Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jormungand 1: Gun Metal, Calico Road

In the past decade or so of TV there have been an awful lot of antiheroes and other protagonists who are evil by any objective morality, but the cast of Jormungand just might take the cake.  They're arms dealers who sell to the highest bidder, and (at least judging from the pilot episode) the show isn't interested in excusing their behaviour by having that always happen to be the "good guys" in a conflict.  Koko, the leader of the crew, exploits Jonas, a former child soldier, forcing him into new battlefields.  It's hard to imagine picking anything more disgusting off your shoe.

In the first half of this premiere episode, when a government type interferes with an arms shipment to his country on the grounds it will cause war, he's undoubtedly in the right -- or, at the very least, we're never given any reason to doubt him.  But when Koko, Jonas, and the rest of the crew take off to settle their problems, it's hard not to pump a fist or two as they blow up the guys tailing them and blast through a government blockade, all to pumping techno music.  It's an expertly shot sequence, almost immorally so.

(Sorry about the crappy image resolution.)

Part of this is just the aesthetics of action, which has a tendency to glorify any kind of violence no matter how strongly the context may condemn it (which is why anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket end up increasingly being used as war propaganda.)  Sometimes this can be used intentionally, in order to jar the audience and make them question their emotional reactions.  Take, for example, the basketball scene from early on in American History X, which uses every sports movie cliche in the book to get you to root for the white supremacists before you even realize what you're doing.  Or any given Paul Verhoeven movie.

Is this what Jormungand is trying to do?  Or is it just mindlessly glorifying the exploits of these arms dealers?  Furthermore, even if it does have anti-war intentions, are they completely erased by the badass action seqences?  It's probably too early to answer any of these questions, but they are the ones that Jormungand -- intentionally or unintentionally -- poses.

Jormungand begins with one of those cryptic prologues that anime series love, that leave their relation to the rest of the story (flashback, flash-forward, nondiegetic abstract imagery) a mystery for now.  We are immediately immersed in foreign-ness, with still shots of what looks to be an offshore oil platform juxtaposed with bellowing African music.  The camera seems to focus on the brutalistic contours of the platform with a kind of cyberpunk industrial malaise.  We see glimpses of the main cast (although with the conspicious absence of Jonas) watching as a rocket shoots off the platform and into the air.  Meanwhile, a voice-over intones with deep gravitas about being Jormungand, the world-serpent that is the hard-to-spell mythological allusion in the series title.

This prologue suggests that we are headed into a world of monstrosity.  The sequence draws an explicit comparison between the monsters of mythology and the horrors of modern warfare, with both being something grown out of all proportion in order to envelop the world.  These characters are part of the entity of war, which has a will of its own beyond the men who wage it.  (To me this is sort of a cop-out for the men who wage it, but it's a stirring image nonetheless).  The trail of smoke left by the rocket, just the latest in a long line of weapons used to kill, matches up perfectly with the mythological snake of the title.

The essentially foreign character of this violence is interesting.  The idea of a violent and primal but nonetheless more real cosmopolitan world seperate from the more subdued realm of modernity is similar to Black Lagoon's Roanapur.  Jormungand goes a bit farther, however: we don't even have a Japanese audience-surrogate, nor are any of the characters given a definitive nationality.  The nation they arm in this episode is never identified.  While this is probably political ass-covering, it adds a curious subversive quality to the arms dealers and the violence they bring.  It is the irrepressible factor that does not fit into the framework of nation-states and is ultimately their undoing.  The other way of reading this is that by estranging the violence from its target audience, Jormungand makes sure that it is always essentially elsewhere and can be safely enjoyed by a priveleged, peaceful nation.  Or that it turns the attention from economic violence to the more direct kind.  But this kind of estrangement can never be total: remember that in Black Lagoon the cosmopolitan violence eventually came back around to Japan.  Although that arc was kind of crappy.

