(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
“Red Team/Blue Team” is a phenomenal hour-long character study of Alicia Florrick, the heart and soul of the The Good Wife. Julianna Margulies is able to play Alicia with a vivid honesty that leaps off the screen and changes with the character, not just scene-to-scene, but even shot-to-shot. This episode has to go in Margulies’ Emmy reel. It is certainly the best episode of the season so far and perhaps my favorite episode of the show to date.
It’s quite a privilege to be stepping in to review one of my favorite shows, and a further one to take it from one of my favorite reviewers for such a great episode. Some of you might not know me from other reviews, which is entirely understandable. But let me introduce myself by saying that there is no way I can start talking about “Red Team/Blue Team” without first addressing the fact that Will and Alicia totally kiss.
As far as workplace dramas go, it’s a slightly cliché moment—Alicia and Will are yelling at each other in her office, and as they keep inching toward each other, you keep thinking—are they going to? Are they going to? And then they do, and then even they realize how cliché it is, and they back off. Alicia scolds herself all the way to the elevator, running away from the situation as fast as possible, and the elevator doors close on her.
Alicia’s relationship with Will has historically been marked by elevator doors opening and closing at appropriate times. (Want a fun drinking game? Take a shot every time elevators are used as a plot device in The Good Wife. You will be drunk very quickly.) It’s a little trope that plays on the idea of timing, which has always been a major component of their relationship—the understanding of what could have been. Every closing door is another missed connection.
But of course the other reality is that Will and Alicia see each other primarily at work, and at work there are a lot of elevators. And Alicia’s relationship to her work—the one area of her life in which she has, you could argue, the most autonomy—is central to “Red Team/Blue Team.” The episode starts of innocuously enough: Alicia and Cary, fourth-year associates, friends, and soon-to-be partners, are asked to play the opposition in a mock trial being run on one of Lockhart/Gardner’s cases. That puts Alicia and Cary against Will and Diane, of all people, sitting on opposite sides of the courtroom, in front of a judge. At first, it’s funny. Even Alicia laughs. They’re on the same side! The potential for humor, or at least awkwardness, seems infinite.
But then David Lee (one of the series’ best characters, let’s be real) ungently informs Alicia that her partnership offer has been delayed for a year. The partners are eager to keep as much profit as they can, and this means shoving off the newbies for another year. Perhaps the other fourth-years are upset, but Alicia is furious, in her contained, Alicia way. And so the courtroom becomes a proxy battleground for another conflict entirely—the battle for Alicia’s own self-respect.
I’m not convinced that Alicia really wants partnership. It’s more, I think, that she wants what she’s entitled to—and more than that, she wants loyalty. She expects the promises made to her to be kept. And I think it’s safe to say, too, that Lockhart Gardner, her workplace, became a substitute for her marriage in the aftermath of her falling out with Peter. Her single-minded dedication to it—her emotional investment in it—her romantic relationship with her boss—these are all facets of that bond.
And then it betrays her.
Here’s the thing: Alicia Florrick is a damned good lawyer. The opening statement she gives in this mock trial is so good she’s wiping the floor with the competition before Will and Diane even get a chance to speak. Anyone who crosses Alicia lives to rue the day. So when the firm she has been so dedicated to gives her a reason to exercise righteous indignation, Alicia goes to the mattresses, guns blazing, sure and confident in her purpose. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Because Alicia is also a shark. I mean, I think that’s something that has been increasingly clear as the show’s progressed—the way she manifested success and power in her former life was through her perfect family. Now that she’s in the corporate world, she manifests success by being very, very good at her job. That sometimes requires her to be manipulative. That sometimes requires her to cut and run. Either way, she has her eyes on the prize.
And yet it seems that even Alicia is not fully aware of her own capabilities. Margulies’ performance of Alicia in this episode is incredible, because the force of personality shines right out of her, whether she is plotting how to get back at the partners with the other fourth-years in her living room or raising objections against her boss and former lover in court. But that power comes out almost exclusively when she’s cornered. Undisturbed, Alicia is happy to be a mother, a wife, an employee. She wants what she was promised, but she doesn’t want it all. It’s a power that comes out of self-respect rather than out of ambition. So after the meeting in her living room, when her co-conspirator Cary is preparing to leave, he tells her—why not form their own firm? Florrick, Agos, and Associates? They could each pull in a few clients from Lockhart/Gardner, and Alicia, well, she’ll be the governor’s wife. Perhaps Alicia thought about it, but deep down, she knows, that’s not her style. She wants to play by the rules just as much as she wants to win.
It’s the fundamental contradiction to this character at the center of this complex show. Alicia herself is a contradiction—pulled toward the strictures of duty and responsibility just as she’s driven by her own substantial talent and willpower to succeed. Alicia, like anyone, is at times blinded by her own illusions of who she is. She berates herself on the way to the elevator after the kiss: “You don’t do that.” But obviously, she does. So who does Alicia want to be?
