CBS’s new prime-time series showcases the considerable talents of Julianna Margulies, who stars as Alicia Florrick, wife of a Chicago District Attorney who’s been jailed on corruption charges for which he might or might not be framed, and for consorting with a prostitute, evidence of which is plastered all over the local news. Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), sits in jail trying to work the angles to which he had access on the outside, while his beleaguered and beautiful wife returns to work as a lawyer in a firm run by one of her old school mates, Will Garvin (Josh Charles), and his haughty and hard partner/nemesis, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).
In The Good Wife’s conceit, Alicia’s work as an attorney excels because of her unusual ability to empathize with people, and because of her sharp intelligence and steely resolve, all softened by a feminine, struggling-not-to-appear-hurt-and-damaged exterior. She also has an intuitive ability to think out of the box, often sensing that a case the other lawyers want to reject as unwinnable can actually be defended successfully. In that regard, The Good Wife trades on its star’s/character’s feminine wiles, but in other ways, the show’s writers let Alicia be much more than the superficially and stereotypically good wife/mother/woman, sometimes raising pertinent questions about just what constitutes “good.”
Margulies, who hasn’t performed in a prime-time series since her star-making turn on ER back in the day, is wonderful in the title role on The Good Wife. Alicia is a soft-spoken woman; most of Margulies’s acting is non-verbal. She reacts with a look, a subtle raise of her eyebrows or narrowing of her eyelids; emotion registers on her face almost imperceptibly. She’s a woman nearing middle-age, who’s been publicly humiliated by her husband’s malfeasance, and even more, by his dalliance with the prostitute, which is highly publicized in tandem with his conviction.
Instead of proceeding chronologically, the series establishes the barest bones of its back-story and thrusts Alicia into the present, where she’s learning how to be a single mother with two sullen and upset teenaged children, tended to by her husband’s mother, a tight-lipped upper-crust woman who disapproves of Alicia’s job and who’s loyal to her son at all costs. While Alicia debates what she thinks is true or not, her mother-in-law asserts her own version of her son’s story, and judges Alicia for her unwillingness to unquestioningly stand by her man.
Digital images of Peter and his prostitute seem easily available on the internet and television. Even Alicia’s kids easily find evidence and—confused and betrayed—watch video of their father enjoying his soft-porn dalliances. Alicia can’t bring herself to watch the whole scene, although she obsessively returns to various images of her husband in flagrante delicto, and then literally covers her eyes as the grainy images play. The series keeps her very public humiliation in the forefront of the story, so that mid-way through its first season, Alicia still hasn’t watched the whole scene.
Her husband’s betrayal, given his status on the Chicago political scene where the series plays out, thrusts Alicia into a kind of high visibility public sphere to which she’s clearly unaccustomed. Watching her navigate and find her own strength and dignity in the face of low-brow and prurient public mud-slinging is one of the show’s many pleasures. Alicia Florrick is a character to emulate—she’s moral but flexible, smart but sexy, creative but ethical. She gets the job done in the best way possible and her achievements, by each episode’s end, are celebrated and admired.
A basic pattern repeats week-to-week. Alicia’s firm lands a complicated case, in which underdog seems poised to be vanquished. Her superiors put Alicia in charge, often to test her, as the firm has only one spot open for a junior partner, and she’s required to compete with Cary (Matt Czuchry) a hungry, ambitious young white boy lawyer whose slick confidence contrasts nicely with Alicia’s ambivalent, tentative approach to her return to the rigors of lawyering. Because she’s not a conventional legal shark, Alicia connects with defendants more personally. They trust her and tell her things, or she understands them intuitively in ways that let her read the truth of their situations. Alicia’s high visibility in the press attracts clients to the firm; they request that she represent them because they know her own plight will make her effective defending their own.
Bemused but willing, Alicia steps up each week, and usually wins her cases through some unusual observation or creative choice about how to structure the defense. She often wins the grudging admiration of Baranski ‘s character, Diane, who clearly favors Alicia’s competition, Cary, for junior partner (although in a recent episode, she softens toward her after Alicia comes to her for advice and lets Diane prove that she’s ethical after all).
Will, on the other hand, tends a bit of a flame for Alicia, and remains staunchly supportive of her return to legal practice. The growing sexual tension between them gives the series the de rigueur romantic possibility in which to ground its weekly stories of the little guy vanquishing corporate wrong-doings or government greed. But to its writers’ credit, The Good Wife isn’t rushing Will and Alicia into an affair, but lets them circle one another cautiously, advancing and retreating multiple times in each episode.
In many ways, Alicia finds herself in a world not of her own making; it’s not clear she would be working if her husband weren’t in jail. But her very reluctance to fully embrace the world in which she’s now excelling makes her an appealing character. She’s exactly not one of those bracing, aggressive female assistant district attorneys who’ve cycled through each of the Law and Order series. She’s a woman with an unraveling, precarious domestic life; a now-cautious relationship with her incarcerated husband; a mother-in-law on whom she’s forced to depend, even though the two women don’t like one another very much; and two teenage children whose reactions to their father’s betrayal she also needs to supervise and manage.
Alicia’s reluctant success illustrates the pull of the professional for upper-middle-class women who’ve for one reason or another opted to stay home (and had the financial means to do so). I’m hoping that over the course of the series, The Good Wife won’t trade in tired tropes about women “having it all,” but will instead use its main character’s complexity to illustrate the contradictions and conflicts in how American society—even in the second decade of the 21st century—judges women who are wives, mothers, and professionals making their way in the world.
