The Good Wife Season 5, Episode 14: “A Few Words”
Written By Leonard Dick
Directed By Rosemary Rodriguez
Airs Sundays at 9 pm (EST) on CBS
Everything that really happens in “A Few Words” happens in the quiet spaces, in silent moments of contemplation, in missed connections and quiet epiphanies. This is an episode set in the space between, with all of the characters out of their element in New York City, angling to land rainmaker Rayna Hecht (Jill Hennessy) while navigating the ABA conference where Alicia is slated to give the keynote address. There’s no case-of-the-week here; in fact, the only law we really see is pending. Everyone is taken out of their element, out of their comfort zone, and left to contend with themselves. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much drinking going on this week.
As Alicia struggles to write her speech, she is awash in memories of that uncertain period in which her husband was in prison and she was broke, trying to force her way back into Big Law with the black mark that was the name Florrick following behind her. The topic of her speech is her journey from “opt-out” woman to named partner in her own firm in under five years (the sort of trajectory that would be literally unheard of if this show took place in reality), and Cary and Clarke urge her to hit the feminist notes hard in order to woo Rayna. But as Alicia thinks back over what really happened, she is struck by pangs of remorse. Hers is, by any metric, a tale of a woman triumphing over great adversity, yet she has trouble reading it that way. She recalls herself using her influence over Will (and a suit that showed a little skin) to get the job, and for much of the episode, this simply doesn’t sit right with her. Until she realizes she did what she had to do to get where she is, that she deserved everything she has and that, more importantly, she earned it. What she has lost over the course of this series (at least, to her mind) is her entitlement. What she has found is her power. In one of the flashbacks, Kalinda tells Will that Alicia was going to be fired from her last firm because she lacked that “killer instinct.” Say what you will about our Mrs. Florrick, but that is certainly no longer the case.
The further into the series we get, the more resonance its title gathers. Alicia Florrick has spent so much of her life being the good daughter, the good mother, the good person, the good wife, that she has almost disappeared behind her own expectations for herself. She is an incredibly tightly controlled person, and that control manifests to the world as goal orientation, even though as often as not, Alicia’s primary goal is just getting through the day. When Rayna asks her “What do you want, Alicia?” its almost laughable, because this is the question she never lets herself ask. That is the question that puts her at the center of things, when she has spent much of her life standing behind Peter at various podiums, behind her children and their successes, hidden, unseen, valuing anyone else’s desires over her own because that’s what she thinks it means to be good.
The answer she ends up giving to that question sounds pat, at first, and it is no surprise that Rayna doesn’t exactly buy it (and instead goes off to form a two-woman firm with Elsbeth Tascioni, in my favorite show not currently on television), but it isn’t as meaningless as it sounds. “To be happy,” she lamely begins from her drunken stupor (which, because she is Alicia, paragon of control, actually looks pretty fine unless you know her as well as we do), “and to control my own fate.” The Alicia in those flashbacks would never have said this second part. It may not have even occurred to her. But the Alicia that sits across from Rayna is one who has learned her desire for control does not always need to be utilized internally. She can exert her will on the world around her and shape it to be what she wants. Alicia has tasted power. She has found agency. And that makes her previous ideas about what it means to be good seem a little less appealing, a little less accurate, and a little less satisfying.
The Good Wife always handles flashbacks well because it seems to fundamentally understand human memory, and to reflect it better than just about any show on television right now. The past seeps into the present, lulling the characters into deep thought until they are jostled back into the moment. Alicia fixates on that hand jutting into the elevator. It repeats, almost hypnotically, the moment that changed the trajectory of her life. The moment, whether she’ll admit it or not, that she saw someone who would let her shed her notions of good and become a better, happier, more powerful version of herself. This is a show about Alicia learning to recognize her wants and then battling herself over whether those wants are right, whether they can be valid. Whether they can be good.
Alicia still has trouble putting her fingers to the keys because she is not a creature of self-reflection. She has trained herself to exist by getting the job done. What she does is exude skill and competence. She is used to existing within a role and simply performing as that role requires. Her comfort zone is her job, whether that job is as a lawyer, a mother, or a wife. She sees all of these roles as things at which she should (and does) excel, yet when she tries to frame her story in a particular context, the truth disappears. She vanishes within her own telling of her biography in favor of the things she thinks she should be. There is a reason Alicia is looking to get drunk after she gives that speech, and it isn’t because people walked out. It’s because for once she was at that podium instead of standing behind the man there, and she let herself be controlled by the two men standing behind her. She had the spotlight and she didn’t use it as a platform to say anything that really matters to her, or even to speak from her own, honest perspective.
Rayna chooses Elsbeth at the end of the day, and it is clearly the right decision. Where Alicia is cautious, reserved, and controlled, Elsbeth is impulsive, loud, and unapologetically eccentric. Both women are incredibly competent, both work at the height of their fields. But Elsbeth Tascioni knows who she is and makes herself apparent in her every interaction. Alicia is barely there even when she is the focus of the conference and its keynote speaker. She disappears even across the table from Rayna. Elsbeth never disappears, not when she is haranguing an anti-Semitic bear, nor when she is shutting down the investigation into Will (though that doesn’t stay dead long).
One of the central threads of this series is the stellar love triangle between Alicia, Peter, and Will. It is one of the most multifaceted triangles on television, one that plays with viewer expectations and divides people constantly. But at bottom, it divides into the question that the title of this show has always implied: does Alicia want to be The Good Wife, or does she want to let herself be seen from behind the curtain that role has draped over her life? Alicia doesn’t always know what she wants, but that isn’t the real obstacle between her and happiness. Before she can find full actualization, she has to let herself want it. That time isn’t here yet, but it may soon be coming.
-“That’s the most I’ve ever said ‘keynote’ in my entire life!”
-“Hey, you got top billing!” “I’m an impressive person!”
-“Are you with that bear? Because I think someone needs to talk to him!”
-“I have two kids. What am I supposed to do?” “No. You like nice things. So go be a whore.”
-“You wouldn’t hire yourself either.”
-“The governor’s guilty.” “How do you know that?” “He’s the governor of Illinois.”
-“What did I learn from this? Use everything you have to get the job. And don’t feel entitled.”
-“Scotch, no ice.” “They only have beer.” “Beer.”
-“You’re linking two things together I never did.”