The creative risks The Good Wife, now in its fourth season on CBS, takes — putting characters together and breaking them up, dropping viewers into complex legal (a stand-in for moral) dilemmas, and whipping through big plot developments as the episodes fly by — are remarkable for a network television series.
Yes, it's a procedural, in that there is a case of the week, but it's the characters' lives that matter. Alicia (Julianna Margulies), her work cohorts, and her family are such ordinary people compared with Breaking Bad's Walter White and Mad Men's Don Draper — but it still works to compare the nuanced and excellent Good Wife to those shows.
Spoilers for Sunday's pivotal episode, called "Red Team/Blue Team," and one of the best in its history, start now.
The firm emerged from bankruptcy. Alicia is now a partner (but Cary and the other associates are not). Eli (Alan Cumming) is still being investigated, and it's serious. And Alicia and Will (Josh Charles) made out. So good!
Last week, I spoke with Robert and Michelle King, the show's (married) creators, about "Red Team/Blue Team," what's to come for the rest of the season, and how to dig out of a plot hole the audience hates.
Kate Aurthur: I'm not sure where to start! OK, let's start with the bankruptcy! That's been the through-line of the season. What made you decide to resolve it in Episode 14?
Robert King: We divided the year in two, and one is the desperation coming from being at the lowest depths of poverty for a firm — what happens when you've prepared so much for doom, and then the reverse happens? You're so pinching pennies, and then you realize, well, those pennies added up while we were pinching them! The other side of the coin being, how will our firm react now that they are doing very well?
Michelle King: We're getting to play a little bit economically the same thing we played with Alicia's personal life, which is, what happens when you do get what you wish for?
KA: Have we said good-bye to Nathan Lane, then, since he was playing the trustee overseeing the bankruptcy?
RK: For the moment. We loved working with Nathan Lane, and I think he really enjoyed working with the cast and the scripts. Now, obviously, he's going to be a lawyer. Our problem is with casting for continuing arcs, but when they're lawyers, you can bring them in for one or two episodes or as many as they can do. It's such a fun relationship with him and Cary. We're not saying never; it may just come down to when we can get connected again.
KA: With his character and Cary (Matt Czuchry), is that something you noticed and then began writing to?
RK: We didn't want it to be that when we have an intruder in the firm, they all kind of glom on to Alicia — even though she's the star of the show, she's not the star of the firm. We want to see other connections.
KA: There's a moment in Sunday's episode when, in Cary's fantasy, he and Alicia would go off and start their own firm. Is that now something we viewers are supposed to have in our minds?
RK: Yes. Obviously, Cary is the most rebellious one, which is playing into his father issues too. But it's very hard to put that, I feel, away once it's introduced. Cary and Alicia are in many ways young'uns in the firm. Alicia's not in years, but she's someone who's given a lot of work to do and probably feels as underappreciated as Cary does. So I think that's always in their minds. That's one of my favorite scenes because it felt very natural that they were rebelling and creating a group of people almost willing to go out on strike. Matt Czuchry is so fun in that role. Yes, that is not something that goes away.
KA: Lockhart/Gardner is always in trouble, though: Is this stability temporary?
RK: Very. The stability is illusory. The thing that will create chaos is not necessarily going to come from outside, it's going to come from inside. And money doesn't change that. Actually, money exacerbates that.
KA: Does the governor's race now come to the forefront, plot-wise, for the rest of the season?
MK: We will be seeing more of that, yes.
KA: So Alicia and Will's relationship. You've done such an interesting thing that shows rarely accomplish: The beginning was all "will they or won't they?" Then they did. Then it wasn't so great! They broke up, and it's no longer the focus of the show except in some dark corners of the internet. So what's with this making out?
MK: We're trying to play it realistic, in that if these two people do feel that level of passion for each other, it might erupt from time to time. They're trying to be grown-ups, they're trying to be professionals, and yet there is that undercurrent of attraction.
RK: And I think there's a mystery in Alicia's character, and it's a mystery to herself. To my mind, she's attracted to dangerous people and dangerous circumstances. It's part of the struggle of the good girl. I think this is also they can't get rid of this sexual compulsion for each other, they can't close that door completely; it's always a little bit open. It's opportunity mixed with passion. I think that is reality.
