It’s Back to Capital ‘P’ Politics in ‘The Good Wife’

The Season Four premiere of The Good Wife returns the series to the rarified world of hardball politics. Now a powerful lawyer in her own right, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) returns to the realm she once found so distasteful, the one inhabited by her husband Peter (Chris Noth).

As the season opens, Alicia is finding ways to deflect reporters eager to damage Peter’s Illinois gubernatorial campaign and then, in the episode airing 7 October, she strategizes how to keep her job when her own law firm faces layoffs brought on by bankruptcy. For the first dilemma, she puts off reporter Peggy Byrne (Kristin Chenoweth, whose planned arc has been cut short by an on-set injury) asking where she’s been sleeping since her separation from Peter by saying, “That’s none of your business.”

Alicia’s decision not to play “the good wife” anymore looks admirable, and soon others seek her out for counsel and support. Soon she’s fending off queries from Eli (Alan Cumming), who wants her help on Peter’s campaign, Will (Josh Charles) and Diane (Christine Baranski), who want her to sweet-talk their new landlord, and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), who wants her to dump a case brought by Kalinda’s ex-husband Nick (Marc Warren), a threatening figure who appeared at the end of last season. By the time Alicia collapses in her chair and says to herself, “Yep, I’m exhausted and it’s not even noon,” the show underscores the irony of her situation — having so recently been the newbie at the office, in search of advice from others.

This being The Good Wife, a show renowned for complicating what might seem obvious, Alicia’s new position as a kind of moral compass leads to a new series of dilemmas. Some of these are predictably topical. When Clarke (Nathan Lane), the firm’s appointed trustee, intends to lay off lawyers so the firm might pay off a $60 million debt in six months, his arguments with Alicia point to the costs of job losses during the recession. When he asks why he should save her and not others, she insists that she’s “good,” a word that resonates in multiple ways for the show, this even as she resists his effort to enlist her in his plans to fire others.

Alicia finds another way to speak her piece in her detente with Peter. Though he’s slept with prostitutes and they remain, for the moment, separated, she believes he’s a good (that word again) man and politician. When Peggy asks if “standing by her man” makes her a bad role model for woman, Alicia asserts that her decision isn’t about “women” or “feminism,” but only about her. Such speeches don’t necessarily make it so, of course, and don’t preclude Alicia making mistakes: the show has long explored imperfections and gray areas, and besides, she can hardly deny she is a symbol, a public persona used by media and political runners alike.

At least part of her public role has been defined as a mother. When, in the season premiere, Alicia faces off with a state trooper who plants evidence on her son Zach (Graham Phillips) during a traffic stop. It’s only later that she learns the reason, one that has nothing to do with Zach and everything to do with Peter. Alicia goes after the trooper in court, another indication of her faith in the law, the law that her husband sees as more manipulable. While The Good Wife here offers an obvious critique of Peter’s backroom politics, it also offers an optimistic version of citizen journalism, when the case turns on a cellphone video.

Courtroom tactics are less helpful when the firm is contending with its new landlord, Maddie (Maura Tierney). She admires Alicia’s handling of her marital scandal, and makes it clear she prefers to deal with her rather than Diane. It’s a snub that bothers Diane, and also underscores the conditional value of Alicia’s celebrity. Maddie confesses (if we believe her) that she finds it hard to “make friends,” because someone always wants something from her. It’s a feeling Alicia might recognize, though it’s not clear how this shared grievance might benefit either. Neither is it clear how Alicia and Kalinda might make sense of their evolving relationship. As this has been a staple for the show’s first three seasons, it’s not a little disappointing that Kalinda’s storyline with Nick looks to undermine her notoriously estimable self-identity.

In sorting out her messy past, Kalinda might look to Alicia, who has spent the series doing similar work. Alicia can’t escape how the scandal has turned her into a symbol and token, but she has found new ways to make her peace with her new roles, and assert herself in spite of them.

RATING 7 / 10