In Sunday’s episode of The Good Fight, the FBI investigator Madeline Starkey ushers Lucca Quinn and Maia Rindell into her office for a proffer session that will allow Maia to tell the FBI what she knows about a ponzi scheme allegedly perpetrated by her father. It’s an office that resembles a museum gift shop, if the shop’s manager were also a hoarder: The small room is crammed with stacks of bankers’ boxes, and baskets of outdated electronics, and antique office supplies: an old stapler, a rotary pencil sharpener. It is decorated with several ceramic sculptures—Baroque in style, whimsical in appearance—and also many American flags, big and small. Atop an old filing cabinet in the corner is a bronze statue of an eagle going in for the kill. Lucca (Cush Jumbo) takes it all in, gracefully introducing Maia (Rose Leslie) to the woman who will be interviewing her on behalf of the federal government.
“Hi, yeah, the NSA sent over some of your emails,” Madeline (Jane Lynch) tells her interview subject, warmly. She pauses, as Maia looks on in surprise.
“It’s a joke!” the investigator says, smiling. She pauses. “I’m punchy today.”
It’s all so quirky, and so very charming. (Did I mention that the whimsical sculptures decorating Madeline’s office are of frolicking youths, each resembling, in its own way, Marie Antoinette?) But if The Good Fight, and The Good Wife before it, have taught viewers anything, it might be this: When a character on one of these shows reveals herself to be eccentric—and especially when she reveals that she is, today, feeling especially punchy—this should be cause for immediate concern. When a character on these shows is wacky, or unassuming, or folksy in any way … there is a very good chance that the character will, in the manner of Madeline Starkey’s office eagle, very soon eat someone alive.
And, so, Madeline. The investigator, realizing her office has only one chair for her two guests, awkwardly procures a folding chair from a cabinet, as the other items stored next to it crash in response. She hands the chair over to Maia. “I’m out of breath!” she says, chuckling at her own labored breathing. And then she gets down to business: “It’s a felony to lie to a federal agent,” she reminds Maia. She further informs her that “the proffer doesn’t immunize you from perjury.”
She thus takes her folksy charm, and weaponizes it. Madeline Starkey is part of a long tradition in The Good Fight, and of an even longer tradition in The Good Wife: These are shows that get much mileage from the notion of the odd genius. The site TV Tropes calls the prototype that gives Madeline her shape the “Bunny-Ears Lawyer,” after Boston Legal’s quirky Alan Shore; it’s really any character, though, who is so professionally skilled that their interpersonal shortcomings cease to matter. The Good shows have put their own spin on that idea: They have delighted in subverting eccentricity. In these series, the people who seem the most folksy, and indeed the most foolish, are often the ones to be most feared.
Madeline Starkey is an obvious reboot of Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), a Good Wife favorite who has returned for The Good Fight, and who is awkward and quirky and probably the best lawyer on two shows that are populated with great ones. There she is, in The Good Fight, her law practice set up in a dentist’s office, her clients invited to take a seat in folding beach chairs. There she is, engaged in a low-grade battle with a voice-activated robot that mimics Amazon’s Alexa. And there she is, pausing mid-sentence to move the chess pieces of a case around in her mind, strategizing, finally figuring out the ingenious legal solution that occurred to no one else, because no one else is Elsbeth Tascioni. There she is, too, surprising everyone with her intellect because her ditzy persona so readily suggests its absence. There’s a scene in The Good Wife in which an assistant informs Eli Gold, “Eli, there’s a weird woman here to see you.” Without missing a beat, the political strategist replies: “Come in, Elsbeth.”
There are so many other Elsbeths in these shows—characters that celebrate sly genius and, at the same time, are deeply suspicious of easy, folksy charm. There’s Nancy Crozier (Mamie Gummer), who, on The Good Wife, wore her flighty persona like a power suit: “I’m just a Michigan girl,” she demurs to a judge, playing the ingenue until she saw fit to reveal that, underneath it all, she was a skilled and cunning lawyer. There’s Becca (Dreama Walker), Zach Florrick’s girlfriend, so sweet when she needs to be, so scheming when she does not. There’s Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), an investigator who gets much of her investigating done by feigning cheerful, artful ignorance. There’s Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele), Eli’s daughter and, in The Good Fight, the new assistant to the high-powered lawyer Diane Lockhart, channeling Kalinda’s insight: If the world doesn’t expect much from you, you can get away with a lot.
There’s something decidedly feminist happening with all these characters: Here are a series of women who, in their own ways, dare others to underestimate them, and then use the condescension in the service of their own agendas. Here are women who take society’s low expectations and systematically weaponize them.
But The Good Wife and The Good Fight are both shows that revel in their own complexity, and while their minings of the trope of the idiot savant is feminist, it also has broader things to say about the America of 2017. Guys, in these shows, after all, can be both ditzes and secret geniuses, too. Madeline Starkey and Elsbeth Tascioni and Nancy Crozier have their parallels in Mike Kresteva (Matthew Perry), and Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox), and Charles Lester (Wallace Shawn), and, yes, Mike Tascioni (Will Patton), Elsbeth’s ex-husband—lawyers who get what they want through smarm, charm, and the strategic manipulation of others’ assumptions about them. With the men, too, folksiness itself is, in its own way, deeply suspect.
The Good Wife was known for its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, and The Good Fight is no different: This is a show whose plot lines involve, among other recent events, the crimes of Bernie Madoff, the cultural awareness of police brutality, the vocal rise of the alt-right, the civic vagaries of “fake news,” and the victory of the presidential candidate Donald Trump. Much was made, at the outset, of that last turn of events—The Good Fight’s writers, expecting a Clinton victory, had to re-write their show to account for the new realities its viewers would be experiencing as they watched—and the series has continued its reverence for current events.
But its suspicion of charm is another way that the show is political, and topical: Folksiness, particularly within the pageantry of the American electoral system, can itself be politicized. Donald Trump is president in part because he understood better than many other of his fellow candidates have, and certainly better than Hillary Clinton did, that folksiness itself is a powerful weapon in American politics. During a time that finds many Americans resentful of intellectualism, the most successful candidates will find ways to de-emphasize their own intelligence. They will find ways to keep their genius hidden. They will find ways, essentially, to do what Elsbeth Tascioni and Madeline Starkey do so effortlessly: to make themselves seem relatable by making themselves seem simple.
It’s a performance, and it won’t always fool the audience. In Sunday’s episode of The Good Fight, the women participating in Maia’s proffer session break for lunch. When they return, Madeline offers Maia and Lucca some chocolates from a half-eaten box of See’s candies. “My husband picked out all the good stuff,” Madeline says, with the aw-shucks air of Forrest Gump, lamenting that he “sent me to work with the coconuts.”
What Madeline hadn’t anticipated was that, over the lunch break, Lucca had done some research on the wacky woman who, it was becoming clear, was also her adversary. She had learned, for one thing, that Madeline was unmarried. And she had learned, too, as she informed Madeline, that “you were also instrumental in the convictions of Blagojevich and George Ryan.” Lucca, having caught Madeline in her charming little lie, asked: “Did the folksy thing work on them, too?”
Madeline smiled back at her, in measured and stony silence. She didn’t need to reply: The former governors had been convicted. Of course the folksy thing had worked.
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