Brief spoilers for Sunday's The Good Wife follow:
The Good Wife began its run, just over five years ago, as a political legal drama that dealt heavily with the "Wife" half of its title: would Alicia Florrick stand by her ambitious politician husband, about to mount a return run for state's attorney, after he'd been disgraced in a sex scandal? The show has covered a lot of ground since then, but with "Oppo Research," the best episode yet of the young new season, it's come around to being a different kind of political drama, concerned with whether Alicia can stand her own run for state's attorney.
And even more fascinating, it's increasingly interested in investigating the "Good" half of its title.
The Good Wife has long been a morally complex series, dealing with the ethical gymnastics of characters we identify with but can't always completely support. But the spectacular opening act of "Oppo," with Alicia's known and unknown secrets laid out by Steven Pasquale's consultant, framed this in a new way. First, it asked, going point by point: how would Alicia's personal and professional life look as viewed, not by sympathetic fans who have followed her story for years, but by an outside audience of voters?
Paced at the show's typical double-time--with Grace's friends singing Jesus hymns in the background--the interrogation crisply ran down Alicia's political vulnerabilities, some she knew about (but maybe underestimated), some she was clueless of. (Say, Zach's girlfriend's abortion. Oh, that's right: The Good Wife just dropped a teen-abortion storyline right into a primetime network drama, like it wasn't even a thing.) And then of course there are the many professional conflicts we're aware of, starting with Lemond Bishop, still very much a factor in this season.
The public, we're told, sees her as "Saint Alicia." And we the audience--maybe "Saint" is too strong a word, but the perspective of the show pushes us to empathize with her, to see her decisions in a better light. The first thing the oppo scene did was to shock us into a sense of perspective, to remind us that, all along, we've been watching the story of a complicated woman who's motivated by power and security at least as much as by ideals.
The second thing it does is set in motion the rest of the episode, in which Alicia, now taking her potential run seriously, looks to set her house in order. It's not pretty: her phone call with Zach goes from understandable anger to a brutal cutting-off, and her managing the situation with her brother may be practical, but it's also callous. None of her actions are totally without justification, nor are they out of character; we've seen Alicia turn cold and massage the truth when she needs to in her legal work.
But "Oppo Research" suggests that politics may push her to be even more baldly Machiavellian--to do ugly things for the right reasons, or kinda-ugly things for the kinda-right reasons. To preserve the viability of Saint Alicia, she may need to unleash Sinner Alicia, even if we know that neither is the full picture of her.
A show that started out saying that it's no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it's no simple thing to be good. And that could just make it better than ever.
Now a quick hail of bullets:
* It's hard to discuss the antiheroine aspects of The Good Wife without mentioning the return of the Darkness at Noon parody show-within-a-show. I'm probably in a minority among Good Wife fans, but I've never been a fan of them. The parody of the widely panned Low Winter Sun by one of TV's best dramas is punching down, and like most Emperor's New Clothes arguments--here, the Emperor's New Dark Antihero Cable Drama--it feels self-congratulatory. But I can't lie: I laughed at the Talking Dead parody (complete with cameo from The Americans' producer Joe Weisberg) and especially the Mystical Elk. Sometimes funny is its own best argument.
* The oppo-research opening scene was so structurally playful and captivating that I originally thought it would take up the entire hour, bottle-episode style--and not to knock the rest of the episode at all, but I kind of wish it had.
* Mrs. Tuned In and I know the casting patterns of The Good Wife well enough by now that, before Eli opened the door to introduce Alicia's potential campaign manager, we played a quick round of: "What NYC stage actor will it be?" Sure enough, though you and I might know Pasquale better from Rescue Me (or, sadly, Do No Harm), he's a Broadway veteran, most recently of The Bridges of Madison County.
* With Homeland and The Good Wife both on the air is fall, both the white- and red-wine protagonist contingents are well-represented. If Madame Secretary wants to stand out, it should give Tea Leoni's character a taste for rosé.