Instead of fashioning the character as a heroine who juggles her conflicting tasks and situations with obvious élan, Alicia’s flaws and contradictions and tentative choices make her much more interesting. She has deeply ambivalent feelings about her charismatic husband, whom she visits in his minimum security prison and with whom she gradually rebuilds a very tenuous kind of trust. Peter offers her information from his various contacts that can be helpful to her cases; he seems to be the hub of a very fast wheel with multiple overlapping spokes. He’s eager to make amends for his bad behavior, but Alicia resists the information he tries to feed her, at the same time gradually understanding the depth of complex political systems of favors and pay-backs in which he’s made his career, and in which she now finds herself embroiled.
Ironically, from his rather cushy incarceration, Peter becomes Alicia’s mentor. In spite of her resentment and rage at his betrayal, she knows he can teach her things about how to succeed with the cases she builds. On the other hand, because of his notoriety, she can’t enter a courtroom anonymously; every judge she faces and every prosecuting attorney she battles knows her history. They all look at her through their own distaste for her husband, their desire for vengeance, or their prurient interest in how she’s holding up under such public humiliation. That Alicia insists she be treated as her own person, and unfailingly rejects everyone’s presumptions, is part of the show’s feminist appeal.
The writers temper Alicia’s strength and determination with an appealing fragility that she tries to hide, knowing that it won’t get her far in her law firm’s shark-pool. Yet that very humanity makes her effective as a litigator. She treats her clients like real people, and invariably learns information that her more hard-boiled colleagues miss.
Her partner in each escapade is Kalinda (the terrific Archie Panjabi), the private detective on retainer to the firm who is wry and skeptical and knows just how to extract useful information. Kalinda provides a counterpart to Alicia’s more insistently straightforward, ethical attorney. Their tentative friendship, which develops over the first season into a fierce loyalty, lets The Good Wife explore a relationship between female colleagues often foreclosed by more conventional law and order series.
Who wouldn’t have wanted to see Alex, the DA, and Olivia Benson, the detective, on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit spend more face time (especially after Stephanie March’s electric exit from the show several seasons ago, in a staged murder that found Benson obviously caring for and mourning the colleague she believed dead)? Who wouldn’t have wanted to see the revolving door of female actors/characters who’ve played Sam Waterson’s side-kick on the original Law and Order actually have female friends and colleagues, instead of the witchy female judges that more often berated them for perceived ineptitude and left them hanging in a world of unsympathetic men?
What a surprise it was when Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm), dismissed from her job (and Rohm from her recurring role), worried that she had been discriminated against because she was a lesbian. Her private life hadn’t once been written into her role.
As a result, seeing Alicia and Kalinda develop a mutually beneficial professional relationship that’s enhanced by their grudging personal respect sets a new benchmark for female friendships on television dramas. Baranski’s Diane, on the other hand, has for most of the first season served as the resident ball-breaking shrew, in contrast to whom Josh Charles’s Will seems positively feminine and empathetic. That Will and Alicia are old school chums threatens Diane, whose cutthroat ethos doesn’t trust that Will can keep his feelings for Alicia disentangled from the firm’s high-stakes business.
On the other hand, Cary, the young white male tiger who the partners have established as Alicia’s man to beat for a permanent spot in the firm, has grown over the first season from a single-minded competitor to a more sympathetic colleague who can’t help but admire Alicia’s grit. To the writers’ credit, Cary and Alicia’s initial competition has resolved into a partnership in which they, too, help one another more often than not. That the unlikely pair has developed a grudging respect keeps The Good Wife from relying on gender- and age-based stereotypes about effective (at least on tv) lawyering.
Diane got her own moment of more complex character-based drama on an episode toward the end of the first season, which guest starred Kate Burton as a female judge who’s made her own political compromises to maintain her power and position. When Burton’s character and her minions approach Diane about running for a judgeship, Baranski plays Diane as flattered and pleased, taken in by the opprobrium of a woman senior to herself.
But in a parallel plot, Alicia uncovers evidence of corruption in another judge, who happens to be Will’s friend, and takes her quandary to Diane. When Diane shows her more ethical side, and refuses to take Alicia off the case as Burton’s character requests, Diane is shown the door by the local political machine that wanted to place her on the bench. The episode gave Baranski a chance to show Diane with more depth and thoughtfulness than usual, since she’s more often than not posing in power suits that make her look like a scowling dominatrix.
Margulies’s long-suffering affect, honed to perfection all those years on ER, is shaded here with more emotional nuance, which makes the character and Margulies’s acting much more interesting. Alicia, unlike Nurse Carol, has an ever-strengthening back bone. The more independent she’s forced to be, the stronger she becomes. Although the complexities of her single-motherhood are mitigated by her very upper-class status and her mother-in-law’s willingness to help (however much friction that causes Alicia and her children), she’s still a middle-aged (albeit gorgeous) woman finding her way in a professional world, and refusing to give up her humanity to succeed.
The Good Wife is one of the year’s most successful new series, nominated for several Golden Globe Awards and picked up for another season. If other networks develop clones, perhaps more roles will be written for middle-aged women who aren’t just mothers or mistresses, but who are professionals with complex emotional back-stories and complicated choices that make them unpredictable and compelling (see, for only one example, Edie Falco’s title character on Nurse Jackie). Here’s hoping.
The Feminist Spectator