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09.29.13

‘The Good Wife’ Is Back With a Terrific Fifth Season Premiere

Tonight’s fifth-season premiere of CBS’s legal drama was outstanding—and is further proof that the show was robbed at the 2013 Emmys, writes Chancellor Agard.

Being one of the best shows on network television is hard. It means you’re held to a higher standard, and even a minor slippage in quality is pounced on and ripped to shreds by critics. The Good Wife was made aware of this in its fourth season, which featured some weak subplots (e.g., the brouhaha over Kalinda’s hubby). Thankfully, the CBS legal drama has already learned from its mistakes, and its fifth season premiere makes a strong case for why it is still one of the best shows out there.

The premiere picked up where last season’s impressive finale left off. Alicia (Julianna Margulies) accepted Cary’s (Matt Czuchry) offer to leave the law firm of Lockhart Gardner with him and the other fourth-year associates to start their own firm, Florrick Argos. But both Alicia and Cary decide to stay on at Lockhart Gardner until Alicia has finished her current case and they find office space for their new firm.

As always, the case of the week was just as interesting as the many character and story-arc developments. The attorneys of Lockhart Gardner are working on a death-row appeal for a man who was convicted of killing two women in a bungled car jacking. The lawyers work tirelessly to delay the execution after the prison botched its first attempt at terminating their client.

While The Good Wife dealt with a similar last-minute death-row appeal in the second season episode “Nine Hours,” the new case didn’t feel like the show was retreading old territory. Rather, Alicia, Diane (Christine Baranski), and Will (Josh Charles) cleverly link their client’s botched execution to another lawyer’s class action suit regarding the administration of lethal injection. They must then make their case to Judge Kluger, played by guest star Jeffrey Tambor (of Arrested Development fame).

Jeffrey Tambor’s turn as the no-BS Judge Kluger was a treat to watch. When Will prefaces his wish for his client to join the class action suit with “if it pleases the court,” Judge Kluger hilariously responds, “You know it doesn’t please the court. Not very much pleases the court these days.” One of The Good Wife’s many strengths is its impeccable guest star casting, and the judges are always standouts in this regard. 

Unfortunately, Judge Kluger doesn’t rule in Lockhart Gardner’s favor and the execution must proceed—that is, until a last-minute Hail Mary by Will delays their client’s execution for a second time, forcing the state to forego an execution as they are not willing to try a third time.

“Despite being a network legal drama, The Good Wife achieves cable-level subtlety.”

Amid the chaos created by the death-row appeal, Alicia, Cary, and the fourth-year associates endeavor to conceal their mass exodus from the other partners. David Lee (Zach Grenier) becomes suspicious of the fourth years when he witnesses them congratulating each other in the office. So, he has Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) pull the fourth year’s phone records and finds out that they have been calling all of the firm’s top clients. In a tension-filled scene, the other partners call Alicia in and question her about the fourth years, to which she lies and says she has no knowledge of any plans to leave. It’s a fabulous bit of acting by Margulies, who’s by this point has mastered the art of duplicity. 

Lockhart Gardner’s suspicions of Alicia and Co.’s double-dealing will be interesting to watch going forward, since it’ll surely affect the show’s central love triangle between Alicia, her husband Peter (Chris Noth), and Will. Throughout the episode Alicia tries time and again to tell Will of her plans to leave, but can never seem to find the words. Will, of course, will be furious when he finds out, since he was the one that fought for the firm to hire Alicia in the first place.

Whether or not Will understands why Alicia made the decision is left to be seen, though it’s fairly obvious—to viewers, at least—that Alicia didn’t take this decision lightly. She’s struggling to remain faithful to Peter amid all of the pent-up sexual tension between herself and Will, and the planned occupational distance between Will and Alicia will only further complicate their feelings for one another, and make for some very exciting television.

After all, last season’s finale pulled a fast one on the audience, spending virtually the entire hour on Alicia and Will’s flirty relationship, only to pull the rug out from under us and have Cary—not Will—be the one knocking on her door in the episode’s final moments. It was a pleasing bit of misdirection that not only raised the stakes for the show’s fifth season, but also revealed the show runners’ commitment to pursuing plot over sappiness (unlike The Newsroom’s recent eye-roller of a finale).

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Elsewhere, Peter’s governorship has a shaky start when he has to deal with old temptations. Peter, Alicia, and Eli (Alan Cumming) have a briefing with Peter’s new attractive in-house counsel Marilyn Garbanza, played by Melissa George. Eli wants to replace her because he is worried Peter will succumb to temptation (“the optics are bad,” he says). Though at first reluctant to replace his new counsel on the basis of her looks, he soon realizes that he does indeed find her attractive, and agrees to give her a promotion that will get her out of his office.

The Good Wife has accumulated so much good will over its amazing run that it’s probably best to withhold judgment on this tryst-in-the-making. Part of me doesn’t wish to see Peter’s Spitzer–like tendencies play out onscreen since it’ll seem downright uninspired compared with, say, Anthony Weiner’s online hijinks. One of the shrewdest aspects of the series is that Peter’s philandering happened off-screen, prior to the events of the pilot episode, so we never had to witness them. Then again, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of “Marilyn” soon, given her name.

Despite being a network legal drama, The Good Wife achieves cable-level subtlety. Tonight’s episode cleverly alluded to the past not only via nuances in plot, but also through its Bach-heavy orchestral score—a musical tip of the hat to the final moments of the fourth-season finale, as well as one of the fourth season’s standout episodes, “Death of a Client.”

After an uneven fourth season, it’s nice to see The Good Wife back in stellar form. The burgeoning civil war between Lockhart Gardner and Florrick Argos will be a delight to watch, and perhaps make Emmys voters regret not giving this outstanding show the accolades it deserves.