The Black Lagoon comparisons aren't just fair, they're ones that Jormungand practically invites.  Despite being generally well-liked, Black Lagoon isn't really the canonical type of series that TV shows feel compelled to define themselves against.  But its American-movie-style violence and grit are clearly what Jormungand is trying to imitate, and it's willing to pay its debts.  Although the two series are from completely different studios and crews, the art style and character design are extremely similar.  The opening credits, which as I've said before are really the soul of an anime, are remarkably similar, with both being techno-rock with a female singer growling out Engrish.  They're also both pretty cool, so here they are for comparison.

The two aren't identical -- the credits for Jormungand show a lot more of the cast, for instance -- but there's a lineage here that you don't usually see so directly acknowledged.

After this, we're introduced to our characters in a fairly perfunctory manner.  Jonas and Koko are the most developed, and they form a dynamic contrast.  Koko is the instigator, a ball of energy and emotion that is as much a danger as it is endearing.  Morality doesn't really enter into her actions -- it would require too much thought.  Jonas, on the other hand, has a strict anti-war morality, but that doesn't seem to influence his actions at all.  If anything he seems almost entirely passive in this episode, obeying the orders of the arms merchants even as he voice-overs about how he despises them.  The internal thoughts of Jonas seem almost entirely divorced from the quiet character we see on the screen.  When he reflects on the end that he is now travelling with warmongers, he talks about it as though it was something he had nothing to do with, and as if he completely lacks agency.  Neither of them really makes a great hero, but perhaps a combination of the two would.

The rest of the cast is less developed here -- we have the tough chick who's totally devoted to Koko, and a bunch of pretty quiet tough guys.  I guess it's kind of refreshing that some of the arms dealers can be standard grunts instead of quirky weirdoes.  Even if most of the characters are vague for now, there's an undeniable sense of community among them, and when Jonas joins the group at the end it's almost heartwarming.

Is this a glamourization of a dirty business?  Sort of, but I think it hints at an underlying truth.  Even horrible people have friends, have gangs of comrades that tease each other and have meaningful  relationships with one another.  Their life narrative isn't about stomping puppies, it's about brotherhood.  The external context for their brotherhood may be unfortunate, but that's not the narrative they're focused on.  This doesn't make it right, but it does make it easy to understandd not just how these people live with themselves, but how Jonas joining the group can feel like a personal triumph even as it is a moral failing.

Of course, we don't get to see the personal friendships of the people these weapons destroy, so maybe in the end it's still a slanted portrayal.  But most action heroes are almost as bad, and are much less self-aware of it.  Jormungand isn't perfect, but it manages to succeed as an action show while still giving the audience something to chew on, and that's rare enough.

Next week: "I made it a lot more fun and I hit a bunch of poles."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mad Men 5-04: Mystery Date

There's a lot I didn't like about this episode of Mad Men, but I'll start with the one storyline that really worked, which didn't start until about halfway in.  As part of Roger's ongoing rivalry with the ascendant Pete, he hires Peggy to do some on-the-side overtime for their big new client.  The scene where this happens is kind of brilliant, with a flustered Roger trying to hide his desperation through his carefully-developed slick machismo, and Peggy completely seeing through it and managing to empty out his wallet in exchange for a little overtime.  This isn't the first time we've seen this scene, either.  Roger made a similar payment to Harry a couple weeks ago for his part in a battle over office space.  Roger is no longer able to fast-talk his way through the world, a failure that seriously bothers him.  Unlike his partner Bert, he still entertains fantasies of being a sexy young thing, that are plainly undercut by the younger generation's actual reaction to him.  But even in these moments of humiliation he still has recourse to the privilege of his wealth.  The changing epoch brings not necessarily a crumbling of the smooth old power relations, but it does make their barbarity bare.

This leads to Peggy staying up late working and discovering that Dawn, the company's accidentally-hired black secretary, has been sleeping in the office for lack of a late train home.  So Peggy offers her her couch in a moment of solidarity.  Peggy is, to the extent she has a strong ideology, a second-wave feminist and this colours her attempts to relate to Dawn.  She explicitly describes gender as the critical dividing line, and implies that Dawn and her are comparable: "We need to stick together.  I know we aren't exactly in the same position, but I was the only one like me there for a long time".  Racism and sexism are then the same thing in the same package, and can be addressed the same way (and that awareness of one necessarily entails awareness of the other).

