As The Good Fight’s fifth season comes to a close, the experiment of Wackner’s court self-combusts. Even Wackner’s regretting starting this whole thing. His court falls to pieces by the end of the finale, sieged by a mob of secession-hungry right wingers, forcing Marissa and Wackner to quite literally barricade in the storage room while the court crumbles around them. But the destructive, chaotic nature of the Wackner experiment doesn’t just affect these characters and the world of the show. The experiment is ultimately season five’s undoing.
This season has featured multiple hallucinations of historical figures, people dressed in elaborate animal costumes in a fake court, a rival fake court, an in-show reality series about fake court, and a Slack-like app called Donk. And sure, stack those things up against previous seasons and it does sound somewhat par for the course. Yet season five—especially in its final stretch of episodes—is too busy doing too much that it ultimately isn’t doing anything at all. Judge Wackner’s court is presented as a thought experiment on justice, reimagining the court system, and the corruption of power. In the end, it just seems like a gimmick.
There’s an alchemy to The Good Fight’s madness. Its surreal and super-charged approach to legal drama is unlike any other legal drama on television. It’s bold. It doesn’t just take big swings. It subs out the baseball bat in favor of a sledgehammer. And if I’m sticking to this wacky metaphor, the baseball is probably a big, juicy orange. What I’m trying to say is it’s slapstick-melodrama, and that’s a nearly impossible combination. And yet, The Good Fight makes it possible...sometimes. Other times, the alchemy is off. And that’s how much of the hack half of season five has felt—disjointed and lopsided. Too cartoonish at times. Too self-serious at others. The Good Fight so often seems like a circus trick. But it’s hard to pull off trick after trick after trick.
Certainly, Wackner’s court hasn’t been a complete bust. Mandy Patinkin is a welcome and fitting presence in a show so defined by its many character actors. The first couple episodes mired in this subplot were humorous. But then it kept going. It became the season’s backdrop. And the point of it all is somehow heavy-handed and too untapped all at once. Wackner’s court is a descent into chaos. In the finale, Wackner presides over a case for the splitting of Illinois into two territories. Enter: the aforementioned right wing mob, emboldened by someone named Doctor Goat, who forges a document and says nonsense phrases in Latin to support his case. Wackner’s initially excited by the whole thing. After all, this is what his court was supposedly built on: debates and outcomes that aren’t possible within the existing framework of justice and deliberation. He has come a long way from little arbitration cases. But Wackner becomes increasingly disillusioned over the course of the episode as he sees he’s being used. His bankroller David Cord has clearly had nefarious motives all season, and he admits to Marissa in “court” that if he and his clients don’t like the outcome of their play case, he’ll simply devise a new court. It’s all a ridiculous game, an ouroboros of making new systems that look exactly like the ones that came before.
Wackner’s court became yet another violent tool for the cops to operate with impunity. Wackner’s court became an extension of the private prison industrial complex. It’s not a reimagination of the court system. It’s just a new iteration of it. The same can be said of judge Vinetta Clark’s living room courtroom. Clark claims to be serving the justice in her neighborhood that Chicago cops don’t provide, and yet she’s just mimicking the same exact structures of punishment and policing that are at the root of the neighborhood’s problems. She’s literally keeping one of Rivi’s corner boys in a cage in her basement. It’s not a radical form of community justice; it’s just a reiteration of existing systems. The Good Fight is clearly saying that all power corrupts, that systems are flawed, that the privatization of government services is indeed bad. But instead of letting these points ground the storytelling and elevate the conceit, the writing gets too lost over-focusing on the conceit.
There’s a tipping point when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to meet the show on its own playing field. But The Good Fight has somehow outdone itself in terms of its surrealist storytelling. The Wackner experiment has spiraled down a tortuous rabbit hole—which of course was the intention all along. But a make-believe trial debating secession? Diane Lockhart held in a make-believe prison in a woman’s basement? We get it; power corrupts. The justice system is full of injustices. Courts are circus shows. Yet The Good Fight doesn’t ground that message in its character development or storytelling, reducing its narrative to a stunt that isn’t as clever as it strives to be. The finale acknowledges that certain power imbalances exist—take, for example, the cops storming Vinetta Clark’s court and being violent with all the Black characters but then letting Kurt and Diane just walk out. But the finale shirks going deeper on any of those power imbalances. It just sort of points at them then looks away.
