03.12.12

‘The Good Wife’: Robert and Michelle King on Alicia, Kalinda, Renewal Prospects, and More

After a middling beginning, Season 3 of The Good Wife has settled into its groove. Jace Lacob talks with the show’s husband-and-wife creators, Robert and Michelle King, about the highs and lows of the season, the handling of various romances, and what’s to come.

Coming off of a taut and provocative second season, CBS’s The Good Wife reset itself in many ways when Season 3 began in September: pushing together prim Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies)—who had struggled to remain faithful to her husband, Peter (Chris Noth)—with her boss and former flame, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), while creating a chasm in what might be the drama’s most central dynamic, the friendship between the titular character and legal snoop Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi).

Alicia started Season 3 with a new hairstyle (bangs!) and a new outlook as well as a new lover, but she and Will were quickly broken up by the show’s married creators, Robert and Michelle King, and Alicia and Kalinda circled each other warily, attempting to stay far apart.

Some viewers rebelled as a result. But The Good Wife’s third season has fortunately found its footing after several behind-the-scenes changes, including unexpected cast departures and narrative recalibration.

The Daily Beast caught up with the Kings at their offices in Culver City, Calif., as the final episode of the season was being started by the writing staff in the next room. While the two took a break on a long green sofa in the office they share, the Kings spoke candidly about Sunday’s episode (spoiler alert!), the Alicia/Kalinda dynamic, mistakes made, whether there will be a fourth season, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Sunday’s episode (“Long Way Home”) ended with Alicia returning to her old house. Are her tears at the end a sign that you really can’t go home again?

Robert King: So much of the episode is about people bouncing between tradition and absurdity, if you want to talk about Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker), but the Anna Camp character, Caitlin, is driven toward family and home. The episode in theory tries to be nonjudgmental towards people who are attracted towards stability. Alicia might be crying because you can’t return. You really can’t. Those kids will never be that short again. But the “mom and dad” at the end? They were mom and dad, but they’re in a complex world, and I don’t think they’ll ever just be mom and dad again. The house is going to become a metaphor for the rest of the year—can you grab any of your past again?

Caitlin appeared to be an All About Eve–like figure until her decision to become a stay-at-home mother. Why was it important that Caitlin make that choice?

Michelle King: What’s even more important than Caitlin making that decision is seeing our characters struggle with judging. They are struggling with judging Caitlin’s traditional choice and, thematically, they are judging Sweeney’s traditional choice. Alicia is also then looking at whether she steps either forward or backward, however you look at it, toward that traditional role.

Robert King: We wanted to have a character where you thought you knew where the narrative was. You’re in Alicia’s head, judging this girl. She’s buttering up the partners, she’s getting information that is hurting Alicia’s career. The Matt Czuchry character, Cary Agos, was doing that in the first year. But the story of Caitlin is the story of Alicia, as we saw the reason she was hired was the same reason that Alicia was hired. She’s making the same exact choices that Alicia made: she is going to put her husband first and maybe Diane (Christine Baranski) is right, she will be back in 15 years. She is good. We wanted to suggest that this woman has a bright career in law and she just makes this choice that is a version of the choice that Alicia made.

There is an inevitability to what Caitlin chooses; there’s a slightly traditional vibe to her. All throughout you’re thinking we’re going the All About Eve route, which is that she’s a calculating bitch who will undercut Alicia any chance she gets. A little magic trick within the build of the season to think you know what Caitlin is about.

Cary confesses to Peter that he had a relationship with his colleague Dana Lodge (Monica Raymund), but he gets off lightly, which potentially reveals Peter’s racial bias to Cary and to us. Where did that notion come from?

Robert King: We happened upon that because we love Anika Noni Rose [who plays Wendy Scott-Carr] and Monica Raymund. At a certain point, we knew where we were heading with this grand jury investigation and that they were going to get their comeuppance in the same episode, and there would be some racial blowback from that because here are all of these white heroes and the only ones who are evil are African-American or ethnic in some way. We decided to have these issues come up and a question of “Why is Cary being elevated?” when you have Matan (Chris Butler) there from the very beginning. Peter is choosing a little white version of himself. Then, we decided to cast an African-American as the guy who’s fired for having sex in Peter’s office. It felt like one of the ways you could raise Cary’s idealism is the sense that he’s getting a clean ride because he’s white.

