The Good Wife, Season Five, Episode 18, “All Tapped Out”
Written by Julia Wolfe and Matthew Montoya
Directed by Felix Alcala
Airs Sundays at 9pm on CBS
Entering into season five, the writers on The Good Wife had a plan. This has likely always been true on the show but especially going into this year, when it was clear they were going to lose Josh Charles and need to fundamentally transform the show in some ways, it seems likely that more than a few discussions were had about how to make all of this fit together. Which is why an episode like “All Tapped Out,” which wraps up the NSA subplot in a way that makes it an open question whether there was ever a point to the arc at all, can be a bit frustrating.
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The Good Wife excels at unspooling storylines over months so that they more accurately resemble life in the legal profession, which means the wiretapping of Florrick Agos has been backgrounded for much of this season. That would not be a problem if it roared back to life in “All Tapped Out” to reveal its significance. But instead, it mostly sidles back to the center of things to raise questions about the level of planning that went into this story’s creation. What ultimate purpose did the NSA tap serve, plot-wise? If it is an example of the show trading in headlines to bring us an of the times story, it has been a fairly good one, though perhaps too drawn out. Usually, a “this is how we live now” story is contained to a case of the week, and generally, they are better left there. Otherwise, it isn’t clear the wiretap served any purpose. It didn’t end up moving the ballot-box scandal forward, it didn’t seem to make things much more difficult for Florrick Agos (except maybe for the few days when people have to use pens and paper, like animals), and it didn’t really teach us anything about the characters. Instead, it seems to have provided largely the illusion of an arc, some fun performances from Zach Woods and Michael Kostroff, and filler in the middle of a great season that has still drifted far more than it might.
That being said, “All Tapped Out” is also funny and fun, the first time since Will’s death that the show has really gone all in on a legal episode, and the first time this season Michael J. Fox shows up as Louis Canning, perhaps the greatest recurring character in the show’s stable (second only, in my mind, to Carrie Preston’s Elsbeth Tascione). Alicia gets to do a big impassioned speech while defending Finn Polmar at the investigation’s hearing, Cary and Clark get to play out the absurdity of the way the NSA uses the State Secrets Act again, and Louis Canning slimes all over the offices of Lockhart Gardner Canning (a name change that seems to have happened very quickly, in another sign that the show is largely throwing things at the wall in the wake of Josh Charles’ departure).
The satire in the episode is darkly funny, yet pointed, but it also offers little more than we have seen previously, in terms of the terrifying reach and monumental power our system currently gives the NSA. The agency can retroactively classify documents so that not even the judge in the employment dispute can look at them. It can refuse to answer even the simplest of questions (Cary is reduced to asking Froines if he has ever given his employee “a task, any task”) in the name of national security. And they can tap you, anyone you talk to, and anyone they talk to on the flimsiest of pretexts without any realistic worries about due process or judicial recourse. All of this is scary, and yes, a little bit funny in a blackly absurdist way, but all of this also reminds us of things the show has already pointed out earlier this season. This is not a bad episode of The Good Wife by a long stretch. The case is involving, the guest cast is solid, it’s funny and fleet, and gives us a lot of memorable moments, big and small, from the characters we love. But it is also another example in a show with a fair amount of them of messy, half-baked plotting, of arcs that build only to fizzle out, of storylines that the show gets away with early on by telling us they will eventually matter only to later reveal they were just a way to pad out three or four episodes in a twenty-two episode season. It isn’t bad, but this show can do much, much better.
-”I’m the new Will.” “You’re not the new Will.”
-“I don’t want to be an enemy.” “You’re not the enemy. You’re the Devil.”
-“You’re fighting me. It’s not gonna work if you’re fighting me.” “Says the rapist to his prey…”
-“Is there something I should know about you and Alicia?” “No.” “You’re monosyllabic lately.” “Yeah.”
-“Oh, come on. How much Cherokee?”
-“Mr. Canning. What do you think of Al Qaeda?”
-“Objection. Or, whatever. I disagree.”