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?"

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