‘The Good Wife’ Season 6 Episode 12 Recap: “The Debate”

“We’re not cartoons. When you hurt us, we actually do bleed.” —Alicia Florrick, “The Debate”
“If you prick us do we not bleed?” — Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

About a third of the way through Sunday night’s episode of The Good Wife an emboldened Alicia Florrick utters the above quote, chastising a reporter for daring to inquire after her husband’s fidelity at a debate in which her daughter (heavenly backlit living prop, Grace) was in attendance. She is full of righteous fury, all conviction and mama grizzly, taking the moment to regain her footing after a shaky start to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Peter is locked in a power struggle with the absent mayor, forcing Eli to go head to head with the mayor’s assistant, played by Rachael Harris, all while Eli is desperately attempting to kill a story about Peter’s most recent dalliance with his attorney Ramona. Not to be left out of the episode’s hijinks were Diane and Cary, who were hard at work attempting to clean up the mess left by a fellow attorney in attempting to (finally) put the Chumhum divorce to rest and retain Neil Gross’s (hefty) business, all while trying to beat David Lee at his own game.

If that were all the episode was, it would have been a busy, disjointed episode of the show, purely middle of the road fare. As it were, the episode was all of those things, yes, but what people will take away from the episode, what will be remembered about it is the way it addressed the current state of race in America.

As a title card explained before the “The Debate” even began, the episode was written and filmed before the grand jury decisions in Ferguson (regarding the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer) and Staten Island (regarding the death of unarmed father of six, Eric Garner, at the hands of police officers). It was unclear exactly what the series wanted us to take away from this information, outside of the fact that we would be addressing a potentially volatile topic in the episode to follow. What we saw next was cell phone camera footage of a man named Cole Willis during an altercation with police officers which led to his untimely death. Then, another text prompt caveat, informing the audience that all mentions of “Ferguson” were in reference to the killing of Michael Brown in August, 2014. The opening was disturbing, harkening back to any number of videotaped officer involved killings that have been exposed in recent months. That said, disturbing is okay. It’s OK to be disturbed as long as it is in service of something. But that was not the case here. That was not the case at any point in this episode of The Good Wife.

After showing us footage of an unarmed man being killed we jumped immediately to Alicia’s hectic debate prep where the pending grand jury decision was argued over, not in light of police brutality or miscarriages of justice, but in how to best manage the campaign’s response so as not to alienate police OR African-Americans. What happened in Ferguson, what happened in Staten Island, what happened in Cleveland, none of that matters in the world of The Good Wife. They’re the kind of things used to wrap disparate storylines together, where the thematic thread running through the episode is, “How can I stop this from negatively affecting me? How can I best manage the sorrow and despair of others but remain untouched?” Because the episode I described in the first paragraph is exactly what the episode entailed. To speak about the racial elements is to speak about nothing in particular because The Good Wife has no real interest in them. They are merely convenient window dressing to imply a relevance and an awareness to the world we live in without ever having to deign to acknowledge what it means to exist in that reality. “Ripped from the headlines” episodes of Law and Order typically have more nuance than The Good Wife displayed this week.

The episode was such an unprecedented misfire that at some point it began to look like perhaps the show had grown self-aware and was was consciously painting its characters as monsters who are concerned only with themselves. Cary and Diane are hardly conscious of the potential uprising taking place on the streets of Chicago, even in a world where Ferguson happened and demanded national recognition. Peter busies himself in full-on White Savior mode trying to reach out to the disenfranchised all the while really trying to stick it to the absentee mayor. Eli is trying desperately to keep everything under control while also trying to use his assistant Nora as a sort of social black shield to keep him from any true racial unpleasantness. Meanwhile the show trots out every sidelined character of color it can find, including the estranged father/son pastors and populates the screen with a more accurately diverse Chicago than it has ever bothered with before. It is trying, it seems, to do right by the story, to tell it the way it thinks appropriate, never stopping to comprehend the fact that to do all of this now, for this particular story, only goes to shed more light on how stagnant and white-washed the show’s dynamic has been since day one. It’s lip service. And the more that lip service is paid, the more it becomes perfectly clear that the show doesn’t recognize the monsters in its midst.

Take the moment between Alicia and Prady in the hotel kitchen, where they’re eating sandwiches and shooting the shit after the debate has been delayed due to pre-empting, deciding to do an impromptu debate for themselves and the slowly gathering kitchen staff around them. The kitchen staff is a diverse group, because that’s where the show finds it easiest to bother diversifying, and one staff member points out the ludicrousness of two white people running for office as the solution for the problems of the minority community. It’s an excellent point, and the show acknowledges that before pushing past it until Prady and Alicia are spiritedly winning over the entire kitchen staff with their fanciful plans for fixing the wrongs that plague their inferiors. The Good Wife leans on this time and again, trying to hang a lantern on their white privilege, with hopes that it’s enough to alleviate the unpleasantness without ever having to truly address it. But by episode’s end, between the kitchen scene and Nora calling out Eli’s casual fear of a black planet, among others, the show has hung so many lanterns that Chicago exists under threat of fiery carnage that makes the destruction of Mrs O’Leary’s cow look like a yule log.

But perhaps nothing was so tone deaf as Alicia’s aping of Shakespeare, reiterating that she is made of flesh and blood, just a person like any other. But there’s a difference between Alicia’s blood and the blood of the character who originally uttered those words. Shylock was a persecuted man, punished for his faith, demonized by Christians. He was a minority. He was oppressed. And he vowed to give as good as he got. He goes on to say that as he is treated, so shall he treat the Christians that torment him. Alicia isn’t persecuted. She isn’t a target. Her blood doesn’t run in the street for the color of her skin. And if she is disparaged in the press, the talk, while unsavory, is generally based in fact. It’s always made while she is still alive to refute it. For the truly oppressed in the episode, in the world, the libel comes only as a final indignity. Alicia can scold reporters, reminding them she’s a person. Cole Willis, unarmed family man, doesn’t have the luxury of refuting the accusations of gang involvement because he’s not inconvenienced by accusations; he’s dead.

This is where we leave The Good Wife, heading into a football/Grammys/etc. break that will last an unspecified amount of time. When we return, I expect that the unsavory death of Cole Willis and the subsequent grand jury acquittal will be long-forgotten. What will be remembered is Alicia’s fury at Diane and Cary hiring David Lee without her approval and her screaming at Diane that if Alicia was a man no one would question her motives and Peter finally straightening up his act because a man of God said, “Maybe, uh, be a good person?” The Good Wife will move on, and the status quo will be maintained, and Ferguson will be a faded memory that will only be trotted out if one of the characters needs to seem like someone invested in the well-being of others. The Good Wife had the opportunity to address something meaningful with “The Debate” and instead settled for a timely feint toward social consciousness. Because of that, this episode leaves the characters nothing more than emotional carpetbaggers, feeding off the tragedy of others, hoping to further their plot.

Quick hits:

  • You know who’s concerned about race riots? White people.
  • Rachael Harris is a really good fit for this show. I hope she shows up again. Chris Matthews was also there.
  • The protestors chant “We get no justice; You get no peace” which just seems overly wordy.
  • I swear to God they’ve settled this Chumhum divorce four different times now.
  • Apparently Elfman has feelings for Alicia. Sure.
  • I did like the needlessly complicated debate rules.
  • Opening credit appearance: 10:42