The Good Wife, Season 5, Episode 5, “Hitting The Fan”
Written by Robert King and Michelle King
Directed by James Whitmore Jr.
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on CBS
When this season of The Good Wife began with Alicia still working at Lockhart Gardner, it seemed the show had missed an opportunity to leap forward, to start its fifth season with a bold new status quo in place. Yet this is not the type of show we are watching. The Good Wife is a show about how institutions get built, and how they can become slowly corrupted over time. It is a show that excels at building out its world, and at understanding the shifting roles its characters occupy within that world. It was, therefore, not only inevitable but right that the show allow us to watch as Lockhart Gardner, described in the opening moments of “Hitting the Fan” as “one big happy family” begins to fall apart. The firm at the show’s center is just one more institution that can be corrupted by the flaws at the core of the people who make it up, yet more grist for the mill of Chicago corruption. It’s easy to imagine a younger, more idealistic Will and Diane coming together with champagne (ok, it was probably whiskey, because they are awesome like that) to celebrate the formation of their new firm, a firm they hoped would be better than the one they left, a firm they wanted to use as a force for good in the world. And it is almost impossible to imagine a future in which Florrick Agos hasn’t been worn down by the burdens of practicing law. Everyone starts with clean hands, but there’s a reason we keep so much soap and water handy.
War was always coming to Lockhart Gardner. In fact, it seems war of one kind or another is always being waged there. Whether the fight is against interlopers trying to overtake the firm, creditors clamoring for their thirty pieces of silver, or the house dividing against itself, the firm exists in a perpetual state of conflict. Of course it does. After all, it’s an organization made up entirely of lawyers, who provide the service of taking up the conflicts of others. Conflict is inescapable in a place built on sewing discord and by people who make words into weapons. War is their business, and in a society made up completely of warriors, peace becomes inexorably out of reach. Peace isn’t the trade, peace renders warriors obsolete. In some sense, this is what all of the characters on The Good Wife signed up for. More than that, it’s what they live for.
This is also what fans of The Good Wife live for, and “Hitting the Fan” delivers in spades. All of the conflicts that come to a head tonight have been simmering for seasons and when things finally come to a boil, it goes off exactly as well as one could hope. We have seen these characters be quick, resourceful professionals countless times before. What gives this episode the extra charge is how personal all of this is. Will and Diane chastise Alicia and Cary for disloyalty and in return they are criticized for their own betrayals. Will and Diane give speeches about fidelity when just last week they were at war over their mutual treachery. Peter and Will get to take the gloves off once again, but the position of power has shifted this time. Where Will once held sway over Peter’s political future, the new Governor of Illinois now exerts control over Will’s professional outlook. As Will walks to castigate Alicia, he recalls their previous love affair. As Peter arrives to congratulate her, they rekindle their current romance. The Good Wife has spent so much time setting up the pieces and loading each with weight and meaning that watching it accelerate to full speed is incredibly exhilarating.
This is also the rare episode of the show that abandons entirely its procedural elements. Everything that happens here, in court and out of it, with the “client of the week” (if you can call that poor woman just trying to get her deposition going fit for the term) as well as all of the show’s ancillary plotlines, ties in with the show’s most central and pressing conflict. All roads lead to the professional feud between Lockhart Gardner and Florrick Agos, and even as many subplots progress, they only do so in relation to this central fight. Alicia’s decisions have developed a gravitational pull, her movements exerting a force on everyone around her.
Alicia decided to leave the firm because of Will and she must have known in some sense this would hurt him. She hoped for a clean break, but there was no way she could leave without rejecting him. That Will thinks of her in bed with him, and not of anything remotely professional, is a canny reminder of just how personal this is for both of them. Their romantic dissolution is playing out on an incredibly grand stage. Lives will be changed, laws will be altered, the very fabric of the show will be torn. And all, ultimately, because Will and Alicia love each other and can’t figure out how to make that work in a complex world.
By turning the main cast against each other, The Good Wife has turned its central love triangle into a much more complex conflict. There were always partisans in the Will-Alicia-Peter entanglement, but now that basic clash has expanded and swallowed up every major character on the show. The weight of years guarantees the audience cares about every single character here. But pit them against each other and it becomes impossible for everyone you love to win. Someone is going to lose. Someone is going to get hurt. Someone will claim victory by besting another person who matters. This is the stuff great drama is made of, the sort of complex web of interactions where every possible outcome is situated in a moral and emotional gray area.
Will tells Kalinda, near the end of the episode, that he wants to make Lockhart Gardner the biggest law firm in the world. On its face, this is ridiculous (they have one office, and only two floors), but he never means it literally, even if he thinks he does. Will wants to make himself the biggest, the best, the most desirable. He wants to show Alicia what she’s lost by leaving him, what she “pissed away” when she chose Peter over him yet again. Will’s scars are deeply personal, but he externalizes them, globalizes them so that his pain becomes the pain of everyone, so that his burdens are slightly easier to bear.
At the same time, this is exactly what Peter is doing, but on an even bigger playing field and with vastly larger consequences. Peter makes the statement that lands Alicia ChumHum and makes Florrick Agos possible. He is showing his wife how powerful he is, why he is the best possible choice for her to make. And he’s showing the audience how little he has actually progressed over the course of the series. Peter always takes the easy way out. He always uses the short cut to get what he wants and he will do whatever it takes to win at the end of the day. He sounds a little bit like Will. He sounds a little bit like any number of the lawyers we’ve seen on this show. He sounds a little bit like Alicia.
The Good Wife returns us again and again to Alicia in difficult positions. It places her in moral, ethical, and emotional quandaries both personal and professional, and then it watches her keep her cool. It watches her remain decisive. It watches her make decisions that will best serve her clients’ interests or her own, even at the cost of just a little bit of her integrity, her dignity, her soul. The practice of law chips away at Alicia little by little, but then, so does the practice of life. Cary tells the newly formed firm to celebrate good news because there’s going to be a lot of bad news. It’s good advice in business, but it’s also a good practice in private life.
Work, love, family, friends- the process of building institutions whether in the home, the office, or the world at large is fraught with little indiscretions, little compromises, white lies and tiny infractions that get us through the day just a little bit easier. Yet each and every one compromises the purity of what we have built that same little bit. Each makes it harder to look at ourselves, or our structures, as good, as right, as just. Each one makes our hands, our hearts, our wholes, just a little bit dirtier. Those white sheets Will remembers billowing around Alicia look clean and pure. But they didn’t stay that way. Nothing ever does.
-“I took you in. No one wanted you. I hired you. I pushed for you.” “Will. This is a business decision.” “You were poison!”
-“You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are.”
-“You know what offends me most? The fact that I stood up for you. I got you hired.”
-“Oh come on, Diane. This is not a camp.”
-“I don’t like betrayal. And I like this firm.”
-“And Carrie, you’re fired.” “For a second time.” “Yes. For a second time. And get the hell out.”
-“This was never meant personally.” “I don’t give a damn.”
-“It’s not about winning. It’s about slowing them down. It’s an off-speed pitch.”
-“Go to hell.” “You go!” “Oh, your daughter called. She needs a permission slip for school.” “When did she call?” “About 40 minutes ago.” “Thanks.” I loved the way the two shifted gears here. Great, great stuff.
-The ChumHum offices look like an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. set.
-“I’m hanging up now. I have a business to run.” “Yeah, let’s see how that goes.”
-“We’re gonna starve you.”
-“Time to play hardball.”
-“Politics leads. The law follows.”