CBS

This whole season of The Good Wife has dealt with the political nature of perception. Whether you’re running for office or trying to convince a jury of your innocence, nuance gets flattened and chance rules over how the rest of the world sees you. Last night’s mid-season finale focused on Cary’s trial for supposedly helping drug traffickers avoid law enforcement, but it really focused on Cary's decision not to put his fate in the hands of a jury. And it did that in an innovative narrative manner that just lends more weight to the argument that this is the best-directed and most inventive drama on television. Not network television—just television, period.

To be clear: “The Trial” was not a perfect episode, and some of the grander plotting of Cary’s arc this year has not been convincing. But his storyline has been beautifully presented and acted—and last night was a real showcase for Matt Czuchry, who has done fantastic work as Cary all year and better not be leaving the show just because his character is taking a plea bargain. I assume that The Good Wife will follow its own example—Peter Florrick was in prison for the first season after all—and keep Cary around as a character even if he’s not in the law firm. But that is a cliffhanger to be resolved in January.

“The Trial” took us into the heads of different characters involved with Cary’s proceeding, one per act. And it wasn’t just the regulars—we began with Judge Richard Cuesta (David Paymer), trying to get out of court in time during voir dire so he can buy his wife Neil Diamond tickets (he succeeds, thank God). Prosecutor Geneva Pine is wrestling with a brief fling she had with one of her witnesses; a juror played by Zak Orth suffers from an auditory processing disorder which means he can’t comprehend what’s being said half the time; Kalinda vainly and foolishly tries to coerce Lemond Bishop into protecting Cary, which backfires during the trial; and finally, Cary realizes his fate is sealed and takes the plea bargain.

The effect was brilliant: Viewers understand that there’s so much unpredictability at work, even in the controlled environment of a courtroom, and there’s only so much Cary and his attorney Diane can really account for. Everyone knows his case is weak enough that going before a jury would be a risk, and could possibly lead to 15 years in prison. The plea means he’s in jail for two years without ever compromising his loyalty to Lemond Bishop (which is basically helping him survive). Being exposed to every character's terrible unpredictability clarified Cary's impossible decision in a way that made the episode’s tragic ending work.

Still, Cary’s court case suffered from being drawn out over 10 weeks. This is a show that can cram a lot of legal action into one episode, so the ups and downs over 10 weeks were almost too much to bear, especially considering it ended with him in prison. State’s Attorney James Castro’s vendetta against Cary has never made much sense—why go after a lawyer to flip on a drug lord? What lawyer would ever feel good about testifying against his or her own client, no matter what the circumstances? So structuring the whole first arc of the season around this case has always bugged me, and the amount of contrivances it took to get us here (down to Bishop’s last rug-pull with a damaging witness he supplied) hurt the emotional impact of Cary’s guilty plea. Is there another twist coming? Or is this really how The Good Wife plans to wrap the legal career of one of its main characters?

Alicia’s political campaign has also been treading waters for a few weeks now. Her supposed cease-fire with opponent Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce) has never taken effect. Every week he begs her not to negatively campaign against him, and every week there’s the suggestion that some Florrick surrogate does Alicia’s dirty work for her, protecting her promise to campaign clean while hurting his poll numbers. It’s not a new storyline, but that’s all we’ve gotten in the last few weeks: endless scenes of Alicia telling her staff not to do unethical stuff, and then her staff conniving off-screen to find some morally fungible way to get around her requests.

“The Trial” used Alicia’s political campaign as a lighter, humorous plot this week, perhaps to counteract the darkness of Cary’s case collapsing. But I just wasn’t in the mood for something lighter—both this and Alicia’s ongoing flirtation with Finn felt like they belonged in a different episode entirely. I am happy for The Good Wife to have fun, but there’s no need to veer so wildly into slapstick romance just to keep things cheerful. This week, Alicia and Finn vow to keep things unsexy between them and meet in a brightly lit diner as a result. But then the power goes out and the lighting is all moody! It just felt a little Happy Days, especially when cross-cutting to Kalinda’s tense face-off with Bishop, or Cary’s tear-eyed decision to plead guilty.

For its flaws, though, The Good Wife is just doing things other television shows aren’t attempting. The breadth of its ambition remains impressive enough to discount its occasional tonal blunders or overreaches on plot twists. With an episode as handsomely mounted as “The Trial,” every complaint feels like quibbling.

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