Season 2 was such a triumph, but there were some grumblings from viewers at the beginning of this season. Were you surprised by some of the negative reactions to the first few episodes?

Robert King: Not a surprise, because we don’t really count on anything, but it did make us recalibrate some of our work for this next year. We thought we had enough rope to go with the affair between Will and Alicia and what we realized is that the show needs a structural dilemma, not just a personal dilemma. The personal dilemma was how do you handle an affair, especially with a boss. What there really needs to be is some dilemma by design that threatens the law firm or the characters. It’s a lesson that goes back probably to Aristotle, which is: what are you fighting against? We’re going to figure out a better way to do that this year.

Will’s disbarment hearing was originally intended to take place in episode 13 but was pushed back. What was behind that decision?

Robert King: Sometimes we are slightly at the mercy of casting and the mercy of our own enjoyment of threads. Christine Baranski popped for us this year. I know, it’s so stupid that we are surprised that Christine Baranski is popping. But Christine Baranski was playing second banana partner for a little while, and there was this episode where she confronted Will and said, “Stop sleeping with her,” and we wanted to play that out before we moved to Wendy Scott-Carr and that threat asserting itself. It inflated things by two or three episodes because we were enjoying what Christine was doing.

Michelle King: Sometimes you get into a situation and realize that there is so much more to explore here and ask, why are we jumping off the cliff quite yet?

Wendy Scott-Carr made it clear that her ultimate target was actually Peter, but then punitively went after Will and went to the bar association. What was the shift there?

Robert King: I don’t think we prepared the audience enough for it. Wendy Scott-Carr’s plan was to use the pressure on Will to get to Peter and once Will said, “I’m not playing your game,” she then pushed in on Will but was then going to go for Peter. Our hope is to bring back Wendy Scott-Carr to go after her ultimate goal. To us, the Wendy Scott-Carr character is Kenneth Starr from the Clinton years, someone who was probably a good man but who, through Puritan values, lost track of the goal and had “mission creep” for his investigation. Wendy Scott-Carr was brought in for a special purpose, but she is a Puritan—that Peter would beat her and yet would be sleeping with prostitutes just drives her crazy. I don’t think that’s gone away, but that shift, I don’t think we explained it as well as we thought we did.

Imani Stonehouse (Nicole Beharie) was meant to provide a corner of a love triangle between Cary and Kalinda, but she disappeared and was replaced by Dana Lodge. What happened?

Robert King: We loved Nicole Beharie.

Michelle King: She had a family emergency. She was meant to be on for a longer arc, but then she had to leave the show.

Robert King: What we were planning was a character like the Greta Garbo character in Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka. There was a sense that the Imani character was a very tight-assed or by-the-book character and then gets a little bit seduced by the corruption around her, and the question was meant to be, is this a good thing or a bad thing? But once we lost the actress, we had to create a character for Monica Raymund, which is where we decided to go the route of someone who was not a lesbian but who was seduced by the possibility of someone having a crush on her.

How well did the love triangle work then, given that there really wasn’t a possibility of consummating this tension with Kalinda?

Robert King: Not as well as when there is a true romantic tension, although the tension there was always, well, will they end up sleeping with each other? But we didn’t want it to be that everyone just drops their drawers whenever Kalinda is around. And yet there was something hypocritical in this woman for playing the sexual card when there was never going to be any consummation. One of the things that TV doesn’t do well is subtlety on the will-they-or-won’t-they route, because you don’t feel that you’re getting your dramatic payoff if people don’t do it or they’re not on the verge of doing it. It was more of an intellectual idea that we were pursuing because it seemed fun, but I think it had a few dramatic drawbacks.

Next year is going to blow the pants off of it. This year with Kalinda was slightly hurt by the loss of Kelli Giddish at the beginning of the year to [Law & Order: SVU], in that she was a kick in the ass for Kalinda and for the show, because she had such a different, genteel Southern energy that really was fun. We wanted to play with the idea of whether Kalinda would stick with her morals with this woman or bend them because she likes sleeping with her. Once that dropped out, there was an attempt to build another story, not on the wreckage of that but on the interruption of that.