KA: You've achieved a similar nebulous state with Alicia's relationship with Peter (Chris Noth). Very few TV shows exist in these gray areas, particularly with romance. Has that been a specific goal of yours?
RK: Peter, I think, has been a pretty good husband. So now it is difficult for Alicia. She can't say, "Oh, I split with my husband — this was about him sleeping with prostitutes."
KA: So we are supposed to think at this point that Peter has been a good husband?
RK: I spoke for myself. What do you say, Michelle?
MK: I think that Peter betrayed Alicia horribly, and has very actively tried to rehabilitate himself, and I think he's been pretty successful. As much as a person can reform, I think he has. He is essentially who he is, which isn't to say he'll never go back. The question is whether he deserves forgiveness, and that's a different question.
KA: And yet, we find out things about him along the way, that we might have suspected — like, that his office has been a place of racial bias. Which I thought was an interesting episode, because we saw some of those things happen, but it wasn't being told in a way that was hitting us over the head. And then it came back and bit him in the ass.
RK: You're cheering Cary on, but in fact Cary was promoted when there were people in that firm for 10 or 12 years that were overlooked. The more you can use audience sympathies to see there are variations on these moral issues and ethical issues, the better.
KA: Speaking of which, you also did something that I can't remember a television show ever doing, though TV history is long, so it's probably happened sometime: Alicia came out as an atheist recently! It's practically the final taboo on American television.
RK: Obviously, we've presented Alicia as a non-believer, which is partly playing off the comedy of the generation of the '80s and so on have children who can end up more conservative than themselves. So it was fun to see her having to deal with a child in Grace who was attracted to absolutes and absolutes in religion. But in the specific circumstances, she in that episode is getting pulled around by people who were wanting her to lie, left and right. Both on the stand and for political reasons. And at a certain point, she just kind of had to stand up. I think what's good about the show is we want people to really like Alicia — we like her. But we also think she's a mixed bag. I'm religious. And I'm torn about that; I think Alicia is a little too hard on people who are religious. On her own daughter, in fact.
KA: This season, there was vocal audience rejection of the Kalinda-Nick (Archie Panjabi-Marc Warren) storyline that you had to adjust for. Tell me how that process works: You see what viewers are saying, and then are you saying, "Stop! Cut it off!"?
MK: It's less about cutting things off then accelerating them a bit. It's choices one can make editorially as well as in the script.
RK: I loved the actor, Marc Warren. And I loved Archie, what she was doing. So we were kind of thrown and torn because we really loved them. But I think Michelle's right: We had shot a lot of episodes ahead, because CBS wanted to put on 10 in a row. So part of it was moving stories up that were actually already shot and were in other episodes so we could accelerate it and finish what we wanted to do. And, you know, accept that the audience wasn't necessarily wanting to ride where we wanted to drive the car. I think that's part of the process too. Look, it's a living organism. We're on a network where you're writing and shooting and showing the shows all at the same time — it's a learning process.
KA: You two write a lot of the episodes. What's your writers' room like? You have so many current events and future events in stories — are some people in the room experts in technology, or emerging…whatever?
MK: Right now, we have seven other writers on staff. And four of them are attorneys, or former attorneys.
RK: Which, by the way, is essential. Because they argue over bits of law. The law is such a confusing mess. They all have different law firm experience, which is extremely helpful.
KA: The ratings for the show — it does OK among total viewers, but has an older audience — are what they are at this point. CBS is by far the most-watched network. Obviously, you give the network awards possibilities and critical acclaim, which its other dramas don't. Do you worry about your ratings?
MK: I tell you, I worry about the things I can control. I worry about making good episodes. The best episodes we can. And that's it. That's where I worry. In terms of the ratings, that's outside of my control, so worrying does me no good.
RK: The good news is, we have a very strong and happy partner — at least they express happiness — in CBS Studio and CBS network. They're very appreciative — and fans, if I can say it. We're smart and sly enough to know when you're on the downward slope, and that's where people have suggestions about what you should be doing: Don't do this, try this, don't do that. And we're not getting that. We trust that they're real fans, and they really like it, and they want us to continue doing it. They'll have to carry us out of our offices!