CBS

On the face of it, the return of The Good Wife to our televisions last night was a victory—my heart was in my throat as Cary teetered on the brink of imprisonment, with last-minute evidence, some fudged, some authentic, coming in to save the day. And it was hard not to punch the air as Alicia planted one on her campaign manager Johnny Elfman (Steven Pasquale) in triumph, since any romantic progress away from her estranged husband is worthwhile.

But the many convolutions of “Hail Mary” just don’t hold up to closer inspection. As much as I’m emotionally invested in Cary avoiding prison, the ice around Kalinda’s heart melting, and Alicia jumpstarting her love life, the episode prioritized inorganic plot moves over the characters. It followed the structure of a typical Good Wife episode: There’s a race against time to turn a case around, with Kalinda doing whatever she can to bend the law to her will; meanwhile, we get some lighter fare with a political plot (this time, it’s Alicia in debate camp).

The “race against time” aspect was particularly crucial to what didn’t work here. We’ve already suffered through Cary’s prison ordeal for ten episodes, grimacing along with countless twists and turns as the State’s Attorney’s vengeful prosecution tried to drag him into jail, unfairly, for representing Lemond Bishop. Witnesses were uncovered who could testify to his innocence, and then killed off minutes later. Bishop promised to offer help, then double-crossed Cary at the last minute. There’s already been far too much whiplash around this particular plot, and yet we were treated to a manipulative cliffhanger in November (Cary taking a plea deal) and an hour of merciless teasing last night where Cary prepares for life in the slammer with a tough-talking prison consultant (Domenick Lombardozzi, a.k.a. Herc from The Wire).

Those scenes had some cute details to them—Lombardozzi’s blunt, funny advice played well against the ashen Matt Czuchry, who has done award-worthy work all season as the embattled Cary. But they also felt like tiring stall tactics in a plot that had long ago run out of thread. Cary wasn’t going to prison. If he were—if showrunners Robert and Michelle King had decided to explore that plot—he’d have been there already. The palpable relief I felt at Cary’s liberation at the end of the episode was more to do with finally being free of the storyline. Especially after the antics Kalinda had to pull to get him off.

Kalinda breaks the law all the time to get things done, but she’s a skilled investigator who knows how to cover her ass, and her infractions are usually committed with the safe knowledge that no one’s going to call her on it. Not so much here, where she manipulates court evidence to make it seem like the cop on Cary’s case (John Ventimiglia) ignored evidence that might have dropped the charges against him. The episode did not treat this as an easy decision, or a justifiable one: Kalinda’s horror when her ploy succeeds, and the cop’s loud protests, suggest this issue will not go away anytime soon.

But despite Kalinda’s bond with Cary—and Archie Panjabi and Matt Czuchry’s fine work together over the years—it felt like a bridge too far to have her make such a tremendously stupid move to save him from two years in jail. To have Kalinda, such a self-possessed character, potentially sacrifice her freedom to save a man she’s romantically interested in, even one as sympathetic as Cary, rang hollow—and the slapstick way it occurred, with the technologically incompetent Diane somehow pulling the falsified data off her computer and introducing it into evidence before Kalinda could stop her, didn’t help.

But Cary’s exoneration still played beautifully. Czuchry nailed his palpable relief, and the show didn't edge away from the element of irony that’s been present all season—Alicia, the firm, and the judicial system itself in the end, scrambling to save an entitled white man who might go to jail for associating with a black drug trafficker. This week, we see a zoomed-in shot of Cary’s checking account (more than $250,000 in the bank, good job buddy!) and hear the presiding judge apologize for his ordeal at the hands of over-eager prosecutors. We’re on his side, no doubt, but the show’s self-awareness of Cary’s privilege was one of the brightest, best-handled notes of the episode.

Alicia’s debate camp served mostly as welcome relief from the tension of Cary’s looming sentencing, although it had some comedic details that were too weirdly goofy (like Chris Elliott’s baffling appearance as a stoned professor standing in for her opponent). Alicia’s campaign stories always consist of the same arc, which we saw again here—she’s detached and disinterested because of other storylines happening around her, but finally leaps into the political fray with glee and shows surprising acumen.

This time, Alicia’s triumphant moment came as she ripped her husband’s record in the State’s Attorney’s office and established herself as her own candidate, separate from Peter Florrick. Alicia has had many moments of triumph over her husband in recent weeks, but this felt particularly joyful, and perhaps helps explain her impulsively kissing Johnny after she hears Cary is being released.

Alicia is, after all, an intensely logical person who has resisted her far more appealing love interest, Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode), because she’s worried about bad PR. So why have an affair with her campaign manager? If the kiss is merely a celebratory moment for Alicia, resplendent in red and on top of the world, then I can forgive the inconsistency. If it’s the beginning of another convoluted plot, it’s a mistake—I enjoy Pasquale’s performance as Johnny, but there’s nothing to his chemistry with Alicia that suggests they’d be remotely built to last. As far as plotting goes, The Good Wife has recently been throwing in a lot of gasp-inducing twists without earning them—sadly, the opposite of how this show usually works.

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