The Good Wife, Ep. 6.04: “Oppo Research” virtuosic but troubled

Oppo Research

The Good Wife, Season 6, Episode 4: “Oppo Research”
Written by Robert King and Michelle King
Directed by Matt Shakman
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on CBS

Why is Alicia Florrick running?

It’s a question that comes up throughout “Oppo Research” with good reason. Ever since Eli brought up the idea in the final moments of season five, The Good Wife has been loath to give Alicia one big, whopping, obvious motivation for once again rening her life apart in pursuit of another ambitious prize. Every time she answers the question – this week most pointedly by her new campaign manager, Johnny Elfman (Steven Pasquale, erstwhile star of Do No Harm) – her response is evasive, or negative, or completely nebulous. As promised last week, the Oppo Research phase turns out to be thoroughly unpleasant and invasive, and she’s even subject to a cheap DUI setup at the hands of Castro before episode’s end. So, for real this time: why would anyone put themselves through this, especially someone already weary of being in the public eye?

The only reason that really matters is the simplest of all: because she can. Forget Gloria Steinem, forget Peter, forget Will, forget standards and ethics and wanting to do the right thing an any other platitudes the series has never really been all that interested in. No, the state’s attorney run is about the fact that Alicia’s world, the world of The Good Wife, is one of constant personal and professional chaos, and if she doesn’t strive to be more, to destroy the conceptions of her that keep her at the mercy of all that chaos, she’ll be forced to reckon with a whole host of deeply unsavory truths. Her professional life is constantly under threat in one way or another, her marriage is a running joke, she possesses remarkably few true allies and even fewer friends, and the inner lives of her children are increasingly a mystery to her. Oh, and her burgeoning political career, her latest escape, is being at least partly funded by a murderous drug kingpin. If the life she dreamed of turned out to be a sham, it can at least be the most ambitious sham imaginable. Alicia knows she can’t sweep away corruption any more than she can fix her own life, but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else be the one to tellher that she can’t. So she runs.

It’s easy to forget just how blackly cynical and bleak many aspects of The Good Wife are because it’s so much fun to watch. “Oppo Research” is written by showrunners Michelle and Robert King, and while it’s not quite tippy-top-tier Good Wife, it has an infectious sense of confidence that reminds viewers just how elegantly choreographed and considered every single aspect of the series is. The Kings have a very specific comic and dramatic voice, one that echoes throughout the whole show, but when they take on writing duties themselves, you tend to notice. The first 20 or so minutes of the episode take place almost entirely in Alicia’s apartment, where Eli has brought in Johnny for a meet-and-assess with the prospective candidate. After Alicia opts for “the red pill” and its attendant horrible secrets, the episode really starts to hum. The sequence in which these unpleasantries are rolled out, one after the other – her Mom’s public spanking of a stranger’s misbehaving five-year-old, her brother Owen’s affair with a married Palestinian man who also happens to engage in unprotected sex on camera (the Kings worked overtime on that one), and finally Zach’s secret abortion – is stunning. This season has seen the show turn the quick-cut flashback into an art form all its own, as Alicia’s (and our) perception of Zach shifts from squeaky-clean golden boy to typically deceptive teenager, all while she continues to process new information and keep a running tab of how and when she’ll be putting out so many fires. Because this is The Good Wife, there are a few more layers, too: Grace and her friends dancing and singing the Lord’s praises; the constant symphony of ringing phones and knocks at the door; the real-life showrunner of The Americans popping in on a TV screen to argue about the vagaries of the series’ long-running prestige cable knockoff Darkness at Noon…

…and it’s there that “Oppo Research” begins to tip from fun sugar-rush to possible health scare just a little. The Kings have not been shy about taking sly potshots at the sort of grim prestige dramas that tend to capture the zeitgeist. The most explicit this has ever gotten within the series is Darkness at Noon, the Invitation to Love of The Good Wife. It began life late last season as a direct parody of AMC’s laughable dirty-cop drama Low Winter Sun, with characters glumly equating hat color with virtue. It was also completely hilarious. It’s popped up a couple more times since, folding in a little True Detective in the form of detectives spouting existential bullshit. In “Oppo Research,” the joke gets really complicated, as we find out that Darkness at Noon has its own Talking Dead-style spinoff, the appropriately lame Talking at Noon. Around the time we get to Joe Weisberg and friends asking “what does the elk symbolize?” in what may or may not be a nod to Hannibal, it’s become clear that the Kings have become maybe a little overly fond of reminding us that they also happen to be huge TV nerds.

By the time we get to the episode’s big reveal – that Lemond Bishop is the source of the AliciaPAC money – it can’t help but feel a bit deflating for a few reasons. The notion of Bishop remaining a Big Bad for a while longer is a little dull. Mike Colter is amazing at conveying barely-concealed menace, but the Kings keep him on that one note virtually all of the time, which makes him a jarring presence on a series populated with characters that still have the capacity to surprise. More limited characters like Bishop seem better suited to less screentime; centering him like this may prove unwise.

Now that the state’s attorney run is set in stone as being, at the very least, a major concern for the foreseeable future, the Kings and their writers should be able to dig their heels in and find a way to make that story work in a way that exploits the series’ peculiar strengths and vast resources. As entertaining as “Oppo Research” is, it doesn’t do quite enough to convincingly make that case just yet. All the quips, canny scoring, winking metahumor, and virtuosic editing in the world can’t quite shake off the season’s big-picture blues. What “Oppo Research” does do is sell us on the plotline as a delivery device for amazing scenes of Alicia discovering and conquering new challenges. As long as the Kings can keep her struggles foregrounded, The Good Wife can really only falter so much.

Other thoughts:

No Judge of the Week; no cases or courtroom time at all. Another sign of a Kings episode – a total lack of procedural elements.

Despite all the Darkness at Noon stuff, the funniest sequence by far involves Eli finally getting to fire Peter’s pantie-free intern after what feels like forever. The hallway approach, complete with a snickering receptionist, is filmed with a sense of anticipation akin to the last shot of Death Proof. Eli lives for these moments, even if the victory proves short-lived.

“Have you read The Goldfinch?” Stockard Channing, a delight as always.

How do the Kings feel about Hannibal? Are they just bored of screen violence in general? Are they telling Good Wife fans that they should be watching The Americans? Is the constant wine-chugging a secret Scandal reference, a secret Cougar Town reference, or neither, or both? Do they want their own talk show? I have so many questions.

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