The comedy of errors that makes up the first act of the episode is a highlight, tapping into a lot of the show’s strengths. It’s just straightforward stakes and setups. The episode opens on an aerial shot of Kurt and Diane reclining, their suitcases packed, discussing their imminent vacation. It’s immediately clear that vacation will not be happening. Indeed, a wild dance begins with Liz calling Diane and telling her they only have mere hours until STR Laurie shows up to hear their financial plans. It’s a chaotic race against the clock, a setup The Good Fight thrives at. The blocking is impeccable. David Buckley’s consistently amazing score adds urgency. There’s more suspense and action here than in some of the finale’s more over-the-top sequences. STR Laurie looming over the firm has consequences for every plotline, bringing most of the season’s stories to a head.
The race against the clock also means that Diane and Liz have to quickly resolve their season-long tension if they hope to convince STR Laurie they aren’t in disorganized shambles. Pressure-cooking their conflict unsurprisingly results in clunky dialogue, their points of view quickly distilled. A central throughline of this season has been the overdue questioning of Diane’s place at a Black firm. The Good Fight has pitted Diane’s mission for female empowerment against Liz’s mission to preserve the firm as a Black firm, and on the one hand, Diane’s myopic white feminism tracks for the character. Much of this season has exposed Diane’s flaws—namely her marriage to a gun-loving, right wing insurrection apologist (who voted for Ted Cruz in 2016 instead of Trump, which for some inexplicable reason, is better in her eyes).
But has The Good Fight truly examined those flaws in a satisfying way? Sure, Liz pushes back. Diane spouts wildly insensitive and over simplified views like that keeping racist clients is fine since they also represent drug dealers. The attempts to complicate Diane have been intriguing, but the consequences are short-lived and muddled. Diane and Kurt’s marriage makes increasingly less sense. The RBG hallucinations have been worse than corny—they’re self-indulgent drivel. Diane does finally agree to step down near the end of the episode, but that again undermines some of the character development that has been done here. It’s ultimately the right thing to do, so Diane still gets to be the “good guy,” even after all the ignorant things she has said and done all season. With Diane, it so often seems like The Good Fight is trying to have its cake and eat it too, exposing her flaws and then quickly shellacking over them. I like that Diane has become increasingly unlikable and that the motives of the firm in general have been murky and often straight up immoral, but the writing also still positions Diane as some girl boss figure who—alongside the ghost of RBG—has merely had to make some imperfect decisions to further the advancement of women. It’s one-note storytelling masked as complexity. Some circus tricks are too contrived.
It’s undoubtedly fun to watch Diane and Kurt’s conjugal visit and attempt at forging a vacation under less-than-ideal circumstances after Diane ends up locked up in Vinetta Clark’s basement. Gary Cole and Christine Baranski have always had enough chemistry to almost make me forget about how incompatible the characters actually are. It’s funny and oddly romantic to see them in this makeshift cell spangled with string lights. Again, there’s an alchemy to The Good Fight’s bold mix of tones and scopes. And there are glimmers of that here, absurdity mixing with more grounded storytelling. And yet, Diane and Kurt’s arc all season has been redundant tedium. And the late-in-the-season introduction of Vinetta Clark’s court hasn’t strengthened the season’s conceit so much as pushed it into overly absurd territory. Clark’s motivations are confusing, especially since her reaction to the systemic problems with Chicago’s policing is to just do her own form of policing.