It was natural that Alicia and Kalinda wouldn’t be talking at the start of the season. Was it hard to recreate the magic that those two had when you can’t have that dynamic?

Michelle King: That’s what’s been interesting to figure out. They are choosing to remain in the same workplace, there’s been this huge fissure between them, how would they realistically navigate that world?

Robert King: One of the things that we really wanted to do with the show was be not careful with the characters. We wanted to be more like bumper cars—they just slam into each other. The reality would be how hard it is to come back from this massive betrayal or what Alicia considers to be this massive betrayal. We’ve been wanting to show different colors of that with this Nora Ephron–like quality of when are they going to do it? Not sexually, but friendship-wise. Julianna and Archie are both so great in this that it was a matter of figuring out how fast or how slow we can peel this back. What is the new configuration of the Alicia/Kalinda relationship?

How much have you thought about that reconfiguration?

Michelle King: Endlessly.

Robert King:  We devote two hours a day to just that thought. We would acknowledge that one of the magical moments in the show up until now, and even seeing the dailies, is seeing these two drink together. If that’s not one of the main relationships of the show, it’s the main relationship of the show. We’re working as if these are two real people, what would this new configuration look like, and we’re obsessed with it.

We started the season with Alicia and Will together and then they broke up fairly quickly. Are you happy with how that played out?

Michelle King: I am happy with how it’s played out. I like the fact that it’s not a tragedy. These are grown-ups and they had this relationship. At least for right now, it’s not happening. There’s still a real friendship and a real affection between them. It’s not sad. Not every relationship, when it’s not going on, needs to be sad or melodramatic.

Robert King: What I liked about it was that the trajectory felt real. The end was a real source of debate. But what felt real was this exile that Alicia imposed on herself. Nothing really happened with Grace (Makenzie Vega) in that episode. Grace was fine, but Alicia was imposing so many worries and so much guilt on herself, she created the end of that relationship, and she created that concern for her kids. You hold yourself to a higher standard when you’re around these kids. What I liked about it was that it was not imposed by events outside; if it hadn’t been that day, it would have been another day. It was something Alicia applied to herself.

What opportunities are opened up as a result of Will not being able to set foot in court?

Robert King: The biggest one is Diane gets to kick ass. The other is that we were having a lot of fun since “Alienation of Affection” where David Lee, Julius (Michael Boatman), and Eli are just funny. This battle between them is just like three Katzenjammer Kids. They are tumbling over themselves to figure out the best play. We wanted to peel back a little more of Will’s personality. Does Will grow as a result of this spanking? Sometimes people don’t grow as a result of their spankings. Peter had this disaster in his life and tries to grow past it, and the question is can he ever really? The same question is with Will.

Michelle King: There have been a lot of consequences, particularly this season.

Robert King: So much of this season we wanted to come from that one event, them walking through that hotel-room door at the end of last year. Almost everything this season comes from that one event: the Wendy Scott-Carr stuff, Will getting suspended, etc. So many romantic entanglements on TV are consequence-free or just limited consequences for that one episode. We wanted this dragon to have a long, long tail.

What is your take on this season thus far? Are you at a point where you can look at it cohesively?

Robert King: The highs this year have been higher than last year. There have been episodes where I wish I could go back and correct a few little things. Our sense of this year is that it’s a building year for next year. In many ways, you need a year Kalinda and Alicia are not drinking with one another, because otherwise you are just saying, “Oh, that’s working on TV. Let’s just keep doing that.” The bigger discouragements this year were actually playing off what happens in life, which is that you can’t have every piece be [Bach’s] “Air on the G String.” A lot of it is the development of the characters and we’re just trying to ride where the characters take us. Some cases have been harder for the audience to swallow, but I think for interesting reasons. The show should try to open up areas that you don’t usually see on TV shows because the murder of the week gets a little old, too.

I always watch to see what people are saying. I was very aware of the first three episodes not connecting the way they should. That was a function of how we didn’t build some structural outside force that would have created some jeopardy within the world.

