Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Good Wife 2-22: Getting Off

So here's a question: why does American TV only feel comfortable addressing unconventional sex on procedural crime shows?  On most shows, no matter how sexed up, it's unlikely for the protagonists to do it in anything but missionary position, but it's such a frequent plot element on your CSIs and Law and Orders that they spawned a spinoff entirely dedicated to it (Law and Order SVU, which is actually still on, although everyone seems to have forgotten about it.)  Maybe it's just that such elements are introduced only by lowest-common-denominator shows looking for more ways to be lurid, having already exploited the element of violence as best as they can.  Maybe it's that in our cultural mind sex and violence are two sides of the same coin, or that we can only deal with sexual deviancy [1] when it's coupled with criminal deviancy.

The Good Wife doesn't entirely fit into the profile established above -- its lead characters have moments of sexual misbehaviour, and are at one point glimpsed engaged in cunnilingus [2].  And because it's a legal drama its protagonists are just as often engaged in defending sexual deviants than trying to put them away.  But for all its prestige-drama leanings, it still employs sensationalism frequently to add gravitas to its plotlines, and sensationalized sexual strangeness is among its arsenal.  The Good Wife at least makes an effort towards allowing its deviant characters self-explanation, but it still nonetheless associates this deviancy with unsavoriness if not outright evil.  Look at how Peter's nadir was not just sleeping with a prostitute but asking to suck her toes.  Or the entire Colin Sweeney character.  Or this episode, "Getting Off".

This episode does boast one of the better integrations between the episodic "case of the week" storyline and the ongoing serialized plot, although it's not exactly a subtle parallel.  Lockhart/Gardner is tasked with defending Stephanie Engler. a woman who runs a thinly veiled Ashley Madison and has an open marriage, while Alicia and her family deal with the fallout from her learning of Peter's earlier affair with Kalinda.  A prep session between Alicia and Stephanie quickly becomes obviously Alicia taking out her frustrations about her adulterous husband.

There's a big gap between having an open relationship and adultery in secret, and I don't think "Getting Off" entirely conflates them, but it does view them as associated phenomena.  What lurks like a spectre here is the idea, articulated by Laura Kipnis among others, that adultery and its ubiquity are a sign not of the weaknesses within individual relationships but in the mainstream relationship model itself.  Stephanie mostly gets to best Alicia in logical argument, her theories being undone by emotional response later, but even she can't quite muster up this kind of societal critique.  Still, she does raise the question of whether the sin -- Peter's adultery -- that lies at the centre of The Good Wife's ongoing storyline should really have been that big a deal.

The contrast between logic and emotion is a key structuring mechanism in the episodic plot.  This is most obvious in the cold open: Will has a cool demeanor, refers to the dispute as a matter of contract law, and generally adopts a hyper-logical libertarian dispute.  His opposition, recurring antagonist Nancy Kroeser, adopts her usual scandalized act and puts focus on the sexual component of the case, obviously appealing to the prurient emotions of the jury.  She's made out to be a villain for doing so, but it's more or less the strategy The Good Wife is using in this very episode.

As a matter of contract law -- whether or not Stephanie should be held responsible for the murder of a man at a date arranged via her website -- The Good Wife has little interest in the story, and the ethical ambiguity remains unresolved.  Instead the story transforms into a more black-and-white murder case, with Lockhart/Gardner having to defend Stephanie from charge of doing the killing herself[3].  This would seem to lend a lot of credence to my earlier musings about television needing its sex and violence to be intimately intertwined.

But even when Stephanie's business becomes well and truly irrelevant to the proceedings, it's still a central element of the episode, with it being the one central idea "Getting Off" wants to mull over.  Its continual presence is justified by the fact that Kroeser will use it to inflame the jury, but once again the jury and the audience of the show are both being served by the same device.  Visually, the scandalous images of the murder victim engaging in kinky sex are constantly framed and partially-blocked by the audience, calling attention to their spectatorship.  The trial is revealed as a spectacle by the frame of the larger episode, but even with that frame the audience can enjoy the spectacle nonetheless -- perhaps enjoy it more because it is no longer a guilty pleasure.

In the end, the vaunted open marriage is revealed as a lie, as it turns out that Stephanie's husband murdered the victim out of jealousy.  When she hears this, Stephanie embraces him -- turns out that deep down she wanted homicidal devotion after all.  I suspect the idea was to make her appear normal underneath the deviant facade, but it turns out that normalcy involves an equation of violence with love and a myopic if not sociopathic focus on personal relationship issues over another human life.  Stephanie's claims to an alternate and positive sexuality are rebutted and made the focus for her own humiliation.

Most episodes of The Good Wife end with a pyrhhic victory, and this applies doubly so here.  On the strictly literal level, the firm defends their client but only by implicating her husband.  On the more thematic level, the principle of monogamy is restored and the dangerous deviant sexuality is revealed as a form of denial -- but a new deviancy based on violence is created.  Stephanie's ideas would also seem to have some kind of traction despite the episode's conclusion, as they foreshadow the affair between Alicia and Will which begins in the next episode.

I don't really have the time this week to get into the more serialized bits of storytelling, but it's worth considering Kalinda's own recently-revealed deviancy, both in terms of her one-night stand with Peter and her bisexuality.  (The Good Wife makes a show of LGBT-tolerance, fitting with its generally moderate liberal ideology, but I think it's telling that Kalinda's cheating came out around the same time as her sexuality.)  In this episode the drama with Alicia is almost enough to send her to a new job with her occasional lesbian lover, a FBI agent investigating white-collar crimes, before she learns it would involve working with Peter.  In the end, this is a choice between two deviancies, and she chooses the workplace where she's known as an adulterer over the one where she's known as a lesbian.  It's a bit more complicated than that, but sometimes the broad strokes of a story are more telling than the disclamatory details.

But that choice can also be read as Kalinda choosing the female Florrick over the male.  The friendship between Alicia and Kalinda has been much more developed and more believable than whatever is between Kalinda and Peter.  I don't really read anything sexual in there (although if you want to, slash away) but as Eve Sedgewick has argued, homosociality can be every bit as subversive as homosexuality.  In the end, the more you fight it, the more deviance creeps in.

Next week: "We're unable to tell if it's a machine or a life form."

[1]"Deviancy" is an extremely loaded term, but I need a shorthand here for the constellation of kinks, fetishes, lifestyles and subcultures that makes up everything outside the narrowly proscribed horizons of "vanilla" sexuality.

[2] This isn't deviant sexuality in any way, shape or form, but I can still count on one hand the number of times I've seen it even suggested in television.

[3]I'm reminded of the story in one of the Phoenix Wright games where the titular character has to defend his client against a burglary charge and remarks on how weird it is that it's not a murder trial like every other case he's done.  Sure enough, the client is promptly charged with murder, which turns out to be the "real" trial.

No comments:

Post a Comment