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The Good Wife: “Dear God”

Gloria Steinem and Julianna Margulies, CBS
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Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about tonight’s fantastic and crackling episode, “Dear God,” is that Alicia Florrick gets absolutely googly-eyed when confronted with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and sort-of-kind-of decides to run based on Steinem’s exhortations. It’s not that we all wouldn’t go a little weak in the knees, confronted with the founding editor of Ms. Magazine. But I never would have pegged Alicia Florrick for the type of college feminist that would have fawned over a second-wave women’s lib icon like Steinem—not the Alicia who eschews so much of the messiness of progressivism for a sharply tailored skirt-suit and a tastefully understated, expensive watch.

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My friend David Sims (dearly departed from The A.V. Club and from this beat, no less) disagrees with me wholeheartedly, I should say: He thinks it’s perfectly reasonable that Alicia would identify with Steinem as the most palatable feminist icon of the second-wave era; Angela Davis, for example, would be a lot more surprising. (And interesting.) I don’t disagree. But for me, it’s hard to imagine Alicia Florrick ever calling herself a feminist—she seems so wary of any strong identity marker, preferring the trappings of wealth to those of ideologies. Especially the Alicia before Peter’s scandal—the Alicia who left a legal career to be a political wife and mother. That Alicia might be asked at a fundraiser whether or not she was a feminist; I imagine she would respond with a wry smile and something like “not one of those man-hating feminists, anyway.”

Anyway, whether David or I have the right of it, this episode’s stunt-cameo is Steinem—who is a far more natural actress than Valerie Jarrett—and she steers Alicia farther down the path of deciding to run for State’s Attorney, against the increasingly despicable current SA James Castro. And despite my own confusion about what Steinem means to Alicia, she’s sort of perfect for the part—a poised, independent career woman who became famous because she was both smart and beautiful. Steinem’s image of empowerment was the easy pill to swallow, for that era of feminism—and everything else aside, it is very important to Alicia that she be palatable.

There are a lot of isolated wonderful things about “Dear God,” but the primary forward motion of the plot is about bringing Alicia to the point where she tells Eli she’s ready to consider running. And as usual, the episode’s numerous subplots conspire to weigh on Alicia. This show is particularly good at showing us Alicia thinking, and in “Dear God,” she thinks about a lot of things, while navigating a bizarre arbitration and squaring off with Castro about Cary’s drug charges.

And the reason I’m hung up on Alicia’s story in this episode—and in particular on Steinem’s role in it, too—is because Alicia finally blurts out that she’s chosen a side, toward the end of the episode. Eli comes by her office to make one last plea for her to run, and tells her that Peter will endorse Castro if he can’t endorse her. She says: “Castro is a bad man.” That’s stunning language coming from Alicia, Our Lady of Moral Ambiguity, who’s currently protecting a drug dealer from the full force of the law. Alicia has her moments of sudden, intense clarity, but it’s usually about betrayal, not about morals. And even then, it’s always gray: For example, Peter’s infidelity wasn’t something she totally wrote off when it happened. She went back and forth on it a dozen times before finally deciding to be done with him, and that was only finished in the last few months. For Alicia, things aren’t typically wrong, they’re just inconvenient.

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But now, the holy trinity of Gloria Steinem, the God of the Bible, and, well, the ghost of Will Gardner join forces to push her to taking a stand: This guy is a bad guy. The inherent subtext there, of course, is that she, Alicia, is a good guy. But how so? Good because she’s efficient, or because she’s feminist, or because she wouldn’t strong-arm an innocent partner at a law firm into testifying against his client? (And wouldn’t she totally do that, if she had to?) Alicia is only a “saint” because she has thus far resisted getting her hands dirty. But for perhaps the first time in her life, she is now in a place where she wants to get her hands dirty.

You can see it on her face when Castro brings Will into the conversation—it’s a moment that made me gasp ”oh, shit” aloud, even though nothing, like, happens; Alicia does not set him on fire with her eyes, and the ghost of Will does not appear to thrash Castro with a baseball bat. It’s just a cold, destabilizing thing to say, and Castro’s an idiot and a half for thinking that something like that would rattle Alicia, convincing her to back down.

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Weirdly, I had kind of forgotten about Will, and Alicia’s mourning, because so much has been happening this season. But what a sudden, cutting way to remind Alicia of one of her biggest regrets—where hesitation cost her something enormous. Alicia is often her most riled up when she’s threatened personally—so basically, short of badmouthing her kids, Castro says the most inflammatory possible thing, thus sealing his fate as an also-ran in the Legend of Alicia Florrick.

But it’s the “God” of the title and the God of the Bible that takes up the most space in this episode, as Florrick/Agos/Lockhart is drawn into a case that wants to arbitrate using Binding Christian Arbitration—an apparently real thing that uses a process called, literally, the Matthew Process. And though this is interesting in and of itself—and cleverly draws in the usually useless Grace as Alicia’s biblical expert—what’s most interesting about the case is what it prompts Alicia to consider about religion. She exists in the gray areas—where you can pick out a phrase and run with it. Grace (and the Bible) won’t let her off the hook so easy: “You have to look at the whole thing,” Grace insists. It’s all the message, not just the parts that work for you.