But "Mystery Date" cuts the floor out from under this notion even as Peggy tries hard to argue it.  Of course, part of this is just having Peggy be sloppily drunk during the conversation, which is a pretty easy tactic.  But it's also in the assumptions that she makes, and her imagination that she should be a role model for Dawn.  Peggy asks if Dawn wants to be a copywriter, clearly imagining a yes, but receives a firm no instead.  There's a culture gap here -- Peggy can't imagine Dawn having any other goals than the middle-class white ambitions that she herself grew up with, and the value on creative and mental work that went along with that.  She then starts dumping her insecurities onto Dawn, reducing her to a supporting character in her life.

And then there's a brilliant, almost silent moment where Peggy goes to take her purse into her bedroom, away from where Dawn is sleeping.  She stops herself, but Dawn notices, and whatever trust was established between them is broken instantly.  This scene is brilliantly underplayed by Elizabeth Moss, who is able to convey her thoughts so effectively without words, and is aided by Teyonah Parris's world-weary look and the efficient direction that triangulates eyeline matches between Peggy, Dawn, and the purse.  A friendly, if one-sided, conversation is suddenly turned into a struggle between two opposing forces with the prize in the middle.

The social commentary of Mad Men has always been a bit of a mixed bag.  A lot of people have criticized it for using the past as a contrast to suggest contemporary society is enlightened and equal. There are times when the show embodies the patriarchal institutions it claims to criticize -- witness how, in this episode, it simultaneously castigates Betty for being a too permissive mother and Pauline for being a strict killjoy.  But it also recognizes the complexity of oppression, the many different forms it comes in and how women, for instance, can function as enforcers of patriarchy.  (Elsewhere in this episode, Sally's step-grandmother Pauline shows this through her half-disguised prurient delight at the Richard Speck murders and the punishment of girls in too-short skirts.)  Peggy, the hip barrier-breaking liberal, succumbing to racism despite her best intentions shows the complexity of oppression as well as anything else the show has done.  On the one hand, it's not as though Peggy does anything really wrong -- she ultimately leaves the purse there, seeming disturbed by her racist thoughts.  But the mere intention of eradicating racism doesn't eliminate the kind of internal racism learned since childhood, and that will always be an obstacle to being an "ally" to oppressed groups.

Along with all the racial dynamics, Peggy's paranoia over her purse reflects the overarching concern of the fear of the stranger that takes place throughout "Mystery Date".  The obvious historical referent is the mass murder dominating the news, one of those nice forgotten-history moments that Mad Men uses so well.  There the stranger is literally murderous and a genuine threat, but this threat is distorted in ways that make the normally precocious and tough Sally terrified of the outside world, with all its frightening Otherness.  And then you have the sexualized stranger, the other woman (or perhaps the Other woman), an old flame who Don runs into in the elevator and, through her role as a stranger, becomes a threat to the new marriage of Don and Megan.

To tell the truth, this is one of the plotlines that majorly misfires.  Don's ex-lover is made into the kind of evil temptress stereotype that seems to exist solely for men to project away their own responsibility for their infidelities, as well as their own sexual attraction (to play a bit of Six Degrees, Christina Hendricks played another rendition of the Evil Sex Lady way back in Firefly.)  Even if this is ultimately revealed to be an illusion, "Mystery Date" still depends on us reacting in the same way a soap opera audience would to a temptress character -- hissing at the vile woman and hoping that the sanctity of our favourite couple stays strong.

Of course, this whole plotline is eventually revealed to be Don's fever-addled dream, as becomes obvious when Don accidentally kills his seducer.  The main problem with this is that dreams don't really work like that.  Media constantly treats dreams as narratives, and often uses them in order to make meta-narrative commentary (hello, Inception).  The use of dream sequences on Mad Men certainly plays into the show's meta-narrative contemplations, with the dream being possibly just another story being "pitched" much like the characters pitch advertisements every day.  But dreams operate on a fundamentally non-narrative, non-linear structure that could, even if it could somehow be represented accurately on a television screen, could never be confused with a realist drama like Mad Men.  This, in addition to the inherent hackiness of the "it was all a dream" twist is what makes this plotline feels so contrived and groan-inducing.