Should we see David Lee (Zach Grenier) as the wrench in the works at Lockhart & Associates?

Robert King: David Lee? Yes. We probably should not like David Lee because he’s a racist and he’s hiding his past. There’s not much reason to like him, but Zach engages with it fully. He confronts Alicia when she says she doesn’t want him to represent her [in the divorce] and he just says, “Alicia, I don’t give a damn.” I’ve never seen him more vicious. He’s this loose cannon and I think the show is just the lesser if we don’t have that character running around. He’s the threat from within. There’s no goodness in his heart.

Michelle King: But there’s confidence and there’s wit, which gets you plenty far.

There have been very few Peter and Eli (Alan Cumming) shared scenes this season. Was it a natural evolution to have these two go their separate ways for a bit?

Michelle King: It’s the reality of the situation. If there’s not an active campaign, Eli doesn’t have as much to do with Peter.

Robert King: Our challenge next year is to not have the Peter/Eli stuff repeat the second season, which was very cool and on point. What we wanted to see this year was the natural ebb and flow of politician: you win, you have a year or two where you think you’re going to do good, and then you’re pulled back into a campaign. There’s this corruption that creeps in: Peter is in office and what does that look like? In many ways, Cary became the new Eli in that he’s over there and it’s more of a father-and-son relationship, but with Peter and Eli, that’s where the bread is buttered and that’s our intent to go back there. They’re good together.

It’s been hysterical to see Eli as a sexual being, caught between Vanessa (Parker Posey) and Stacie (Amy Sedaris). Will we see that bizarre love triangle continue?

Robert King: We have Parker Posey. Again, it’s a struggle for people’s availability. Amy Sedaris had so much fun that she’s going to make herself available. We didn’t know what we’d get with Amy Sedaris. We were huge fans of Strangers With Candy, but the character was written to be a little more flight attendant and superficial. There were hints of that in the first episode and she just kicked ass in the second episode. The thing we stole from her was the word “fish.” We saw in the dailies from the first time she was here that every time she wants to say “fuck,” she would say “fish.”—“I fished that line!”—so we decided to steal that and give it to Stacie.

You have this whole stable of dynamic recurring and supporting characters. Is it a double-edged sword to have to find ways of keeping these characters actively engaged with the plot?

Robert King: The show wants to embrace complexity and baroqueness, because that helps hide magic tricks in terms of plot devices you don’t see coming. Jackie (Mary Beth Peil) is away for a while, so it will be a shock when Jackie comes back and just plummets right into the middle of the action. What we wanted to do is to embrace that complexity and we got so excited about some of the characters that we were pursuing this year, that next year we’d probably thin down slightly.

Michelle King: We have such wonderful main cast members. If you’ve got an episode or two where you don’t see Matt Czuchry, it becomes, “Oh no, where’s Cary?”

What can you tease about what’s coming up for the back part of the season?

Robert King: Sunday’s episode is a good table-setter for what’s coming up. The tension within Alicia for the end of the year is: if you’re aiming for the corner office, you are aiming for days where there is less quiet. There’s this dilemma of, “How much do I want what I had before?” Even complicated by Peter and all that. How much was the simpler life the better life?

Matthew Perry is amazing in this episode coming up and someone who really becomes a thorn in Alicia’s side. The Alicia/Kalinda relationship will find some very odd turns in it. Case-wise, we are trying to play as much with the format of the show, because we’re bored with courtroom shows as well. We’re trying to change it up as much and as often as we can, the entire interrogatory nature of courtroom shows, but in different settings that make it seem fresh and new.

How confident are you feeling right now that there will be a fourth season?

Michelle King: I feel like we have to be optimistic, because the job is to try to build to that. Thus far, we’ve only gotten tremendous, wonderful support from the studio and the network. We’re moving forward positively. If it shouldn’t be, we’ve gotten to tell 60-something episodes and how lucky are we?

Robert King: If we don’t get a fourth season, there’s a dirty trick going on, because we’re being encouraged [by CBS], but I think the show requires encouragement because of its serialized nature. We can’t say “don’t worry about it,” because that would be wrong, too. I am sure there were people on Terra Nova who thought that that was happening.