Again, it seems like the crucial moment is the kiss. I’m not sure if Alicia herself knows why she kissed Will right then. (Perhaps this is presumptuous, but I think I know why he kissed her.) Perhaps it’s neither duty nor her own willpower that drives her in that moment—it’s purely the separate desire she feels for him. It’s true that alone among the partners, she blames him for the politics. She punishes him in the courtroom and blows up at him in her office. Her work identity is intimately tied to Will, for better or for worse, and with it her sense of loyalty and betrayal.
But it’s also true that the kiss is a subtle kind of self-sabotage. It’s duty and ambition pulling at each other. Alicia’s good enough to win this case on her own. She’s playing the partners so well that they’re running in circles trying to corral the fourth-years before they have a mutiny on their hands. She’s got Will backed into a corner, Diane on the ropes, Cary on her side, and clients waiting at lunch. So why does she do the one thing that would make her doubt her own success? The next day, when David Lee brusquely re-offers her (and only her) the partnership, she immediately goes to Will, because she doubts whether or not she earned it on her own merits, or because… they kissed. That’s crazy—or to be more exact, that’s the deep-seated insecurity of a woman who typically only values herself based on the men around her. To my mind Alicia is torn between being two different kinds of women—one is the woman she is. The other is the “good wife.” Perhaps the former is the one that kissed Will (though I’m not sure). But the latter is the one that asked him why she was promoted.
Will, to his credit, has always loved Alicia for the former, not the latter. I think it speaks a lot to their relationship, and her trust in him, that she allows herself to be angry, bitter, and pained at him—it’s a combination of feelings she’s rarely unleashed at Peter, and Peter, truly, is the one who has betrayed her again and again. This season Alicia’s been poised on the edge of a knife with Peter—falling back under his spell for a time, and then pushing him away again. It may be a bit of a false dichotomy to conflate Will with her “true” self and Peter with her “good wife” self, but that opposition has been there from the start of the show.
The Good Wife thrives on the gray area—the indeterminate space between poles, whether that is the muck that is moderate Democratic politics or the hazy area between right and wrong in a court case. In this particular instance, the gray area is Alicia’s character itself. Who is she, at any given moment? Indeed, who will she decide to be? “Red Team/Blue Team” reminds me that we can trust The Good Wife to cleave to the truths of their characters over the course of years. The writers let the drama build up and over and through the most mundane life circumstances—speeding tickets and church services—by recognizing that characters grow in fits and starts, often against their will. In the meantime, we are as apt to internalize half-truths and convenient parables to cope with the many demands made on our morals in any given day.
Because Alicia isn’t as perfect as she wants to be, and this hits her like a ton of bricks at the end of the episode. She’s been coasting on a wave of anger and indignation, but when she gets what she wants, she’s hit with something that looks like guilt. She has to admit to Cary that the partners have promoted her, and only her. Alicia largely instigates the agitation against the firm, but Cary is her wingman, and they both know that she’s abandoning him when she takes her position. It’s a moment of harsh reality. Even Kalinda had wormed her way around the rules to get them some extra evidence, borne out of her affection for Alicia and Cary. Alicia’s not a mean person. She wants to do the right thing. But she’s also drawing a line in the sand. Work isn’t a place for affection. Even when it’s for someone who she truly cares for. Whether that’s Cary, as a friend, or Will, as a lover, is left up to us to decide. Never mind, of course, that the person who is most aware of the porous boundaries between love, power, money, and success is Alicia Florrick herself.
So, of course, in the final moments of the episode, Cary and Kalinda watch Alicia through a porous boundary—a plate-glass wall—as Alicia is named partner. She spots them, her former ally and former friend, and the sense of betrayal and isolation is tremendous. Who does Alicia want to be? I think in that moment, she wishes she knew.
- Elsbeth Tascioni and Eli have a wonderful, wonderful subplot that is also pitch-perfect. It’s less psychological and more lighthearted caper, but it is enormously fun to watch. Kyle MacLachlan guests as the prosecutor investigating Eli. I’m sure he’ll be back.
- “Eli, there’s a weird lady here to see you.” “Elsbeth, come on in!”
- I suppose this is the right time to point out that Will and Alicia are now theoretically equal colleagues. Alicia isn’t a name partner, but that seems like a far less important distinction. Hm.
- I call shenanigans on that snap diagnosis of anorexia. Perhaps you could state “disordered,” but needless to say, eating disorders are much harder to classify and diagnose than a simple picture-to-picture comparison could reveal.
- Mock Trial With A. Florrick! (MOCK TRIAL!) / Mock Trial With A. Florrick! (MOCK TRIAL!) /Mock Trial With A. Florrick! (MOCK TRIAL!) / MOCK TRIAL!
- We don’t give A+ reviews, but, like, I thought about it.