I think that Matthew Weiner (both creator of the series and accredited writer for this episode) is trying to get at something interesting, though.  When Don kills the woman, he stuffs her under the bed, the same place where the lone survivor of the Richard Speck murders hid.  The sequence suggests that maybe Don is not so far removed from the horror-movie serial killer, that his misogynist use of women is just a bit less extreme.  Perhaps the viewer is also implicated here, through what was presumably supposed to be anger at Andrea for being a homewrecker, and then the startling result of that anger.  I personally never felt that way, which signifies that in my mind this is still a failed storyline, albeit one with interesting intentions.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the show's visual style (which is, at any rate, much more critically interesting than this week's Joan plotline that sits squarely in the evening-soap portion of Mad Men's generic makeup).  This may merely be echoing the visual aesthetics of the time, but in a lot of ways Mad Men looks like a commercial: bright lighting, soft and comfortable colours, and attractive people in generous makeup.  This can even make the series a bit off-putting at times, as it's a style that evokes coldness and restraint at the same time it glamorizes the proceedings.  This looks and feels like professional, institutional television (as opposed to, say, the rough stylistic realism of Friday Night Lights or the gonzo arthouse stylings of Breaking Bad.)  It's a style so well developed that episode director Matt Shakman, who's worked on a seemingly endless array of entirely different television shows, can easily step into the house style and direct an episode that looks just like any other Mad Men episode.

Halfway through "Mystery Date" things change -- night comes down, and it gets hard to tell what's going on as the frame becomes more and more covered in shadow.  Rather than glamorous, the characters look ugly, with the sweat-slicked and feverish Don Draper being the most dramatically debased.  This coincides with the nightmarish experiences of both Don and Sally, and (at least theoretically) pulls the audience into their dreamscape.  Even the conversation between Peggy and Dawn takes on a frightening tinge.  This is one of the advantages of developing a consistent, identifiable style -- when that style changes, it's immediately jarring, and this can be deployed to any number of effects.

At the end of the episode, the long night has past, the cinematography is back to normal, and we and the characters have escaped danger.  But the Other is still out there -- and this is the paradox of Mad Men, and most other serial dramas.  Each episode comes to its own narrative conclusion, but the underlying issues seem to be never truly resolved, because things are never resolved and done away with in real life.  Instead of pretending that these characters are ever going to reach a genuinely happy conclusion, Mad Men presents us each week with ruminations on a theme.  And this is what makes the sometimes clumsy execution so forgivable.  After all, how many TV shows out there privilege theme over narrative so consistently?

Next week: "Today armies, countries, organizations and families have changed for you.  You are an egg that hatches into a comrade."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Martian Successor Nadesico 2: Leave the Blue Earth to Me

Giant robots aren't really in vogue right now in anime.  Sure, there are the occasional series for the diehards, and there have been a handful of successful franchises over the past decade (Code Geass, Gundam SEED, Gurren Lagann) but they've mostly been replaced by lower-budget shows about cute girls doing cute things.  Which isn't really a problem -- unlike some fans, I'm not overly disturbed about generic mecha shows being replaced by generic moe shows -- but it does suggest a kind of malaise in the genre that seemed so vibrant in the 90s[1].  From that era, Martian Successor Nadesico is one of the more interesting but also mostly forgotten series, and in a way it represents a road not taken, which might have lead the genre to a better place.

Fans have for a long time divided mecha shows between "super robot" and "real robot" shows.  Of course, realism is not very high in either, but "real robot" shows (like most of the Gundam franchise) treat mecha fights as an actual war, and the robots as an important but destructible parts in a semi-realistic military.  The "super robot" genre functions more like a superhero or sentai show, with the robot being a god-like force for justice piloted against superhuman evil.  These are generalizations, of course, but they generally show the two approaches to the genre: as childish fun or serious social commentary.

