CBS

Sometimes it's good to take a minute and marvel at how far The Good Wife has come. This is a procedural legal drama on CBS, a network that loves its case-of-the-week television with a vengeance. Last night, it aired an unbearably tense and sad, yet clever episode about public perception versus private reality, focusing on Alicia stage-managing her dead marriage and Cary trying to figure out if his life is under immediate threat from drug lord/former client Lemond Bishop. At no point did any lawyering happen, and every plot was part of the ongoing narrative. Often The Good Wife will toss an unnecessary open-and-shut courthouse storyline into an episode like this, so I'm glad to see the show drop that narrative crutch.

In "Sticky Content," Alicia's campaign team worked to create effective, eye-catching advertising for her in the race against Frank Prady. This was the first real acknowledgement that Chicago is probably only going to care so much about a State's Attorney's race, even if the governor's wife and a prominent TV commentator are involved. Johnny Elfman has brought in lovably abrasive ad-maker Josh Mariner (David Krumholtz) to design an ad campaign that is eye-catching enough to take hold with the general public.

For Alicia, this task comes down to a choice between two uncomfortable ideas: exploiting the tragedy of Will's courthouse murder as her inspiration to run against gun violence, or going negative against Prady, who is a former Republican who is also rumored to be a closeted homosexual. The first ad is powerful, if close to the bone; the second is ridiculous, superimposing Prady's face onto a dinosaur cartoon and embarrassingly winking at him being a "closet case." Neither is produced with the kind of class with which Alicia generally operates, and both aim to get attention on YouTube long after the television ad buy has been spent, much like Bill de Blasio's remarkably effective ad about his family in last year's New York mayoral campaign.

Nine weeks into the season, I am not getting sick of The Good Wife going to the well of "Alicia is shocked by politics" over and over again, partly because Julianna Margulies plays her inner conflict so well. There's the occasional leap of logic required—surely Alicia knows enough about politics to not be so stunned by its mercenary nature behind the scenes. But she is wisely suspicious when Prady visits her to give her all the opposition research dirt he has on her and promises to use none of it, while asking the same of her. None of it is too shocking: her affair with Will, her supposed (but as yet unrealized) affair with Finn.

The one finding that takes her aback: Her husband is having a surprisingly age-appropriate affair with his legal consultant Ramona Lytton (Connie Nielsen), something viewers saw coming. Much like Alicia's burgeoning relationship with Finn, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of Peter embarking on an affair with Ramona, since Alicia declared their marriage over. But it's a testament to his impulsiveness that he's carrying on with Ramona while Alicia wisely holds back with Finn. And it’s a frustrating truth that Alicia would be castigated a thousand times more than him for cheating.

Margulies' work in this episode was especially spectacular. She switches from real, deeply felt emotion (discussing Will's death on camera) to a total performance (discussing her happy marriage with Peter in a highly staged interview) and makes both seem authentic, even though we can tell the difference. Her evisceration of Peter in the car was a real moment of triumph—"I won't stand by you, not again," Alicia warns him, choking up at the memory of her original humiliation that started the whole series.

The episode's other plot line was almost unbearable to watch and really makes me dread next week's installment, which is the last episode The Good Wife will air until January. Cary's ongoing legal troubles have been a great, weighty counterbalance to the froth and melodrama of Alicia's campaign, and this week had my heart in my throat when he visited his former client Lemond Bishop after hearing an FBI recording where Bishop threatens his life. Bishop assures Cary that he was not actually ordering anything, which strikes me (and Kalinda, who has hired Cary a bodyguard) as a suspect defense. Here's a man who knows the FBI might be listening in on a call—why would he make an idle threat like that?

This is a show that has killed off characters before, but it would have been truly shocking to take Cary off the table this early in the season. Nonetheless, almost any scene he was in this episode had me racked with tension. There's something so fishy about Cary's flippancy towards his death threat—we know he's not in league with Bishop, but why is he taking the extraordinary risk of going to see him in his home? If Bishop wasn't suspicious of him before, he certainly will be now. Whether the climax of the upcoming winter finale will revolve around Alicia's campaign or Cary's efforts to survive is the only question at this point.

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