues that get raised all but crushes the scenes devoted to the storylines about the lives and careers of the regular characters—and there are a lot of them.
Will and Alicia’s client is Rainey, a fresh-faced young thing who was raped by a smug, privileged snot, Todd Bratcher, whose name tells you most everything you need to know right there. Because Todd was “a hair under 17” when the cops picked his smarmy ass up, and was questioned without his parents’ consent, his lawyer (John Glover) was able to cut a deal, and now, as Rainey puts it, “He’s going to Princeton, not prison.” Having been denied her chance to see him put away, she’s suing him in civil court, hoping to at least peel off a section of his trust fund that she can donate to “rape victim advocates.” If you’re wondering why Lockhart & Gardner took this case, just look at the moist glow Will exudes as he listens to Rainey talk about what was done to her, and about civil litigation as the only recourse a person in her situation has to achieve some small measure of justice. After the beating that poor Will and his reputation have taken lately, he badly needs the lift he gets from being—what is it the members of Olivia Pope’s Justice League call themselves?—a gladiator for justice, of being on the right side of a morally clear-cut case. Now all he has to do is do right by his client, or else he’ll hate himself more than ever.
Too bad for Will, things begin to unravel immediately. Rainey has publicly accused her rapist and Twitter, and the judge (David Fonteno) decides that this constitutes a violation of his gag order, despite Will’s assurances that youngsters like Rainey don’t think of social media that way. Since Rainey refuses to give the other side the satisfaction of hearing her apologize, the judge finds her guilty of contempt of court and throws her in the clink, and suddenly there’s much more riding on this case than the financial rewards and sense of vindication that would go with a legal decision in her favor. Enter Biggs’ Dylan Stack, who expresses an interest in hiring Lockhart & Gardner for a different matter, and who is soon taking a seat in the courtroom, monitoring the proceedings as if he had a good seat at the U. S. Open. The gleaming innocence of the victim, the hatefulness of the bad guy, and the hopeless way the law seems to be rigged against a just outcome all speak to his desire to march into battle, just as they do for Will. But Will is still working within the system.
By contrast, Stack, in Alicia’s words, enjoys “creating paranoia and confusion in order to help your cause,” which is “to destroy in order to create.” Toward that end, incriminating but legally inadmissible materials, such as a video of Todd and his buddies playing with a sex doll and mocking Rainey, begin to turn up on Alicia’s kids’ cell phones. The Good Wife doesn’t waste a second playing with the idea that there might be anything ambiguous about the case itself. It’s clear from the start that Todd is guilty, and as the evidence—evidence that has been illegally obtained by hackers who, collectively, call themselves “Anonymous”—mounts up, he just gets guiltier and guiltier.
The only question is, how much good does it do to have people like Stack and Anonymous on your side, when their ability to pull amazing things out of the ether is unconnected to any kind of savvy about how the system works? Anonymous’ antics, which include disruptive stunts by masked figures in the spectators’ section of the courtroom, only serve to irritate the judge. (They irritate him to such an extent that I did start to wonder why he didn’t just bar spectators from the courtroom.) In the end, it’s Kalinda who comes riding to the rescue. She gets ahold of a suppressed police interview with Todd, and, using the activities of Anonymous as a smoke screen to deflect suspicion, posts it online, knowing that this is the disclosure that will result in a mistrial, and set Rainey free.
There’s often been something of a superhero quality to Kalinda, and this episode manages to produce a simple, practical explanation of what's so super about her: She has the technical savvy that the lawyers lack, but she also knows how to use her talents to work the system. (Like Tyrion Lannister, she knows how this game is played.) Working the system is something the activists have no interest in learning. In the end, they’re just grandstanding, and they do Rainey more harm than good. The Good Wife has often introduced characters who had eccentric ways of doing things, such as Carrie Preston’s happy-go-lucky, brilliant flake of a lawyer, or who had opinions and attitudes far removed from those of the regular heroes, such as Gary Cole’s right-wing ballistics expert, and taken them close to its bosom. More than anything, the show admires competence, and it will forgive a character a lot if he’s one of the best at what he does.
Dylan Stack and his Anonymous followers are clearly very good at what they do, but they seem to give Alicia, and the show itself, the cold creeps. Alicia can scarcely wait to tell him off and be done with him; his new-world skills are unworthy of respect, given the chaos he causes and the recklessness he encourages—recklessness that hurts others, like Rainey, while he just skates away—and this might not seem unusual, if previous episodes hadn’t shown how Alicia has had to make her peace with defending a drug dealer and being used as a political prop by her philandering, secretly estranged husband. The Good Wife has often expressed mixed feelings about new technology, but this is the first episode I can recall that just seems repulsed by it. Maybe, for a show that has to live with the mixed distinction of being the best dramatic series on CBS in the year of our lord 2013, fear and loathing of new technology was going to leak out sooner or later.
- David sends his regards, and will be back next week.
- The subplot about Cary maybe sort of somehow stirring up trouble inside the ranks continues to flop around on deck like a fish. At this point, I don’t know where this is going, and I sense that I am not alone.
- This episode introduces Jeffrey DeMunn as Chief Justice Ryvlan, who has a meeting with Diane in which, through an elaborate show of courteous accessibility, he indicates that her chances of making it to a seat on his court depend on whether she agrees with him that Will is “a scoundrel to be spurned, and not embraced.” I don’t really know where this is going, either; what exactly is he suggesting, that she point at Will and yell "J'Accuse!" from across a crowded room? But at least the combination of DeMunn’s passive-aggressive caginess, and Christine Baranski’s troubled bewilderment, set off some sparks.
- Kalinda has been doing a background check on her understudy, Robyn, and it turns out that, contrary to her own claims, Robyn never really got in trouble as a juvenile for shooting her brother. Why would she falsely claim such a thing? Robyn explains that, well, her life growing up was actually pretty boring. I’m not sure if this is just more lovable eccentricity or a clue that Robyn is psychotic, but I do think it’s hilarious that anyone would put Kalinda, of all people, in the position of trying to understand what it’s like to have a background so dull that you’d have to lie to make it more interesting.
- People were playing golf today, and CBS apparently thought that would make bang-up TV, so everything on the network’s prime time schedule aired 56 minutes later than it was supposed to. Which is fine, it’s not as if anyone who watches network TV on a Sunday isn’t used to that. But that meant that every few minutes, a stupid little banner would pop up at the bottom of the screen, with the words “CBS Eye-Lert” and then a guesstimate of just when The Mentalist would start. “Eye-Lert”—because when people have had their schedules messed with, and then an annoying graphic is messing with their viewing experience, shoving a horrible, cutesy near-pun down their throats makes it all better. It’s funny that an hour of television about the dangers of new technology came attached to the best reminder I’ve seen in a while for why so many people would rather wait and try to catch their favorite shows online.