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Then later, in the elevator (drink!), she and Taye Diggs’ Dean are chatting, and Dean confides that he wanted to become a priest. But then he read To Kill A Mockingbird, and decided: “I wanted justice in this world, not the next.” Then he asks Alicia: Why did you become a lawyer? And Alicia says the most casually vulnerable thing she’s ever said, off the cuff, right before two lobbyists accost her. “I don’t know what I want.” It’s a mind-boggling statement—and really, it might not be true at all. But it’s admitting some kind of not-knowing, and that seems like a lot, right now.

And then there’s the final exchange with Dean, where she asks him if he still believes in God. This, after their case was settled amicably by two men who are neighbors and co-worshippers, while the lawyers argued and argued at their table. Dean says he does. Alicia says: “I don’t think i’m genetically built to believe in God.” It’s a riff on the GMO seeds, and an acknowledgement of how confusing she finds her own daughter’s faith. And Dean, rightly I think, just totally doesn’t buy it. Because I don’t think it’s really that Alicia doesn’t believe in God; I think she finds it easier to not distinguish between right and wrong. And Dean’s response is a veiled way of saying, “You think you’re beyond morality… but you’re going to discover that you’re not.”

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The Good Wife is never going to tackle these questions in a way that makes them heavy and all-encompassing—as the show itself is happy to remind us, this is no True Detective. But it’s there, it’s present.

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There are no fewer than three guest stars of note in this episode, besides Steinem: Robert Sean Leonard, restrained and folksy as the biblical arbitrator; Richard Thomas as the GMO seed manufacturer, serving some all-American realness; and Linda Lavin, Broadway star, taking a turn as what seems, at first, to be the most easily dismissed side-character in the story. She plays the PSO for Cary’s case—the pre-trial service officer, there to assess Cary in some capacity for some legal hoop having to do with his prison. She works in a labyrinthine concrete warren, section eight, and she’s having some personal trouble which she’s engaging with on the phone.

At first, her questioning is an irritating inconvenience; as the story unfolds, it’s an opportunity for the show to use the characters’ answers as vivid, lovely flashbacks to their past few days—which includes Kalinda and Cary having a lot of post-prison sex. But by the end, Joy Grubick becomes the linchpin for Cary’s defense—and despite the disdain and cynicism and frustration of our protagonists, she ends up concluding in their favor.

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There’s something wonderful about Lavin’s performance, which is so understated that if it weren’t for the fact that I was looking for her, I might have overlooked her entirely. Everything about her delivery of an overworked, underpaid, exhausted public servant is spot-on; the direction notices the knotted veins on the backs of her hands, and the gargling throat-clearing that accompanies her speech. She’s literally just riding out this pony until early retirement and her promised pension, and good for her, too, because it looks like she’s earned it.

It’s funny that the whole episode’s conflicts would end up hinging on the actions of an unimportant public servant named Joy; it’s funny that Gloria Steinem briefly made a joke about Alicia calling her “God,” when she gasps “oh my God” upon spotting her backstage. It’s also profoundly sort of moving—this idea that people can solve their conflicts as friends, and that even overworked case officers care about doing the right thing. Alicia does not believe in God, she says. As the judge observes so pithily at the opening: Life is Kafka’s world of nightmarish horrors, in action. But then, if that all were really true, how could Joy, and joy, so casually save the day?

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Stray observations:

  • Diane’s first appearance in this episode is just a manicured hand on Cary’s shoulder. I approve.
  • “Forgiveness isn’t just a nicety to me; it’s my life.”
  • Alicia rolling her eyes at the opposition determining that their case is “part of God’s plan” might be my new go-to reaction GIF.
  • Hey, a Steve Inskeep cameo! Hooray, Steve Inskeep!
  • Grace, on scripture and poetry: “It can still be true, even if it’s not accurate.”
  • Alicia’s glasses, oh my lord.
  • Kalinda has a lot of stuff to do in this episode (hooray!) but I have less to say about it: It’s classic Kalinda to put herself in between a loved one and danger, and she basically puts everyone behind her so that she’s the primary target for Lemond Bishop’s inevitable wrath. It’s scary, what she’s doing, but for right now, it’s working. I’m intrigued that the show has doubled down on Cary and Kalinda just being in love with each other, without more complication—but he only just got out of prison, so maybe more complication is forthcoming. Archie Panjabi and Matt Czuchry are a lot of fun to watch together, and hey, heavy-breathing nighttime-sex is always fun.
  • Castro is the best character at this point because everyone hates him so deliciously: “Men always have something to say.”
  • Although obviously, Eli is always first in my heart. “THANK YOU NORA, YOUR PRE-COGNITIVE POWERS AMAZE ME.”
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