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'The Good Wife' recap: 'It has to be right'

December 15, 2010 |  8:19 am

Aliciadiane

As "The Good Wife" deftly illustrated in Tuesday night's episode, capital punishment is one of the most stubborn political taboos in America. To wit, while prepping for his upcoming debate, Peter asked his advisor, Jim Moody, for his "position" on capital punishment. (Only politicians need someone to remind them what their opinion is on controversial subjects.) Jim snaps back, "You're not changing your position on capital punishment." The message was clear. No matter what your party affiliation, opposing the death penalty is tantamount to political suicide -- you might as well say you're an atheist, that you're going to raise taxes on the middle class, or that you don't eat meat. In American politics, there are just some things that don't fly.

That's why it's both depressing and inspiring to me that a television show such as "The Good Wife" will tackle a subject as thorny as capital punishment head-on, while American politicians so often dance around the subject -- or just avoid it altogether. It's hard to read Tuesday night's episode as anything but a rebuke of the practice. Alicia's eleventh-hour telephone appeal (and, let's be honest, Julianna Margulies' Emmy clip) made the case in stark terms. "It has to be right. To do this to a man, it has to be right," she pleads, holding back tears.  Alicia's line of reasoning -- that there can be no room for doubt in cases in which someone's life is at stake -- is, not coincidentally, also the primary argument made by critics of the death penalty. In other words, there is always room for doubt. 

The episode also featured a cameo from Berry Scheck. Scheck, who starred as himself, is co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions. "The Good Wife" has a history of guest appearances and name-checks that only a political/criminal justice nerd would appreciate (Ben Smith, Joe Trippi, Emily's List), but this is by far the most "inside baseball" moment on the show to date. Other procedural shows have taken on wrongful-conviction cases -- alas, they do make for thrilling television -- but tend to pay little attention to the people who actually work to overturn these convictions. So, it's nice to see an organization such as the Innocence Project get the Hollywood treatment.

Particularly effective was the intercutting between the two different legal teams. While Kalinda and Alicia frantically made phone calls to track down the arson investigator, Warden Barden rang up neighboring states to see if he could borrow some fresh barbiturates to use in Carter Wright's execution. There was something especially ghoulish about this scene, which was sort of like the ideal of American neighborliness gone awry: "Never mind the stick of butter, but can I borrow a pinch of sodium thiopental?"

The editing also reminded me that, as difficult as it is to save a man from execution, there are just as many lawyers, politicians, and wardens fighting doggedly to make sure it happens.  Think about Warden Hiatt, who ditched a weekend camping trip with his daughter to deliver a batch of fresh sodium thiopental, via his family minivan, just in time for Carter's execution. Or even the secretary, robotically transcribing a phone call between Warden Barden and the anesthetist about the "preparations" for the "L.I." All in a day's work, right?  Seeing an execution through requires a combination of passionate commitment and blind obedience; preventing it from happening requires a series of small miracles (and Kalinda).

Of course, the triumphant, eleventh-hour resolution of the Carter Wright case was as much a fantasy as anything on "The Good Wife." No doubt there are thousands of young people who go to law school every year thinking they'll be champions of justice, overturning wrongful convictions left and right just like Alicia -- only to come out three years later as tax attorneys with $200,000 in debt. 

This episode was basically an elaborate, extremely well written stalling tactic. Think about it: None of the major plot lines advanced in any significant way. Alicia's phone call with Will didn't amount to much, her confessional talk with Kalinda was cut short, there was nary a mention of Diane leaving the firm, and we didn't hear a peep about Eli or the wiretaps. And it's this ability to dive into an investigation and delay the resolution of other story lines that is the singular genius -- and, OK, occasional frustration -- of "The Good Wife."

What we learned: Peter has a potty mouth. Kalinda didn't like her old life, so she changed it. Will and Alicia are maybe going to talk at an undetermined future date.

Further questions: What, exactly, did Kalinda have to do to change her life?  And why did Zack keep ogling her? Was it an adolescent crush, or could there be a connection here? Indulge me for a second in some rampant speculation: Could Kalinda/"Leela" have an X-rated past? This makes sense given 1) Cary's snide double entendre about "getting people off," and 2) the amount of time Zack spends on the computer.

Also, just where are they going to take the emerging Grace-turns-religious plot, anyway? The evangelist friend was kind of funny at first, but I don't know if I'm buying Grace's instant conversion in last night's episode. Is Grace going to join the Moral Majority and campaign against Peter? On second thought, I guess that would be sort of interesting.

Real-life inspirations:  The spurious evidence used against Carter Wright was clearly borrowed from the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004. In July, the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined that "flawed science" was used to convict Willingham. Cary even mentioned the must-read New Yorker article about the case, written by David Grann.

-- Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Photo: Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick and Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart. Credit: David M. Russell / CBS

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