The very simple narrative structure of “Self Condemned,” the penultimate episode of The Good Fight’s first season, works to its advantage. As it flits between just two central storylines, the episode doesn’t become bogged down by its swollen cast. The show has made thrills of its own chaos in more densely packed episodes, but “Self Condemned” is a welcome respite from that chaos, thrilling with its quieter moments and its deep-dive into characters’ heads instead of just being concerned with the flourish of their words.
In one storyline, there’s a new police brutality case that brings Adrian and Diane full circle in their work relationship, as it concerns Andrew Thoreau, the dirty cop from the case in the pilot that first brought Adrian and Diane together. Of the two storylines in “Self Condemned,” this is the louder, more theatrical one, particularly because it sees the return of a Good Wife fan favorite: Dylan Baker’s Colin Sweeney. The police brutality case takes a turn when Diane and Adrian realize that this white billionaire wife killer (allegedly) is the victim. Part of Sweeney’s allure as a character is that you genuinely never know if he’s telling the truth, and the writers rarely provide concrete evidence in the end to tip you one way or another. Diane becomes pretty convinced he’s telling the truth, but that’s how it always goes with Sweeney at first. He’s always his own worst enemy in court.
But Adrian sees the case as a chance to get Thoreau thrown off the force for good, which in and of itself reflects some dark realities about how difficult it is to fight back against police brutality in the legal system. Despite being pretty much universally hated by all who encounter him, Sweeney’s whiteness protects him, makes it more likely for a judge to rule in his favor. And Sweeney capitalizes on his whiteness, attempting to co-opt narratives by comparing himself to Rodney King, ironically declaring “all lives matter” in court as he attempts to benefit from the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a stunning spectacle of white privilege in its most insidious form. Sweeney cares only for himself, and he uses the violence perpetrated against Black people to his advantage, construing himself as a victim. It wasn’t an act of racial violence that was committed against him, and it’s baffling for him to draw any parallels between himself and someone who has suffered racial violence at the hands of police. But again, he’s a means to an end. And in fact, his case exposes that Thoreau planted heroin on a Black man in order to arrest him, once again revealing Thoreau’s true colors as a racist, power-abusing cop.
Sweeney makes a splashy appearance in the episode, but even though he’s the headliner of “Self Condemned,” he doesn’t overshadow the other storyline that weaves the episode together. Though it mostly unfolds in the confines of an overcrowded office, Maia and Lucca’s storyline actually has more dynamics and movement than the Sweeney case. Maia’s interview with an FBI agent named Madeline, played by Jane Lynch, makes “Self Condemned” the potent, cutting episode that it is, provoking with its scrutiny of the pliable nature of memory. The Good Wife played with memory often, most memorably in “The Decision Tree.” And “Self Condemned” similarly bores into a character’s head—in this case, Maia’s.
Lucca, whose sharp suspicion targeted at Madeline adds tension to the scenes, warns Maia against saying too much or speaking in absolutes. The proffer outlining the terms of this volunteer interview only protects Maia so long as she doesn’t get caught in a lie. Madeline, of course, will do anything to catch her in a lie, using a feigned folksy act to nudge her way into Maia’s mind. (Lucca exposing that folksy act is a delicious moment.) The Good Fight finds humor in strange places: Birds keeps crashing into Madeline’s windows, falling to their death. Even the way Madeline sips her iced beverage is oddly funny, and of course Lynch brings humor to the character with her delivery.
Lucca’s iciness, the comedy, and Madeline’s subtly nefarious nature imbue the scenes with thrills and specificity, but the scenes are most captivating when we’re positioned in Maia’s mind. We see flashes of her memories throughout. At first, she recalls being home on the day the Lehman brothers went bankrupt, remembering seeing her father react, placing Jax there, too. Madeline swiftly shoots down that memory, informing Maia that she had a gynecologist appointment that day. It’s an innocent enough mistake to misremember something that happened nine years ago, but when Madeline shows Maia all of the appointments she had that were marked on her mother’s calendar that year, Maia recalls bursts of those memories, only to then be told the appointments never happened. Lenore used appointments with Maia as a cover-up for her affair with Jax. Those memories of her mother at the gynecologist with her, at the dentist, they’re all false memories or mixed up memories or remixed memories. Madeline yanks the foundation of Maia’s memories out from under her, leaving her to spiral.
Madeline shares a quick but effective story about remembering a memory of her sister’s as her own. That story, and the way the flashbacks are edited, tellingly convey how memories get remixed over time, affected by our emotions. In Maia’s case, her guilt is coloring her memories. As the title suggests, she’s condemning herself. In flashbacks to her 18th birthday, Maia remembers Diane talking casually with her parents about Madoff, asking if they think Ruth Madoff knew. Diane believes there’s no way she couldn’t have known, suggesting that she just didn’t want to know. Maia is the Ruth Madoff in this situation. Or rather, she convinces herself she is. She recalls dissuading her girlfriend Amy from letting her parents contribute to the fund, lying to her about asking Henry to make an exception to the minimum contribution rule for them. She didn’t want Amy’s parents’ money tied up in the Rindell fund, and Maia in the present convinces herself that she must have known about the Ponzi scheme on some level. Lucca points out there are plenty of other reasons for her to have done what she did, like not wanting to mix love and money. And the episode doesn’t land on any concrete answers, instead keeping Maia’s motivations hazy and nebulous, like the memories she can’t quite grasp. Did she know? Maia remains unsure of the truth, and we do, too.
That uncertainty, that frustration with the ephemerality of memory permeates this story, putting us firmly in Maia’s head for the duration. The flashbacks are some of the best executed flashbacks I’ve seen (up there with Big Little Lies, which has masterful flashbacks), each of them adding to the story but also developing Maia and the other characters involved in the scandal. Her hazy recollection of a particular kiss between Lenore and Jax is particularly telling, suggesting something else that she possibly knew about on a subconscious level and then repressed. The connection between her and Amy during the flashbacks to her 18th birthday is conveyed simply but convincingly with stolen glances and a secret makeout session. Throughout “Self Condemned,” Maia tries to make sense of her memories, and she never quite does. Questioning her memories makes her question herself, and Rose Leslie effectively conveys the free fall that causes with her little twitches, shifting her weight like she can’t find the ground beneath her.
- The Good Callback: My skin crawls at Sweeney’s pronunciation of “Alicia” every time.
- The Good Fashion: I loved Lucca’s look throughout. Diane’s blue dress at Maia’s 18th birthday party is stunning. What was that weird “Blonde Bestie” tank-top Amy was wearing in one of the flashbacks though?
- Adrian and Diane’s conversation about whether they’re happy or not makes for a great scene, especially as it uncovers some of the main motivations for these characters. For Diane, her work is her identity. Adrian remarks that he likes “getting the better of people,” hinting at his fondness for courtroom theatrics.
- Barbara again doesn’t get enough screen time, but her no-bulshit attitude with Sweeney is great.