Eli Gold will not be defeated. After the events of “Payback,” I’ve realized just how important Eli Gold’s arc is this season. Eli has always been one of the show’s major players, but previously, he has been more of an omniscient political puppet master than the Eli we have now. Season seven’s Eli is still his same scheming self, but he isn’t fighting on the behalf of anyone but himself. Eli has always been Peter’s ride or die, but with their fallout at the top of this season, Eli’s running someone else’s campaign now: his own. He doesn’t deny it when Alicia accuses him of using her, and he openly acknowledges she’s using him, cutting through the bullshit. Eli’s playing for himself now, and that makes him a dangerous threat, a force to be reckoned with.

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Excepting his initial extreme, albeit quick, spiral immediately after Peter fired him, “Payback” shows Eli at his most vulnerable. When he runs to Peter’s office, all boastful and giddy about the negative headlines in the press that he thinks are a sure reason Peter will turn on Ruth and trust him again, he’s met with much more than rejection. He’s met with complete indifference. Peter and Ruth don’t even look at him as they celebrate the latest poll numbers that show Peter in second. It’s a wonderfully staged scene rooted firmly in Eli’s perspective—in his boiling anger that’s heightened by the turbulent score.

“Payback” is a wonderfully staged episode overall, with great direction from Craig Zisk. The two overhead shots of Lucca and Alicia sitting down for their arbitration and Lockhart, Agos, & Lee sitting down for mediation are particularly beautiful. And then the sequence that intercuts between the two is well written, succinctly getting to the meat of both issues, as well as well edited, giving the scene a symmetrical and cohesive feel. The Lockhart, Agos, & Lee plot is the only part of the episode that doesn’t tie together with everything else, but that ends up not mattering, because the direction makes the stories feel connected even when they aren’t. The fact that Alicia’s path has diverged so significantly from Cary and Diane’s isn’t a problem, so long as the writers find ways to keep Lockhart, Agos, & Lee relevant and not too distantly separated from everything else. In this case, the symmetry between their mediation and Lucca and Alicia’s arbitration is all it takes to give a sense of cohesion.

Plus, it helps that the ongoing rivalry between Cary and Howard finally comes together and ends up feeling like more than just a sideshow. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but for the first time ever, a Howard Lyman-led storyline works. Of course, it’s an odd choice to place Howard at the center of what’s overall a really poignant conversation about aging in the workplace. After all, Howard is repeatedly guilty of sexual harassment in the office. It’s a lot for the episode to ask us to side with him, even if he is a victim. But I don’t really think that’s what the writers are doing here.

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This is quite possibly the most substantive storyline Howard Lyman has ever had, and for once, he’s more of a real character instead of just the office fool. But the storyline isn’t an attempt to make us sympathize with Howard. The Good Wife is largely uninterested in painting distinct lines between good people, bad people, victims, and bullies. It doesn’t need heroes to prove a point. The storyline asks us to consider, for just a moment, that Howard is making a legitimate claim. Because really, he is. Do I agree with Cary’s theory that Howard planted the adult diapers in his office? Yes. Again, this is Howard Lyman. He’s a piece of shit, and he mostly knows it. But does he also have a point about Cary creating a hostile environment through his ageist comments? He does. The writers don’t want us to feel bad for Howard, but they do want to make us think about ageism in the workplace. But even more than that, the storyline is about privilege and self-preservation, two of the central themes to The Good Wife. Howard is only pursuing this so hard because of his pride, because he wants to feel important at a firm where, let’s be honest, he truly does nothing. Howard isn’t pursuing justice. He’s pursuing payback on Cary. He’s pursuing power for himself, just like Eli is pursuing his self-serving payback on Peter, no matter how many obstacles get in his way. In the case of Howard though, the writers still get to weave in smart commentary that isn’t undermined by Howard’s own motivations.

“Payback” also digs deep into the issues of predatory loans and for-profit colleges and once again does so in a way that addresses the complexity of the issue while acknowledging the power dynamics at play. The Good Wife wouldn’t be an interesting show if it meticulously asked us to hear “both sides” of every issue. With “Payback,” it’s clear that Collosseum is taking advantage of vulnerable students. But as arbitration unfolds, those on the side of the university aren’t written as heartless monsters. They make compelling statements, even though they still are very clearly in the wrong. Again, it’s not so much showing “both sides” as acknowledging that everyone involved is a real person and not just a monolithic villain or hero. The case is smart on its own, but then it actually seeps over into the political side of things when Eli meddles and suggests the strike, which he knows will negatively impact Peter’s campaign. The thread weaving most of this season together is made of Gold.

Stray observations

  • Some of the best points made within the debt case had to do with how taking out loans affects students’ ability to be good students. Yes, the loans made it possible for Maggie to attend school, but she had to work two jobs, which made her miss class.
  • Marissa Gold returns and, like a true Gold, tries to manipulate her own father via Alicia, but it doesn’t quite work out.
  • Marissa: “I’m a witch.”
  • It has been pretty clear ever since he was introduced that Jason has a bit of a dark side, but it comes fully out in “Payback.” Knowing this show though, those questionable methods will probably come back to bite him.
  • Christian Borle’s Carter Schmidt returns to be deadpan as ever.
  • Even though I do love bond court, I didn’t miss it here…probably because Alicia and Lucca slaying together, with unison objections, is everything I’ve wanted ever since the season premiere.
  • Alicia decides to have post-work drinks with Jason instead of Lucca.

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