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The Good Wife: “Oppo Research”

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“I like clarity. I like rules.”
“And you wanted to help people with those rules.”
“No. I know I’m supposed to say yes. I just wanted to be inside something that made sense to me. I never thought about—”
“People?”
“Yeah.”

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Alicia Florrick is nobody’s saint.

“Oppo Research” is basically perfect, so there isn’t so much to pick apart, in terms of why the showrunners made the decisions they did, or how the narrative arcs are shaping up. But in thinking about how Robert and Michelle King are continuing to write Alicia Florrick—in what is her second-to-last season—it is fascinating seeing the term “Saint Alicia” tossed around, because she’s moved so far past that.

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Indeed: I’d argue this episode is a real-time deconstruction of Saint Alicia, starting with the huge stack of “skeletons in the closet” that Eli brings to her dining table and ending with her purely dismissive, pissed-off signoff to her son Zach, previously touted as one of her two raisons-de-etre. “Why are you running for State’s Attorney?” he asks, a perfectly reasonable question. Alicia’s reply is equal parts annoyance and avoidance: “Have fun in college, Zach.”

Something that has been coming up again and again this season is how Alicia is grappling with her own ethical compass—trying to ascertain what she wants, who she is, why she does what she does, what her point is. It’s interesting, then, that she really doesn’t know, and yet is sliding headlong into a story where she has to stand for things—a lot of things—and along the way, will be asking much of her friends and family. And though her retribution is swift, and her justice complete, it’s still not clear why she’s doing what she’s doing.

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As we’ve seen time and time again, one of the primary things that sets Alicia off is disloyalty—to the point that she trusts fewer and fewer people, because being betrayed is not worth the pain. After Will died and she distanced herself from Peter, there was almost no one left—except, apparently, her children. Her fury at Zach is intense to behold, because it is so loving, so righteous, and so total. Margulies uses that one line of revelation as an opportunity to channel on-screen meltdown, making angry phone calls and threatening to cut off Zach financially and assuming that his dishonesty in this quadrant means dishonesty in others.

We’ve seen this before—from Alicia, sure, but most recently, from Will’s anger toward Alicia, starting with “Hitting The Fan.” It strikes me that this might be what she and Will had most in common, or maybe she needed his intense loyalty to counterbalance the betrayal that overturned her entire life. But what’s interesting—and demonstrated in both “Hitting The Fan” and this episode—is while Alicia demands that loyalty from others, she does not extend it herself. Alicia betrayed Will last year. In this season, she fires Lemond Bishop and maneuvers around Cary to get Diane onboard her firm. And she is almost cruel to her family, in the denouement of confronting them about the skeletons they’ve put in her closet. Veronica is impervious to criticism, and her scandal—mild, unasked for spanking of a total stranger’s child in a department store—is mostly played up for laughs.

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But Owen’s tragedy—for it is a tragedy—turns from funny to terrible so quickly that it feels like a sudden knife to the kidney. Alicia delivers her brother news that is earth-shattering in the same off-the-cuff way that her near-stranger campaign manager told her about Zach and Nissa’s abortion; but while Alicia is an ice queen, her brother far from it. As far as unlikely siblings go, Alicia and Owen are some of the most so—but it’s shocking, also, how little empathy she’s able to extend to him in that moment.

I think one of the major reasons that The Good Wife is so funny—as discussed in detail here by Mo Ryan at The Huffington Post—is that what’s happening around the comedy is at times horrifically tragic. Actual human connection is in short shrift in The Good Wife’s Chicago; almost everyone in this show is using everyone else they meet, which makes the few moments of true affection pop by comparison. Fiction is full of a lot of idealism, in any medium; The Good Wife in particular eschews it almost entirely.

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If I had to point to a selfish reason that I miss Josh Charles, it’s this: Will’s warmth with Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda, romantic and otherwise, was a counterpoint to the cynicism that at times seems to drench the show. Kalinda and Alicia are so estranged at this point that their friendship is a distant memory; Diane and Alicia and Cary largely relate to each other professionally, some hugs aside. It’s not all desolation and loss (as Darkness At Noon is); it’s just, you know, chilly.

