In its sixth season, The Good Wife has become a different show, mostly because of the main ensemble’s break up. It simply isn’t an ensemble-driven show anymore, with Cary, Diane, and Alicia existing in their own worlds that only come in contact with one another every so often and in largely weightless ways. Kalinda’s in a different universe entirely. “Don’t Fail,” however, lives in the past—specifically, in 2009, when the relationship dynamics between the major players were more compelling, cohesive, and frankly, more fun. And as a result, even though the episode does little to move the story forward to its season finale, it’s one of the more enjoyable episodes of recent weeks.

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“Don’t Fail” doesn’t only flash back to the past; it feels like a past episode of The Good Wife, getting back to the early roots of letting the Case Of The Week drive the majority of the episode’s narrative. One of Lockhart Gardner’s old clients Brett Tatro (Dorian Missick) calls upon Alicia to help him beat murder charges. Alicia represented Tatro in court back when she was an associate, along with Cary as her second chair. They won the case when it was just a matter of attempted murder, but now that the man Tatro allegedly attacked in a strip club parking lot has died, he’s on trial again under new charges, brought forth by none other than Matan Brody.

Alicia decides to take on the case at the insistence of Finn Polmar, whose succinct pep talk is the titular line. She converts her dining room into a makeshift office, and it’s a nice callback to when the Florrick residence served as the Florrick Agos headquarters for that brief, exciting time. Only now, Alicia is alone, working the case as a firmless lawyer. But the interview tapes from the first trial allow her to return to 2009, to a time when she and Kalinda were close friends and she and Cary were, well, not necessarily friends, but at least had a more defined and emotionally honest relationship than they do now. Is going back in time the only way to craft a cogent storyline between both Alicia and Cary? Unfortunately, yeah. With Alicia out of the law firm for good and Cary’s place in the show being so unclear right now, jumping back to 2009 is really the only way to bring them together. And it does lead to a solid scene in the present, as Cary and Alicia reminisce—over glasses of red wine, of course—on the starry-eyed innocence of their younger selves.

Throughout “Don’t Fail,” Alicia seeks purification. She misses the time when she thought the law was wholly good. She quite literally cleans out Zack’s old bedroom to convert it into her new home office, which could presumably become the starting place for an eventual Florrick Polmar firm, as Alicia asks Finn to join her at episode’s end. Amber (played by the wonderful Aya Cash), the very green defense lawyer she works with as co-counsel on the Tatro case, is a physical reminder in the present of who she used to be, someone who believed in hard lines between right and wrong.

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But even as Alicia longs for the simplicity of the past and to go back to only helping the people she wants to help, she can’t escape certain truths. She poisons Amber by convincing her they can remain within the law by not telling the full truth—a little trick young Alicia learned from Kalinda back in the day. It doesn’t seem right, but it’s legal, and it helps them keep an innocent man out of prison. Even though she sometimes struggles to get away from her past (Amber remarks that her mother admires Alicia’s decision to stand by Peter), Alicia has grown so much since her days of being an associate at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. After going down many different paths this season, she finally seems more certain of what she wants: to start her own firm…again, as Grace points out. But now things can be truly on her own terms, and Alicia has long desired that level of control over her life.

Alicia’s self-centered tendencies are also on display in this episode, as her fear of failing again takes over. Finn, like the good drinking buddy he is, tells her to just get over herself. People will move on about the election, and she has to, too. Although, in Alicia’s defense, people don’t seem to have entirely moved on from Peter. And in fact, a lot of Alicia’s decisions in this episode that might, on the surface, seem like they’re coming from a self-centered place, are also just coming from a place of needing to be in control of her own image. Matan compares Alicia to Peter, and that’s all it takes to get her in it to win it with Tatro’s case. Alicia wants people to see her succeeding, but that’s because too many people still see her as Peter Florrick’s wife.

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As effective as the glimpses into the past are, they also just reinforce how weak the relationship dynamics and storytelling in the present is at this point. Diane, for example, doesn’t appear in the present at all this week (though she’s barely in the flashbacks either). More than anything else, Kalinda and Alicia’s relationship has changed the most radically from 2009. Most of what I said about the trajectory of their relationship last week still applies here: The flashbacks to their post-work drinks and intimacy would carry much more weight if their relationship in the present made any semblance of sense. But, I’ll hold my tongue. Because showrunners Robert and Michelle King—who co-wrote tonight’s episode—have promised Kalinda will appear in next week’s finale and that we’ll get a little more closure between Alicia and Kalinda. I doubt that means things will be all tequila and bliss, but I’ll settle for just some good old-fashioned eye contact at this point.

“Don’t Fail” doesn’t feel like a penultimate episode, but the time it takes to step back (literally) and breathe provides some relief after several weeks of storytelling too tied up in the season’s longer arcs. “Don’t Fail” reminds that the Case Of The Week structure is where The Good Wife once excelled. We can wait until the finale for the supercharged drama.

Stray observations:

  • It really speaks to Julianna Margulies’s acting abilities that she can make Alicia’s descent into boredom as engaging as the character’s bigger moments. Alicia spends the first several minutes of the episode idling about, busying herself with simple tasks, drinking wine, making calls. And Margulies makes you feel the character’s restlessness with subtle physical choices.
  • I don’t really have anything to say about Alicia Florrick in a leather-billed baseball cap other than I really love Alicia Florrick in a leather-billed baseball cap.
  • “Hi, Mrs. Florrick! I’m such a fan!” Aya Cash’s character speaks for us all.
  • Speaking as someone whose childhood bedroom was almost immediately converted into an impersonal off-white guest room the second she moved out of college, Zach Florrick is not going to be pleased when he comes home.
  • I had the feeling that the first flashback of Kalinda and Alicia being drunk and adorable together was archival footage, and my suspicions were more or less confirmed when the second flashback was so obviously shot separately and then spliced together. As nice as it was to remember a time when Alicia and Kalinda’s drinking scenes had as much chemistry and humor as Alicia and Finn’s drinking scenes, it all makes me wonder what their finale scene is going to physically look like.
  • I leave you with this:

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