The Good Wife, Ep. 5.10, “The Decision Tree”: Landmark ep considers past and future

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The Good Wife, Season 5, Episode 10, “The Decision Tree”
Written by Robert King and Michelle King
Directed by Rosemary Rodriguez
Airs Sundays at 9pm (EST) on CBS

In a lot of ways, The Good Wife is a show that takes its time. Part of this comes from its status as a network drama, which requires it to produce 22 hours of television a season and thus, to stretch its storylines over longer periods than its cable brethren. Yet mostly, this is a stylistic choice for the show, one that allows it to develop characters in moments, over time. Every week, the show needs to create some procedural element to hook in new viewers, but by allowing for small character moments even in its most stand-alone episodes, The Good Wife allows us to learn its characters over time, until all it needs to deploy is a glance or a gesture to shake us to our core.

“The Decision Tree” is the show’s landmark 100th episode and it spends a lot of time ruminating on where it has been in a season that has markedly been focused on where things are going. The episode opens with a shot of the 100 on a speedometer, as if to signal fans that things aren’t slowing down anytime soon. And while much of the episode is as propulsive as the series has been of late, it also takes time to slow down and ponder what has come before.

This is perhaps never more apparent than in the case-of-the-week, which masquerades as a stand-alone story but actually works to further the ongoing tumult between Will and Alicia. When Damian shows up to “negotiate” the return of Alicia’s capital contribution (and only among fans of this show is that plot point enough to excite), she immediately suspects something is up and discovers an old client has named her in his will, bequeathing her $12 million. That Alicia wouldn’t get to keep the money is obvious from the start; it would too easily solve some of this season’s most interesting problems. Yet the road to her loss provides the show with some fantastic interpersonal moments.

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The Good Wife, like its protagonist, enjoys pretending it is cold and detached, ruled by logic instead of emotions. Yet the show has passions swirling under its steely exterior, it just uses less direct means to express them most of the time. Often, the law becomes shorthand for the complexities of human interactions and the intricacies of communication. In “The Decision Tree”, a single case, and really, one cross-examination, becomes a window into the entire relationship of Will and Alicia, past and present.

The chart that gives the episode its title is Will’s, as he plans out his cross-examination, trying to game out Alicia’s responses in advance. As he plans, we see Alicia as he sees her, yet this is not the only time in “The Decision Tree” his perspective infects things. When Alicia recalls her conversation with the client as Will caresses her under the table, she is wearing a purple dress. In Will’s memory, though, she is wearing red (it should be noted that this may be a continuity error, as it appears Alicia is wearing red elsewhere in the flashbacks, but it is more interesting when read as Will’s memory rather than a production mistake). Will recalls Alicia, his then-lover, wearing the color of passion but more importantly, he recalls her wearing the color of power. The scene we are seeing is one in which Alicia dominates. She convinces her client of the wisdom of her strategy and Will is so distracted by her, he is barely focusing on the case. She enraptures both men and controls the situation. As Will plans the cross, he pictures her in white. He imagines her weak and stumbling, unsure and falling into his traps. He indicts her for being manipulative, for using her effect on men to get what she wants, but most importantly, and right as the fantasy fades away, he indicts her for being weak. Will can game out his cross-examination. He can fool himself into thinking he can anticipate Alicia’s responses. But the spell is broken when he thinks of Alicia in any other position than absolute control. That isn’t the woman he knows.

When the actual cross-examination occurs, Alicia is wearing black, which alone should tip Will off that things won’t go exactly as planned. While he has assumed Alicia will fall into his trap, she has gamed things out even further. She knows what he will ask, and knows how to pretend she is caught until she can flip the table on him. In the heat of Will’s fantasy cross-examination, the façade falls away and it becomes clear Will is talking not about their client but about himself. Alicia spares him, seeming to recognize this at least a bit. The flaw is not in Will’s cross-examination, after all. It lies with David Lee. That this clash between the once (and future?) lovers, in which they spar over harm and culpability, is about a will just shows once again that The Good Wife is operating at the top of its game.

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The rest of the episode is mostly frills, of mixed effectiveness. Marilyn is still being a ridiculous caricature of a pregnant woman, though this week she has stashed the pumpkin pop tarts in favor of constantly playing music to her uterus. Yet again, the show is undercutting Marilyn’s competence in what should actually be an important role in favor of cheap “aren’t pregnant women nuts?” gags and yet again, it is less than amusing. The episode-ending revelation that she plans to name the child Peter had better be a misdirect, because if the show is going down that path, the back half of season five promises to become a mess quite quickly. Similarly, the Damian/Kalinda flirtation is all car-chases and Kalinda banging ladies, so basically it is another installment of the Once Upon a Time in Kalinda’s Pants series the show became for a stretch last season. Fingers crossed this whole thing ends quickly.

The various strands surrounding the Florrick/Agos Christmas party are slighter, but far more fun. A full episode could be made of Stockard Channing and Mary Beth Peil sniping at each other and Peter meeting Lamont Bishop was good for the few moments of screen time it was given. Throw in Donna Brazile and the whole thing is madcap enough to work as entertaining filler.

“The Decision Tree” provides a few reasons for concern in areas that have been worrisome for a few weeks, but The Good Wife is still nailing its central story and the interplay, real and fictional, past and present, between Will and Alicia is fantastic stuff. One hundred episodes in, The Good Wife has developed enough weight to one of its central pairings that their face off for even a few moments in court can anchor an entire episode dramatically. The show hasn’t lost its tendency for some silliness around the edges (maybe Damian can fall in love with Grace Florrick?), but it understands what it does well. These small moments slowly accumulate weight, until nothing feels as momentous as Will’s quiet, curt “Nothing further.” He may be done in that moment, but in the areas where it really matters, The Good Wife is just getting started.

Notes:

-“I have a hannukah too!” Jackie Florrick is so multicultural.

-“Matty wanted a signature.” “Well, that, and, an enema.”

-“Counselor, do you have a counter argument?” “Yes, I do. It is a counter argument about…many things…” Nathan Lane is amazing. That is all.

-Dream spin-offs: Stockard Channing, boozy socialite, takes in Nathan Lane, lawyer working for free. They have adventures. Occasional witticisms are exchanged. Sometimes Elsbeth Taccione is there.

-“This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

-“Mrs. Florrick, you knew he was in love with you, and you used him to get your way?” Oh Will. Who are we talking about here?

-“Actually, I wasn’t finished. Do you want me to finish?”

-“Donna…would you like to go to a party?” It should be noted that, if the show gets the seven seasons the Kings have mentioned they would like, it will end in May 2016, just in time for Peter to go off and be Vice President, should the show decide to go that way.

-“Thank God! Thank your Christian Jesus God!”

-“Sometimes I think of you as Mom, and sometimes as this interesting person who lives in our house.”

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