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The Good Wife: “The Debate”

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The Good Wife has always been an ambitious show, with the way it explodes relationships and charges forward with its narrative at full speed, but also with the way it weaves current events into its framework. This week, that ambition sharply veers into self-importance and empty pandering, as the writers attempt to comment on the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.


The episode opens with two screens of text: “This episode was written and filmed prior to the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island” and “All mentions of ‘Ferguson’ are in reference to the events in August, 2014 after the shooting death of Michael Brown.” It’s an odd and uncomfortable opening for a very odd and uncomfortable episode of The Good Wife, which frankly doesn’t even really feel like an episode of The Good Wife. The words on the screen refer to devastating events, but everything that follows feels hollow, bizarrely sober, out-of-touch with the emotional turmoil of the very topics it tries—and fails spectacularly—to untangle.

In the case that happens on the show, a Chicago jury finds the two white cops who kill an unarmed Black father of two not guilty. Peter Florrick attempts to de-escalate the absentee mayor’s plan to line the city’s streets with extra police armed with tear gas and riot gear. And the jury’s decision and its implications become fodder for an impromptu debate between Alicia and Frank Prady when the real campaign debate is interrupted by news coverage of the verdict. Meanwhile, over in Diane and Cary Land, no one seems to be giving a shit about what’s happening. All they care about is Neil Gross, who fires them, and David Lee, who’s back working with them by episode’s end.


There will likely be people who will applaud the show’s acknowledgement of the tragic homicides that occurred in Ferguson and Staten Island. Certainly, a strong argument can be made in favor of media and pop culture attempting to confront the real-life events that shape and affect society in such profound ways. Pop culture must be political, in some way. Or else, what’s the point? But in its attempt to explore issues of race, police brutality, and peaceful activism, The Good Wife bites off way more than it can chew.

There are parts the episode does well, commentary woven in that hints at the intelligence and subversiveness that usually makes this show so damn good. The episode is critical of the media, of politicians, of over-policing, even of the show’s main characters. The drama of Peter and Ramona’s affair affects both Peter and Alicia more than the jury’s decision, because Peter and Alicia are wealthy white people who aren’t personally affected by the killing of an unarmed Black man. There’s an excellent moment just seconds before she’s about to go on stage for the debate when Alicia’s handlers alternate between advice about the Ramona question and advice about the verdict, as if the two are somehow equal, both just simply potential topics for debate.

But “The Debate” doesn’t quite commit to these criticisms, and tonally, everything is just all fucking over the place. At one point, Alicia and Prady are literally debating about race and racism in front of a kitchen staff of people of color, who clap afterward as if Alicia and Prady are the heroes Chicago deserves and not just two white people talking about things they, frankly, don’t know shit about. It smacks of white saviorism and altogether misses the point.

One of the kitchen workers voices, succinctly, many of the criticisms I also had about Alicia and Prady’s discussion of the jury’s decision: Why are two white people talking loudly, to no one but each other, about racial injustice? What good does that do? And why are they talking about more diversity in elected positions when they, two white people, are running for public office? (I could ask a lot of similar questions about the actual creation of this episode, which was written by two white people and directed by a white woman.) But these criticisms—legitimate as they are—come from a character who is never named, who we’ve never seen before and likely won’t ever see again, who the show forces me to describe plainly, reductively as a “kitchen worker.” He’s a device, a voice inserted to state the writers’ rooms views in clunky dialogue. It underscores just how deeply impersonal the episode is in its approach to the conversation. “Ferguson” is thrown around as if it’s a buzzword, stripped of the deeply emotional context of everything that has happened there since Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Characters use the racist term “race riot” over and over again, which only receives a quick critical interrogation from Nora. “The Debate” raises pressing, relevant, timely issues without ever really confronting them.


The Good Wife, like the vast majority of network TV shows, is very white. And the writers (also mostly white) have really struggled over the seasons with the few characters of color who are on the show (see: the many writing missteps when it comes to Kalinda Sharma and Geneva Pine). It seems as though, when the writers decided to do an Episode About Race Relations In America, they realized that they can’t just have a bunch of white people talking about race relations in America. So they literally wrote in characters of color like the kitchen workers and the also nameless people at the protests and the wife of the victim and two father-son pastors whose interpersonal conflict is just another one of many odd, misplaced tangents in the episode.

Eli Gold brings along Nora along to a meeting between Peter and a local pastor, and she accuses him of using her as his “Black shield” for the evening. Everything Nora says in this episode is brilliantly on point, but it feels an awful lot like the show, not just Eli Gold, is using her as a shield, a transparent way of saying “Look! We have Black people!” Nicole Roderick’s Nora is always enjoyable, but this is the most we’ve ever seen from her, and I don’t doubt for a second that when the show returns in several weeks, she’ll be back to the background. It’s like the show trotted one of its very few regular Black characters out so she could speak about the Black community for a hot sec. But will we ever get to hear this much from Nora again? Ever see her develop as a character as much as, say, someone like Elsbeth Tascioni or Marissa Gold? I doubt it. Even the episode’s handling of the victim’s wife feels forced and empty. She’s given a microphone, says a few sentences, and then is gone. For all its talk of progressive politics and acknowledgement of institutional racism, this episode of The Good Wife still privileges its white characters, lets all of the emotional moments belong to them, be grounded in their problems. Everything else, even when it’s smart commentary, just shouts way too loudly in the same way that many white allies seek validation. The Good Wife wants its props for “going there.” But newsflash, show: You can’t just go there for the sake of going there.


Stray observations:

  • The Good Wife does not usually misfire this egregiously. On the one hand, the fact that “The Debate” feels so much like a Very Special Episode just further reinforces how impersonal and co-opting the episode is. But on the other hand, at least it means we probably don’t have to watch the show awkwardly bumble through these topics again any time soon.
  • The episode can never fully decide if it’s an episode about race and police brutality or an episode about the season’s long-term arcs like the campaign, with the race stuff happening in the background. The Florrick Agos Lockhart happenings are so disconnected that they don’t even really seem to have a point.
  • Interesting that we hop into Alicia’s perspective for parts of the debate. The tape picking, inkless pen, and bright lights are all nice little details. But again, what does any of it really have to do with the episode? Watching “The Debate” feels like watching a clumsily mismatched collage of incomplete ideas. Hey, kind of like this stray observations section!
  • I don’t care about Ramona or anything having to do with that storyline.
  • Is Elfman super sad about that kiss?
  • It makes total sense that Neil Gross would care more about losing his precious money in his divorce settlement than anything to do with this jury verdict, but it’s still super gross.
  • Prady’s points about Cary’s white privilege are very correct.
  • Very nice to see Broad City’s Arturo Castro! Even if it was as a nameless kitchen worker :(
  • I want to reiterate that there really are some aspects of the episode that I like and that contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way! Like, as I mentioned, pretty much everything Nora says! But all the things I liked are pretty much negated by just how awful that whole kitchen sequence is.
  • Caption for the photo running with this review: Two white people discuss American race relations over sandwiches.
  • Hate parting ways with one of my favorite shows on television on such a sour note, but starting next Sunday, football takes over our TV screens for a while. The official return date has yet to be announced. But until then, take care! Try to remember this show can do—and usually does—so much better than it did tonight.