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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Good Wife: “The Decision Tree”

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Start to finish, Christmas music to post-coital lesbian scene, multiple choice cross-examination fantasy to episode-ending spit take, Donna Brazile cameo to the posthumous reappearance of beloved Matthew Ashbaugh (John Noble), The Good Wife was just showing off for its hundredth episode, only the tenth installment of this truly electrifying fifth season. “The Decision Tree” revolved around a will, drawn up in magic marker by Ashbaugh, that supposedly bequeathed Alicia $12 million. But it was really just a MacGuffin to delve back into Alicia and Will’s romantic past and offer insight into Will’s bruised feelings in the present. The past few episodes have been about outright warfare between Will and Alicia, but this saw them both take more cautious, tactical approaches with each other.

We’re seeing things more from Will’s perspective too, which helps change the conversation a little bit. We’ve been checking in with Will all season, but just to watch him call Lockhart/Gardner to arms and plot Florrick/Agos’ downfall. His nutty affair with the phantom yoga lady emphasized what a deep dive his brain had taken, and how difficult it was to sympathize with him, even if he was arguably the wronged party—spurned by the woman he loves, who then attempts to take some of his professional clients away too.

Will is alternately emo and vengeful in this episode. He represents Ashbaugh’s widow, looking to prove that the Alicia will is false, and is about to lose the probate case when he decides to call Alicia to the stand and accuse her of taking advantage of Ashbaugh, who obviously had a bit of a crush on her. The question isn’t so much whether Ashbaugh was crazy (although Will thinks he was—a nicely subtle flashback sees him staring at a seemingly vacant Ashbaugh through the firm’s fishbowl windows). It’s whether Alicia improperly influenced him.

Will has some evidence that she might have, but it’s something she told him when they were in bed together. This information unfolds beautifully. The episode, written by showrunners Robert and Michelle King, doles out information in delectable morsels. When Will calls Alicia to the stand, we know he’s got something up his sleeve, but we can’t even figure out if Alicia has an idea of what that is. Then we watch Will, at home, draw up a tree of questions for Alicia on the stand, and interact with her as a fantasy witness, in his head (and before our eyes).

It’s crazy enthralling to watch. We see Alicia’s admission of manipulative, flirty behavior in flashback, behavior we’ve seen her execute from time to time, but usually much more coyly, almost by mistake. Is this more aggressive person Will’s tinted perception? Is it twisted by his knowledge that she’ll betray him in the future? “You knew that he was in love with you, and you used it to get your way,” Will says to fantasy Alicia, and to himself. “Not intentionally.” “So it’s just the way you are with men?” He reduces this avatar of an ex-girlfriend to tears, shouting at her about stealing his clients, and finishes with “Stop it. I don’t like it when you’re weak.”

It’s a creepy, sad sort of triumph for Will, albeit an imagined one. This is his version of events: Alicia betrayed him, and broke his heart, in search of power and advancement. We know that’s not the whole story, and we know Will’s foibles just as well, but we sympathize anyway. Huge, huge props to Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles for their work in all their scenes together this week. I was never opposed to the Will/Alicia romance, although it ended up feeling a little drawn out, because they had such good chemistry. But they have even better chemistry as adversaries.


Will’s triumph over Alicia is only in his head. She takes the stand with all of her poise, that deadly look she’s refined over the years, and devastates Will’s case. Yes, she wielded undue influence, she tells him. Over the first will, the one leaving all his savings to his widow. With David Lee breathing down her neck. Again, it’s a MacGuffin. The case turns out to be meaningless—Ashbaugh wrote several wills, all to different women, and they will all be discounted. But Alicia’s performance is crucial. Don’t try this again, she’s telling Will. His attempt to use their relationship as a weapon will fail, since she can hit back with her time at the firm. Mutually assured destruction. The active combat of their war cannot continue forever.

I can’t stress enough how strong a run The Good Wife has made in this fifth season, and I only pray that it keeps it up in 2014 (this is the last new episode that will air before January). I spent this whole review basically talking about one scene in an episode filled with them. Clarke Hayden’s halting, but successful first cross-examination was lovely to see. Peter’s run-in with Lemond Bishop at the Florrick/Agos holiday party was terrifically tense. I’d actually like to see more of Veronica and Diane fighting over holiday decorations. And I could write a whole essay on Eli’s spit take to close the episode, which basically justified any bad decision the show has made with that character over the years. Everyone who isn’t watching The Good Wife, it’s time to start watching The Good Wife. Trust me, not one of you will regret it.


Stray observations:

  • A pregnant Marilyn (Melissa George) is now walking around Chicago with a sound system attached to her stomach, in case you didn’t already realize that she’s the most annoying person in the universe.
  • I guess I have to download this “Smack Talk” app, simply to give thanks for making Margulies utter the line “And you pushed the farting button?” on TV.
  • Eli admonishes Jackie to put up diverse holiday decorations. She holds up a dreidel. “I have a Hanukkah too.”
  • No thanks to Kalinda/Boyle, no thanks to random blonde cop she sleeps with. No thanks. Ignoring. I want to give this episode an A and I will.
  • Too bad Colin Sweeney couldn’t show up to the party, that would have been something.
  • Eli had a good week. “Thank God. Thank your Christian Jesus God.”
  • The best line of the episode goes to Zack of all people, shocked at the appearance of Lemond Bishop. “Sometimes I think of you as mom, and other times just as this interesting person who lives in our house.”