Alicia in Charge: The Good Wife Comes Full Circle

As its protagonist wrests control from the men in her life, the show's never been better.

The closing minutes of this week's Good Wife saw Alicia Florrick announce her campaign for Chicago State's Attorney in the way she wanted to: introduced by Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode) and with her husband, the governor, by her side. As Peter spoke, the show cut to news footage putting images of this press conference with those of the one from six years ago, where Alicia stood mutely by as Peter apologized for having sex with prostitutes. The difference, to Good Wife viewers, is stark: Before, Alicia was being used as a prop; now, Peter is the prop, essentially cowed into appearing because Alicia is more politically popular than him.

But stripped of sound and context, in both pictures we see basically the same thing: Peter talking at a podium while Alicia stands by silently. One's image, especially as presented by mass media to the casual bystander, remains maddeningly difficult to control.

Sunday’s episode featured a legal case that trod similar thematic lines: a high-powered woman alleging that her dismissal from a prominent tech firm amounted to gender harassment, and the firm arguing back that she was a bad employee and unlikable boss. There were obvious shades of Jill Abramson at The New York Times—Alicia herself admitted that the client was probably "a bitch on wheels," but said that similarly domineering behavior from a male boss would go unnoticed. I was reminded, also, of the Times' coverage of New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn last year. She was portrayed, behind closed doors, as hot-tempered and exacting. But it seemed newsworthy more because Quinn was a woman; no doubt there are countless male politicians of whom you could say the same.

So much of this wonderful season of The Good Wife has been about the importance of public perception, and the way sexism almost always plays a role in shaping it. As Alicia prepares a run for public office, the excitable Eli Gold and her new campaign manager Jonathan Elfman (Steven Pasquale) repeatedly remind her that a huge part of her appeal is the fact that she stuck with her husband but also struck out on her own, starting a law firm and balancing motherhood, marriage, and a career. No man would be expected by the public to do all of that. Peter Florrick is governor of Illinois in part because the public is so impressed that he publicly reformed after a stint in prison. Alicia is vulnerable to the very notion that she might not stick by her husband after he was brought down by a public sex scandal.

One of the juiciest storylines this season has to offer is in Alicia's relationship with Peter, which now will feature an adversarial political dimension. Eli has been eager for her to run, while seemingly blind to the fact that she might instantly cast a shadow over Peter's governorship. We got our first such showdown in "Shiny Objects" as Peter objected to sharing the stage with Finn Polmar, hoping to solely benefit from standing in his wife's limelight. Alicia has been bullied onstage alongside him for years: to lend him credibility as his career collapsed, and then as it recovered during his various campaigns for office. Now, she got to bully him, noting that if he didn't appear to support his wife's candidacy, he'd be bombarded with questions as to why. As much as Alicia has a fine line to walk, Peter's is even finer. He has always depended on the support of his wife, and she's finally wielding that power to her own ends.

The Good Wife's sixth season has been remarkable so far, but it's also been drivingly intense, dealing with Cary's arrest and imprisonment and Alicia's run at the State's Attorney office. So it had a lighter, wackier episode this week that didn't flow very well outside of Alicia and Peter's big showdown. The focus on Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) was initially exciting, since her guest appearances tend to be hilarious and lively affairs, but the show made the odd choice of taking us inside her hyperactive brain. Elsbeth usually comes off as easily distracted but then surprises her legal adversary with some brilliant and unexpected maneuver. This week, she just seemed crazy and bad at her job. It’s not clear if we're supposed to think Elsbeth is getting worse, or if this was just an off week for her, since she was going up against Alicia (who knows her weaknesses). Either way, it felt like a wasted use of one of the show's best recurring characters.

Diane's mistaken foray into the world of computer-hijacking ransomware also offered a lesser entry in The Good Wife's long and storied investigations into weird rabbit holes of tech crime. But it did spur motion on another Season Six storyline that plays into the show's ongoing exploration of image management. Disgusted with her new firm's exposed-brick startup-y offices, Diane wants to move back into the swish Lockhart/Gardner digs, over which she still controls the lease. This idea hasn't even been brought up with her fellow partner Cary yet, but he has objected to the principle behind it over and over again as the breakaway firm has absorbed pieces of his former firm. What's the point of striking out on your own if, in the end, you're just Lockhart/Gardner again, making money and working for the masters of the universe? Sure, the philosophy might be different, but in the old offices, with one of the old partners, will anyone notice?

The Good Wife had a career year in its fifth season that I thought would be impossible to top. I was wrong. Despite a shaky week, the show is only going from high point to high point as it barrels into the Alicia campaign storyline. If the fifth season was about Alicia gaining agency over her personal life and work life (dumping Peter and creating her own firm), this season is about her finally claiming control of her public image, which has been in the hands of the men around her and the media that follows her, ever since the show began. It's a fantastic gambit that, so far, is paying off.