The Good Wife, Season 6, Episode 12: “The Debate”
Written by Robert King and Michelle King
Directed by Brooke Kennedy
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on CBS
The Good Wife’s innate whiteness has never been in question. Its creators are white, the vast majority of its unusually large principal cast is white, and its storylines almost invariably revolve around the perils and fortunes of a variety of very affluent white people, be they lawyers or clients. The series’ attempts to correct this even a little have been mostly woeful. Even in this sixth season, with the formation of Florrick Agos, came an in-series commitment to creating a more racially diverse workforce, with a special focus on Taye Diggs’ Dean Levine-Wilkins. Remember him? The series’ most – only, really – prominent black character has long been Mike Colter’s Lemond Bishop, the drug kingpin. (Not helping matters is the fact that the series’ only principal character of color, Kalinda, has long been its most ill-served.) While The Good Wife’s realpolitik approach to current affairs has always been one of its strong suits, the way in which it’s unable to put a character of color onscreen without making his or her race a plot point (unless they’re criminals or, occasionally, preachers) has long been an irritant. Most series ignore race altogether. The Good Wife has a different problem: its tendency to overexert itself trying to prove that it cares about race issues when it would probably be better off actually having a go at creating three-dimensional characters of color and keeping them around for any length of time.
“The Debate” is another of those theoretically laudable episodes in which racial issues come to the fore on The Good Wife. An ostentatious opening title announces that the episode was written and shot before the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, seeming to immediately indicate that this is going to be a Very Special Good Wife. The trouble is that it isn’t.
After the opening moments, in which a very Eric Garner-esque cell phone video depicts the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of two police officers in Chicago, we resume our regularly scheduled plot, with Alicia minutes away from debating Prady on television. The debate itself is very much de rigeur Good Wife, milking the comic potential of all kinds of minutiae, from the bit of duct tape on the podium that Alicia can’t stop picking at, to the red-and-blue curtains behind her that make her appear totally indecisive, to Chris Matthews’ ludicrous moderation style. (He even cannily predicts the conundrum of this episode: “Talk to us about race relations in Chicago, Mrs. Florrick. You’ve got 45 seconds.”)
Once the debate’s live feed is cut to head to the site of the Chicago protests (with Eli warning that the situation could go “full Ferguson,” in an awkward reminder that The Good Wife insists on pretending it takes place in our universe while also aping and repurposing its events), Alicia and Prady reconvene in the kitchen, where they decide to have their own, moderation-free debate to see if they actually disagree on anything – and this is where things get really weird.
It’s impossible to separate “The Debate” from the fact that it’s credited to Robert and Michelle King, who are not only the series’ creators, but the writers most prone to metacommentary and sometimes even autocritique. So when Alicia and Prady begin to come at each other on race issues, only to be interrupted by a black onlooker who heckles them for being a pair of white people droning on about the hypothetical actions, opinions and fates of black people, it’s with the further knowledge that this comes to us courtesy of a different pair of opinionated white people. This is further complicated by what we know of the Kings: they’re exceptionally playful writers who like to toy with the limitations of form and structure, as well as find unique avenues for social commentary that would never occur to other TV writers.
Starting with that debate, “The Debate” sets out trying to have its cake and eat it too, dramatizing a what-if scenario mimicking recent historical events while still very much being a story about Alicia and the firm and the election. It’s a balance that is not always handled all that gracefully. The best scenes actually revolve around Peter, who makes the call to actually head to the site of the protest when the mayor turns out to be a no-show. En route to the protest, he confers with Pastor Isaiah (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the son of Frankie Faison’s Pastor Jeremiah, and admits that he would rather be an “effective” man than a good one. This is a powerful evocation of one of the series’ most basic themes: the intersection of public service and private persona. Peter has often made poor decisions, but he’s making the right one here, even if it might on one level merely be a window for a killer photo-op.
The real trouble comes with the integration of…almost everything else, really. Photos of Ramona and Peter leak to the press, so Peter decides to break it off with her, because apparently his and Alicia’s marriage is still some sort of sacred thing that needs protecting. Alicia verbally firebombs a “journalist” who brings it up at the debate. Back at the office, Neal Gross is back with another divorce settlement wrinkle (zzzz), which ultimately leads them to poach David Lee from whatever it is that other firm is called now. Alicia finds out about this, and proceeds to deliver an impassioned but very awkwardly placed speech about how people don’t understand women who want to win. (Alicia? I’m fairly certain Diane understands what it is to be a driven woman in a man’s world.)
Some of these scenes are great in and of themselves, others are cringeworthy; that’s not really the point. The Good Wife simply bit off more than it could chew on this one – and it has proven that it can chew an awful lot. “The Debate” promises to bring an extremely timely issue to the world of the series in an impactful way, starting with that jaw-dropping cold open. The problem is that The Good Wife is “above” doing an episode that is “just” about race and police brutality in America; it has to also be about cynical political calculation, sexism, journalistic ethics, the media, Alicia’s home life, Alicia’s work life, Peter’s conscience, and a million other things. The protest winds up as background noise in just another episode of The Good Wife, a plot point that barely punctuates a few dozen other plot points. It handles the situation with respect, but insufficient weight. In a key scene, a black female associate of Eli’s accuses him of making her his “shield” en route to the protest. On its own, it’s a witty, piercing examination of Eli’s barely-concealed prejudices, but in the greater scheme of “The Debate,” it has a level of probably-unwitting metacriticism: characters like hers serve as the series’ shield, assuring us that it has done enough thinking about the issues at hand to ever have them take center stage for more than a scene at a time. The Kings would have been better off lowering themselves to a Very Special Episode.
This review comes to you courtesy of yours truly, a white person with opinions.
The opening title is a perfect example of why the Kings should maybe have not attempted this: by pointing out that the episode’s writing predated the grand jury decisions, they save themselves from accusations of blatant headline-ripping, but they also run the risk of simply trying to appear clever for “guessing” the outcome of those cases. Not a great look.
In other news, I’m pretty solidly convinced that Prady is the superior candidate at this point. He seems a nice sort and doesn’t have any of Alicia’s icky associations, that we know of. Sorry, Alicia.
The “man on the street” segments within the in-show news segments were terribly written and acted. Very stilted. C’mon, Kings.
The crowd at the protest looked decent, but the sound design on the chants was really unfortunate, making it sound like twelve people shouting “black lives matter!” in a rubber room.
Poor, poor Elfman, dumb enough to catch feelings.
Though the episode as a whole has major problems, there are a ton of great little moments as always, especially everything Marissa chimes in with, and the way the jerk journalist ultimately gets the last word in, much to everyone’s annoyance.
This was the midseason finale; see you again in a couple of months for the back ten. Let’s hope for less of this, yes?