Monday, January 17, 2011

Staying On: "The Good Wife" Flirts With Nihilism

“Bad Girls” (aired 9/16/2010), in which Lockhart-Gardner Bond defend a teen pop star named Sloan Burchfield on an attempted murder charge, is one of The Good Wife’s weaker episodes. By dropping so many references to Twitter and Paris Hilton, the writers attempt to show that they “get” youth culture; instead, they come across as trying to hard. Furthermore, the final scene between Sloan and her sister descends to an uncharacteristic sentimentalism. However, one moment in the episode grabbed my attention. After the sisters’ farewell, Alicia steps into the hallway outside their jail cell, where she comes face to face with the girls’ mother. No words are exchanged; we see Alicia, distraught over the scene she’s just witnessed, fiddling with her wedding ring.

Throughout the show’s run, Alicia’s refusal to leave Peter has remained a source of frustration and fascination. Yes, leaving him would hurt her kids (in the short term, anyway), yes, it would also destroy his political campaign, yes she still loves him in some sense, and, yes, his rival Will isn’t exactly a prize package, either (Will, remember, tried—unsuccessfully—to pimp Lockhart-Gardner to a drug kingpin). Still, Peter is the guy who a) cheated on her b) with hookers and was c) until recently serving time on corruption charges, d) leading the family to the brink of financial ruin and subjecting Alicia to nation-wide humiliation.

Sounds like grounds for divorce to me.

“Bad Girls” casts new light on Alicia’s decision to stay; suggesting she has made devotion to her family into an article of existential faith. The camera shows Alicia adjusting the ring (material embodiment of the marriage vow) for just a few seconds, and only from the middle distance. A lesser show would no doubt place her hands in close-up, lingering over the moment until even the most dull-witted viewer understood the symbolism. The Good Wife trusts that viewers are smart enough to notice the ring and to connect the gesture to Alicia’s encounter with the Sloan’s disintegrating family. Throughout the episode, the writers have intercut Alicia’s conversations with her own, studious teenage daughter and revelations about the Burchfields’ chaotic family life. Sloan’s mom, herself embarked on a $31 million divorce, allows her daughters to call her by her first name, abdicating parental authority in the face of Sloan’s earning power. Forced into premature adulthood, Sloan and her sister succumb to the predictable lure of alcohol and drugs. As we watch Alicia twist the ring, we understand that she fears (albeit without sufficient evidence) that divorcing Peter would leave her family shattered and vulnerable as Sloan’s.

Throughout the show, the writers have portrayed family as one of the few sources of stability in a corrupt world. This is, after all, a show in which lying witnesses appear more believable than honest ones (“Poisoned Pill”) and a Nobel Peace Prize winner proves guilty of sexual assault (“VIP”). Given a choice between doing the right thing and doing what is in their self-interest, almost everyone on The Good Wife chooses the latter, almost every time. The show’s adult characters view both politics and the law as rigged games won by those able to cheat without getting caught. Religion does no better; a church board drives out its pastor after he refuses to endorse the state’s attorney candidate of their choice. In a world where traditional institutions of authority have compromised themselves beyond redemption, the family becomes the sole surviving source of stability and value. In their own ways, both Peter and Alicia continue to not only love their family but to believe in family. Alicia’s bosses criticize her for not racking up enough billable hours (because she spends time with her kids); even post-scandal, Peter sees himself as family protector, telling campaign manager Eli Gold not to swear inside the Florrick home and refusing to call Alicia off a case in return for a major endorsement. Alicia stays with Peter because she refuses to give up her faith in family as a benevolent and enduring institution. Without that faith, the Florricks become the Burchfields—adrift in the void.

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