No joke: The Oct. 27 episode of The Good Wife (“Hitting the Fan”) might just be the very best hour of television you’ll see this year.
I’m not one of those Good Wife adherents who qualifies their passionate engagement with the Robert and Michelle King-created drama by adding “on broadcast television,” as the show shouldn’t be forced to carry such a backhanded compliment. Even within the FCC-driven parameters of network television, The Good Wife manages to shatter audience expectations and consistently deliver a provocative drama that is both contemplative and incredibly taut.
This is particularly apt, given the seismic changes occurring in the show’s extraordinary fifth season. Even as Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) covertly plot their exit from the firm, biding their time until bonuses are handed out, the firm itself is already in a state of transformation when managing partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) is forced out of her position. While the show teased a law firm sans Diane once she became an Illinois Supreme Court justice, her betrayal of partner Will Gardner (Josh Charles), is a shocking twist, as Diane sells him out to a reporter by disclosing the $45,000 he took from a client’s account…only to realize that she didn’t need to do the interview after all.
It’s this conflation of the personal and the professional that largely powers “Hitting the Fan,” written by Robert and Michelle King (and featuring a gorgeously tense score by David Buckley), offering a look at how these lawyers define the boundaries of that dynamic. When one character says to another, “This wasn’t meant personally,” there’s the sense that most everything they do oversteps those distinct categorizations; how can Will, Alicia, and Diane untangle the personal from the professional when those spheres of their lives are tied up so tightly? When is a betrayal only strictly professional?
These ongoing relationship breakdowns at Lockhart/Gardner elegantly pay off story threads that go back not only to last season’s riveting “Red Team/Blue Team” and Will’s six-month suspension in “Live from Damascus,” but all the way to the pilot episode, in which Alicia Florrick — a politician’s wife caught up in a brutal public scandal — returns to the legal profession, hired as a first-year associate by her law school buddy. Their will-they-won’t-they tension was finally punctured by their consummation of the bubbling passion they had been feeling for each other…and by the very logical real-world demands each of them had placed upon themselves. But despite this, the two lawyers remained close and the show held out the possibility that Alicia and Will could somehow, someday, rekindle that fire between them.
Given the events in “Hitting the Fan,” however, that doesn’t seem remotely possible. At least, not any time soon.
Alicia’s decision at the end of Season 4 — to join Cary’s new firm and take Lockhart/Gardner clients with them — was a major turning point for Margulies’ character, who often found herself being dragged into a morally gray space and whose success as lawyer meant that she was spending much more time immersed in ethical ambiguities. But by opting to step out of her role as a partner at Lockhart/Gardner, Alicia makes a real choice to prioritize her own needs rather than that of the group. And while everything she does is entirely legal, her decision can be construed as both a personal and professional betrayal, especially as Will had hopes of Alicia stepping into Diane’s role within the firm.
“Hitting the Fan” picks up scant seconds after Diane’s disclosure to Will that Alicia and Cary are leaving, throwing Will into a fraught and disorienting situation. (Just who that woman was in Will’s office, urging “stability” in Sunday’s episode, will become instantly clear.) What unfolds over the first 15 minutes of this jaw-dropping episode signifies lasting change for the series, one predicated on the notion of Saint Alicia: the perfect lawyer, perfect wife, perfect mother. It’s a masterful sequence that captures the miasma of chaos at the firm while obliterating much of the narrative foundations of the show; friendships crackle and break, alliances shatter, and battle lines are quickly drawn up.
A showdown between Will and Alicia includes — SPOILER ALERT! — a stunning elevator scene, one that not only pays homage to Will and Alicia’s steamy courtship but also to that gut-wrenching scene in Season 2 with Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) sobbing in the lift. It’s the perfect coda to the show’s use of the elevator as leitmotif, reflective of the highs and the lows experienced by these characters. There’s a reason why this specific encounter is set where it is and why it hurts all the more as a result.
Oddly, however, given that the scene references that climactic Kalinda emotional breakdown in Season 2 — after Alicia discovers that Kalinda’s big secret is that she slept with Peter (Chris Noth) and ends their friendship — the absence of any Alicia/Kalinda dynamic feels all the more odd. While there’s a brief reference to the distance between the two women these days, the real lack of any scenes between these two lately (really, can you remember the last time they had any screen time together?) stings somewhat, given how important their dynamic was to the show in its earlier run. While there had been a thawing of the ice between the two, they appear to be virtual strangers these days, colleagues who are forced to work together when needs dictate, but little more. “Hitting the Fan” further tests that relationship, as well as those between Kalinda and Cary and Kalinda and Will.
What the episode further underscores is how much of this rebellion is a crucible of sorts for these characters. By the time “Hitting the Fan” ends, Will is creatively reinvigorated in a way that only tragedy — or adversity — can achieve; you either bend or you break. Alicia finds her inner warrior in a way that viewers haven’t necessarily seen to date; her cunning and strategic prowess are brought to the fore. Diane discovers that certain choices cannot be undone. Kalinda cements her future. Peter, despite his promises to make his administration the most ethical in Illinois history, crosses an ethical Rubicon. This is powerful stuff: Within “Hitting the Fan,” the entire notion of consequences, both seen and unseen, hovers uneasily over the plot. Betrayal has a way of doing just that, of forcing some to see the error of their ways and others to remain blind to the web of causality binding them to their actions.
Having said that, however, don’t be mistaken into thinking that “Hitting the Fan” is all doom and gloom; in fact, there’s quite a lot of unexpected humor and passion contained within the episode, as well as some smaller emotional beats that echo beyond the closing credits. For both sides in this not-so-civil war, there’s a real sense of purpose and righteous anger, further amping up the narrative stakes in a season already brimming with possibility. “Hitting the Fan” is where it all changes; miss at your own peril.
The Good Wife airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.