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The Good Wife Watch: Best Enemies

As the terrific, emotionally complicated midseason finale showed, Alicia and Will are hotter as rivals than as lovers.

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Spoilers for last night’s The Good Wife below:

There are many things that have made The Good Wife a treat to watch this season, but “The Decision Tree,” the show’s 100th episode and the last of this calendar year, made one of them plain: Alicia and Will are a lot more fun as enemies than as lovers.

This is not to knock Alicia and Will ‘shippers or to say that romance is a waste of time on the show. But the tension over their relationship is a throwback to the show’s earliest days and its earliest conflicts: would Alicia be “the good wife” and stick by Peter, would she ditch him and find happiness with Will, &c. It’s not so much that the Willicia relationship became less interesting, so much as the rest of the show–the politics, the cases, the office intrigue–became much more interesting and complex around it.

Split them up and pit them against each other, however, and things become fascinating. For one, each of them becomes the other’s worthiest and toughest rival since Michael J. Fox left to be America’s Dad on NBC. Will’s brainstorming and imaginary interrogation was a brilliant example of how The Good Wife is both a straightforward network drama and formally experimental at the same time. There are no showy directorial flourishes; and yet the scene, with simple, workmanlike visuals, takes us inside Will’s head as effectively as any dream sequence.

Following the map of his notes, we see the Alicia we know–cool and disarming on the stand–morph into the Alicia of his memory, then the Alicia of his revenge fantasy, falling apart with guilt, forced to confront the accusation that she never loved Will, that she only used him to gain access to his clients. Their imagined confrontation is heated, breathy, physical–as intense and intimate as any steamy elevator scene between them. As rivals, they’re more confounding, more complicated–and hotter.

Even before the dialogue makes it explicit, it’s clear the question is about more than this case: did Alicia use and manipulate Will the same way she did John Noble’s batty client? But it’s not as simple as black and white, light and dark (the color contrast between outfits Alicia wears in Will’s fantasy and his actual questioning). It’s not either/or, Alicia loved Will or she used him.

One of The Good Wife’s great themes–and a theme in the incestuous, professional-class power-couple circles it chronicles–is that genuine feeling and calculated self-interest are not mutually exclusive. People operate out of both, in varying percentages, at the same time. It’s human nature–not just for Alicia but her colleagues, Peter, Eli, anyone–to be in a genuine relationship while, in some corner of your mind, thinking about what that relationship is getting you. In The Good Wife, as in the real professional-political world it mirrors, combining family, friendship, love, power, career, and money may be messy–but it’s also a force multiplier. (It’s not as if Will is any stranger to this sort of gray area. Even if he also plays basketball for the love of the game.)

Nothing’s perfect, even The Good Wife at the end of an excellent year. An unfortunate side effect of the corporate split is that, once again, the show does not seem to quite know what to do with Kalinda. It may be that the Boyle storyline will lead somewhere interesting, but right now there’s little character or plot interest in watching her chase his broadly Irish mob lawyer around to find the pot o’ golden corruption he seems to be hiding. And spit-takes aside–nice work, Alan Cumming–the Baby Peter subplot is about as enticing right now as as 24-hour prenatal symphony.

But in general, the turnaround in The Good Wife since the first half of season 4, and especially in the first ten episodes of season 5, has been phenomenal. As Zack puts it perfectly, the show has realized both sides of Alicia: she’s his mom, and she’s “this interesting person who lives in our house.” She’s become not just the good wife, but the good lover, the good lawyer–and a very bad person not to have on your good side.