There are, to say the least, a lot of threads snaking through the finale. In the rush to wrap up all the season’s drama and chaos, the episode itself is an impossible and overwhelming race against the clock. Because in addition to fake court antics, Kurt and Diane’s relationship, Liz and Diane’s relationship, and the STR Laurie overlords descending upon the firm, there’s also the conclusion of Oscar Rivi’s arc. The Good Fight dips into one of its preeminent wells here: betrayal. Oh does this show love to do a storyline about previous allies, lovers, or friends stabbing each other in the back. Even Diane does it to Kurt this season. Secrecy, paranoia, and betrayal are some of the show’s most propulsive sources of character motivation and plot explosion. Isabel betraying Oscar only to eventually return to him is a frenetic subplot in the finale that actually lands. It has suspense, emotion, and an almost theatrical quality. It’s just good, simple, character-driven storytelling, but it also has traces of the show’s signature flavor of heightened dramatics and twists. Ultimately, the character development of Carmen within this plotline has been weak though. I don’t get a strong sense of where she fits into this season’s narrative. Rivi ends up more developed than her. Her comforting him through his anguish feels forced.
The finale’s coda jumps between lots of different communities engaged in their own iterations of a people’s court. Here, The Good Fight doubles down on the apparent point of the Wackner experiment, suggesting that all attempts at “reimagining” the courts results in the same punitive mayhem. People of all different identities and political views are seen in the montage—from tiki torch carrying alt-right boys who decide it’s only legal for white people to own property to a group doling out punishment for the wrong pronouns being used to refer to someone. It’s all very eye-roll-inducing. It’s such an obvious conclusion put forth as if it’s saying something interesting or nuanced. Of course replications of the same broken system are going to be...broken. The Good Fight has been very busy teeing up to that “reveal,” but it’s something that has been obvious since Wackner’s court first emerged. It’s a storyline that could have easily carried more weight if it merely unfolded across a couple episodes. Instead, it’s stretched across the whole season. The Good Fight belabors the point without exploring many of its ramifications, especially on a character level. The show is fun in some of its most absurd plotlines, but then by the time it finally tries to make a point out of that absurdity, the results are mixed and unremarkable.
The Good Fight’s contempt for the court system is palpable at the start of the season, and that’s undoubtedly an interesting point of view for a courtroom drama. But if the point is simply that these injustices and biases are inevitable when it comes to forming new legal systems, well, it sounds like at the end of the day, The Good Fight is actually putting the existing court system on a pedestal. Diane scoffs at the “fake” rules of a living room court, but she knows well that “real” court is just as convoluted and arbitrary in its rules and processes. But Vinetta and Wackner’s courts are made so extremely circusy that it’s almost as if this season’s whole point is to say sure, the justice system is flawed, but look at how much worse it could be.
The Good Fight’s alchemy is off. It has attempted to tackle very serious issues like police brutality, workplace racism, and sexual harassment with very mixed results. It has let the zaniness drive the show too much. With Wackner’s court, what could have been an intriguing thought experiment has all the nuance and depth of a poorly written term paper. The show’s unpredictability has long been one of its strengths, but this season too often crosses the line into incoherency. And all the buildup to this final assertion that all courtrooms are broken is anticlimactic and overwrought. There are flashes of effective comedy, relationship drama, and the sort of narrative sleight of hand that makes the show a giddy delight. But the finale bites off far more than it can chew, which could also be said of the fifth season as a whole.
- So Jay’s only storyline this season was really “got COVID, had hallucinations.” Okay then.
- The RBG hallucinations are maybe the biggest misfire of the show’s history—other than the final shot of last season.
- Oh how I’ve missed Luca all season.
- One of the best parts of this final stretch has undoubtedly been Allegra. More Wanda Sykes in everything please!
- It does seem nonsensical to me that a season so steeped in the question of whether there can be alternatives to the court system does not ever even really mention abolition. Abolition politics are in the mainstream now. That seems like such a big puzzle piece missing from the season’s narrative.
- When Wackner’s court was first introduced in the season, I was on board! But then it became the bloat of this season.
- In case you haven’t heard, the show has already been renewed for a sixth season. More chaos awaits.