As easy as it is critically to say that "real robot" shows are better, these have a tendency to devolve into melodrama and are no less reliant on fan pandering, as can be seen by most of the recent Gundam iterations.  There have been a lot of recent attempts to reclaim the naivete and energy of super robot shows, but most of these attempts end up insular and retrogressive, only attracting a fading generation of older fans.  Even when successful, these shows indulge in a nostalgia that doesn't really take us anyplace new.  The mecha genre is at a similar place to superhero comics: its attempts to be darker and grittier have grown tiresome, but it's not possibly to go back to the four-colour either, and artists seem split between their attempts to revisit the 90s and the 70s.

Nadesico is from the 90s generation, and is very much of its era, but it's a little different than Evangelion and its imitators.  For one thing, it splices together the morally-ambiguous real robot sub-genre with the kind of broad relationship-based comedy that was also very popular in anime of that era (e.g. Slayers, Ranma 1/2).  Like those shows, it subsists off its constantly blossoming cast.  Even if most of these cast members only have a few jokes, between them there's enough variety to suspend a series seemingly indefinitely.  We're very early on, but there are still a whole host of background characters who will obviously be expanded in later episodes -- the purple haired ex-voice actor, for instance, is obviously not going to spend the whole show simply shouting technobabble.

Just to give you an idea of the size of the main cast, here's the cover to the DVD box set.

Anyway, the comedy here is generally very typical for its genre -- there's a lot of walking in on people in the shower, for instance -- although it avoids its worst impulses.  It's really most notable for its self-awareness.  This episode sees the introduction of Gekigangar, the show-within-a-show, a hot-blooded giant robot anime of the old school.  The heroic simplifications of Gekigangar are often placed in stark contrast with the complicated realities playing out aboard the Nadesico.

However, Nadesico is never entirely dismissive of its legacy in these types of shows.  A lot of pivotal works that break with their genre traditions do so in a totalizing way, explicitly or implicitly castigating the genre for leaving out the real world (which often amounts to graphic sex and violence, plus swear words) -- think Watchmen or, again, Evangelion.  This is fine -- these types of works need to make a complete break with the past.  But in Nadesico, Gekigangar acts as a kind of inspiration for the characters, who strive to uphold its values even in a more complicated world.  When Gai and Akito pull off a move from the show in battle in this episode, it's a pretty cool moment, and Nadesico is okay with us enjoying its coolness.

Gai, a slavish devotee of Gekigangar who tries to mimic the heroism of four-colour characters, is sort of a buffoon but he's also a kind of mentor for Akito.  When they watch Gekigangar together, he tells Akito to "accept it for what it is" -- which is not especially deep or new, but I think it accurately sums up Nadesico's position to its forefathers.

(Of course, this is partly because it's still quite early on in the series, and so there's still a level of naivete allowed here.  In later episodes -- hell, by the end of the very next one -- the bloom will come off the rose and we'll start to see where old mecha anime don't provide an adequate framework.)

"Leave the Blue Earth" in particular is part of the early arc in which the Nadesico has to escape the earth's orbit despite the interference of the hostile government.  The Jovians (the aliens at war with Earth) also appear as a strange, inhuman threat.  The Nadesico and its crew are thus positioned between two opposing forces in war, just as the show is between two opposing forces in the genre.  While this freedom is uncomfortably identified with the private sphere, it still suggests a capacity to stand outside of titanic struggles between two opposed but pretty similar factions -- and with election season coming up, that's an important thing to remind ourselves of.

The major surprise of this episode is Yurika, who goes from being a ditz who somehow wound up as a starship captain to at the very least a Miss Marple-style ditz savant.  In this episode her seeming dimness is what allows her to get important information regarding Akito's past from the government forces.  She then manages to escape their ship after revealing that she did have a back-up plan after all.  Crucially, Yurika's happy-go-lucky personality isn't a complete facade -- she really is bubbly, and has no-bones-about-it affection for Akito.  But she's shown to also be able to deploy that ditziness for strategic purposes.  The big-eyes-small-mouth style, as maligned as it frequently is, is perfect for Yurika's oversized displays of emotions.