Enter Finn Polmar, naturally, who has to have his few moments in the spotlight in this episode, even though he’s barely involved in the story. The writers do a fantastic job with finding a reason to bring him into Alicia’s life, constantly; he’s the only person who she could really count as a friend, right now, and he’s opposing counsel on one of her biggest cases. He happened to enter her life at a time where her typically very high boundaries were dropped, and now that he’s found a spot, he’s not letting go. I am not ’shipping, I swear, but even the lighting in the scene with Alicia and Finn is softer and more forgiving than anything else in “Oppo Research”; the banter between the two of them acknowledges their mutual interest in each other, though neither of them is willing to let it go farther. And maybe that’s a good thing: Saint Alicia is under a lot of scrutiny, and her campaign is just getting started.

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But in her unflinching determination to win, I wish she’d find a way to answer the question that both her new campaign manager Johnny Elfman (played by an improbably coiffed Steve Pasquale) and her son pose her: Why are you running, Alicia? What is the point of your life? And if it’s just to win, why are you so stressed out about accepting several thousand dollars from Lemond Bishop in a PAC that can’t easily be traced to you? After all, it’s just politics.

Stray observations:

  • Having just seen The X-Files: Fight The Future, all the running around in cornfields in Darkness At Noon had me assuming that one of our heroes was going to start yelling “SCULLAAYYY!” Aside from the entirely on-point parody of both Darkness At Noon and Talking At Noon, its AMC-style after-show talk show, the best part of this whole adventure was that Alicia really didn’t want to hear spoilers, because she is a fan of this hilarious show with cornfields, portentous death speeches, and an elk.
  • Glasses of red wine: Three for Alicia; one each for Eli, Owen, and Veronica. One aborted, but the wine glass came out to say hi. That brings my count to a full seven. Alicia’s flirting with the lush life, huh?
  • Talking At Noon included cameos from Joe Weisberg, showrunner of The Americans, and comedian Carmen Lynch. The Good Wife is a show about TV on TV for TV people.
  • A thousand wonderful quotes in this episode; it’s one of the most tightly written scripts the show’s produced. “Irony is dead now—you’re campaigning.” “Good news tends not to last.” And the cutting and brilliant: “I’m not your superhero, Mr. Elfman. You want to go find someone to restore your faith in humanity? Don’t waste my time—or yours.”
  • Emily Nussbaum introduced a theory on Twitter that blew my mind, and is worth discussing, if only to debunk it: What if Intern Lauren is not Peter’s fling, but Peter’s daughter, with Connie Nielsen’s character Ramona? It would explain the odd favoritism, for sure.
  • Eight months until the election, which means that it looks like this arc is carrying us through to the finale. And that means that season one of this show was about Alicia’s disgrace, and the final season will be about her triumph, and whether or not she’s learned anything in the middle will be up for debate.
  • Alicia’s face at the phrase “barebacked gay porn.” Oh my God. That’s a whole sub-episode in and of itself.
  • Eli is a treasure and a joy. “See? See? Tough cookie,” his subtle way of selling Alicia to Johnny, was excellent. And then he said: “You ever seen The Matrix?” Now I can die happy.
  • Not enough David Lee.
  • Theories as to why Elfman decided Alicia was a good candidate? I think there are a lot of possibilities, but his decision came immediately after she admitted to not really caring about helping people. Either he really admires the opposite of altruism or he’s reading something else into that situation.
  • This is such a painful thing to impart, but: This is my last review of The Good Wife here at The A.V. Club. I’m going to be the television critic for Salon starting in two weeks. I will definitely be writing about the show there; Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will be taking over weekly reviews here. The community here around this show has been my favorite to write for, and The Good Wife is the very first show I started recapping (a thousand years ago, on another site), so this is very sad for me. Stay woke, drink four glasses of red wine a night, and never let the bastards see that it’s a wig, because that’s what Alicia would do, always.
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