(Not to go back to the same idea over and over again, but I could compare this to how Nadesico is able to at the same time be the silly robot show it appears to be and use that appearance for strategic ends.  There's a definite balance being struck here between self-awareness and self-enjoyment.)

Akito, on the other hand, seems to embody Nadesico's ideal reader, someone who is able to navigate his way between two monolithic ideological sides without fully joining either, as well as someone who can enjoy and participate in genre tropes while at the same time not letting them define him (witness his constant insistence that he's just a cook).  Gai gets the upper hand in this episode, but in the long run Akito's method of reading, recognizing cliche and construction without condemning it, may prove to be the better one.

It's still early going in Nadesico, at the very start of its serialized narrative (they haven't even left Earth yet).  The quality is a little patchy, especially when it comes to the humour, and it'll take a while to see the long game of the themes that the series is starting to develop.  But looking back over it, there are already the seeds of a refinement of the mecha genre into something that can engage with its tradition constructively instead of deconstructively or nostalgically.  The only series which has really embraced this approach since was Gurren Lagann.  As I mentioned above, this is very much a road not taken, which probably makes it more attractive than the ones we did take.  But there's no denying that it makes me wistfully wonder "what if".

Next week: "And when you're over there in the jungle, and they're shooting at you... remember that you're not dying for me.  Because I never liked you."

[1]The 90s were very recent, and I will never stop thinking of them as such.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Good Wife 1-13: Bad

In retrospect, it's really no wonder that rich people love The Good Wife so much.  It situates itself very clearly in the realm of celebrity and of scandal, presenting that slim realm as uncertain and dangerous.  In echoes of her own background, Alicia constantly comes up against people who use the tools of sensational media to slander and destroy the lives of the famous and usually rich.  It's not as upfront about its celebrity pity as something like H8R, but by its nature it invests our sympathy in media subjects, subjects who have a considerable amount of power but suffer the indignities of public opinion.

The legal system, then, appears as a redress to the court of public opinion.  By defending the falsely-accused, Alicia acts as a restorer of truth.  "Bad", at least, goes further than most Good Wife episodes in complicating this dynamic.  It begins with a situation where the legal system has already in some degree failed in its role as truth-establisher.  Colin Sweeney, a wealthy socialite, was acquitted of killing his wife but is still generally believed to be guilty.  (The show explicitly draws the comparison to OJ Simpson on multiple occasions, although this case doesn't have the racial dynamics that made that one such an obsession.)

This means that in some way the court has failed -- either in convicting a guilty man, or in failing to settle the matter in the public eye.  Furthermore, the actual case this episode deals with concerns his guilt, but is not going to put him on Death Row or even in jail.  The legal battle is over Sweeney's inheritance from his wife.  Although the question of his guilt is in the balance, the only consequences of the chase is whether a rich man will have to become less rich.  The Good Wife may never be able to fully deal with the fundamental amorality of the legal profession, but it is at least edging towards it with this episode.

The problem is, in essence, that Sweeney doesn't perform grief well.  Instead of being distraught at his wife's death, he makes pithy quips about it.  This instantly makes him suspicious, even aberrant, as much to us as to the in-text fictional public.  There's been a lot of ink spilled in academic writing recently about affect, and while this is in many ways an academic fad, you only have to look at an example like this (or the real-life Casey Anthony media craze) to see how significant affect can be.

Whether or not Sweeney is innocent (and the episode leaves at least a little doubt as to this) he carries himself like a villain -- mincing and quipping and going on about his sexual fetishes, all played to the nines in an awesome performance by Dylan Baker.  He has the affect of the murderer from the movie, and this makes people view him as the murderer in real life.  On the other hand, the lawyer on the opposing side plays like an innocent who doesn't really know what she's doing but is still likable -- a movie hero.  This is heavily suggested to also be a facade.  There's a distinct and unusual disconnect between affect and emotion here.

To get metatextual for a moment, the very idea behind acting is that people experiencing a certain emotion will display these emotions through a specific affect (e.g. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language).  To suggest that one can be grieving and still acting like Sade is to call into question our tools for understanding what we see before us.  When Sweeney's daughter, who performed grief properly, is revealed to be the real killer, this is a potentially revolutionary moment.

But The Good Wife is never really comfortable with this statement, and at the end of "Bad" Julia accuses Sweeney of being the murderer because of his creepy gift of a wall-sized snuff manga poster.  Throughout the episode Sweeney's fetishes and deviances, sexual and otherwise, are sensationalized and made into part and parcel of his evil appearance.

His ultimate exoneration would seem to reveal this prejudice -- I'm not fond of the word "kinkphobia" but it seems most applicable here -- as false, but the end of the episode brings it back into play.  Regardless of his innocence, it's pretty clear that Sweeney being into "breathplay" is supposed to make him creepy, which makes the episode partly hinge on something I'm not comfortable with.  This is the thing I find so interesting and yet frustrating about The Good Wife -- it so frequently seems to go halfway towards a really interesting idea and then retreats back into the fortress of convention.

The Sweeney storyline does provide an interesting contrast for this episode's chapter in the ongoing storyline about Alicia's scandal-plagued husband.  His appeal hearing begins, and Peter seems the polar opposite of Sweeney: soft-spoken, contrite, and looking overall like a good guy -- a movie hero, even.  But this is, of course, all affect.  His lawyer is stern and dispassionately rational, affecting authority.  But the juxtaposition with the Sweeney case, intentional or not, suggests that this is all unreliable -- that we can't learn anything about Peter's actual guilt from his sympathetic face.  The only people in any episode of The Good Wife who aren't playing a part seem to be the judges, whose removal from the ongoing power struggle between plaintiff and defendant seems to allow them room to be their (usually very quirky) selves.

There's another way in which these two stories inform each other, which relates to the above-mentioned sexual sensationalism of these two cases.  "Bad" begins with Peter's attorney repeating "This is not about sex" in the courtroom, trying to divorce Peter's corruption charges from his publicized infidelity.  This would again seem to suggest that we divorce both characters' sexual peccadilloes from the more serious crimes they're accused of.  (Let's just leave the equation of infidelity with kinkiness to the side.)  With its cool rational gaze, The Good Wife tries to divorce the sensational from the important and condemn both those that publicize sensationalism (e.g. the talk show host from a few episodes back) and the public that laps it up.  At the same time, however, it uses that prurient interest -- in strange sex and ripped-from-the-headlines stories -- to draw us in as viewers.  It's a curious tension that I'm not sure the show has quite figured out, but which is still in some ways productive.

As compared to the sped-up episodic plotlines, the Florrick trial moves as slow as a real court date does, taking up weeks and months, always looming painfully ahead.  This creates a bit of pacing whiplash, but it works very well as a season-long arc.  What's most interesting about this is how little of the battle over Peter's appeal takes place in the courtroom.  There's a lot of subterfuge, possible deals, and underhanded stunts between Peter and his nemesis Glen Childs, with neither side emerging with clean hands.  In the end, the facts are almost irrelevant to this battle, despite Golden's opening-arguments pitch.  This is a battle for power.

The importance of power is revealed through a deal Childs offers Peter early in the episode.  He offers release, meaning that Peter can get all the things he's been claiming to fight for -- his family and a normal life.  But it would mean giving up any chance of running for political office again, as well as a chance at clearing his name.  Peter rejects it more or less out of hand.  While he explains that the offer shows that Childs is afraid of losing the battle, it also shows a less flattering side of Peter.  As much as he tries to portray himself as (and may even want to be) a family man, he refuses to give up his grasp on power.

And if we're talking about productive tensions at the heart of The Good Wife, that's another one that both Peter and Alicia have to face -- power against family.  By conventional morality family would be the obvious choice, but what if you're giving up power to someone who will do evil with it?  There's a parallel here as well with Alicia's return to the workplace, which gives her more power in the external world (the public sphere) while estranging her from her family (the domestic sphere).  Whether or not this trade-off is worth it is yet to be seen.

Next Week: "Shut Up! Why don't you just enjoy it for what it is?"