Baltimore has The Wire, Newark, The Sopranos, and for seven seasons Chicago has had The Good Wife. The city with North America’s highest number of annual civilian deaths by cop and its very own Guantanamo-aspirant black-site detention facility, Homan Square, the city that has perfected machine politics, election fraud, felony embezzlement, and the pork that slicks all the go-round, Chicago is less the setting of the only network prestige drama (filming doesn’t even happen on site) than the show’s smartest plot.
Launched in 2009, the year of the offscreen impeachment and indictment of yet another Illinois governor, the series opened with the malfeasance of Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth). His incarceration for corruption generates yet another page in the binder full of Silda Spitzer, Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards, Huma Abedin, and Hillary Clinton. What the creators call “the education of Alicia Florrick” (Julianna Margulies) encompasses not only lessons learned in leaning-in but also a master class in Chicago depravity.
In a city so pervaded by corruption, the show asks, is it possible to be a good lawyer, or a good firm? To work in a nepotist town, Alicia dusts off her 15-year-old Georgetown JD and finagles a position as a junior associate at a large firm run by her classmate lover-that-never-was, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). She climbs from junior associate to associate, starts her own firm with a former rival, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), eventually luring mentor Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) to join, and runs for State’s Attorney herself. She serves as chief defense counsel for Chicago’s most prominent drug dealer, Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), as special civilian legal consultant to a secret government panel for the authorization of drone strike assassinations, and as champion of class actions for at-will employees trying to unionize, student debtors fleeced by for-profit universities, and black business owners on Chicago’s South Side ruined by white gun merchants. In these cases, often ripped from the headlines, her legal expertise is legion and her integrity is flexible.
The pointed topicality of The Good Wife suggests that Alicia’s unending quest to find new ways to practice law is less the character’s psychological trait than the drama’s wholesale investigation of ways of being legal: ways of working the law for justice, and of working it for something much less. What starts as the problem of whether there is a place for a good wife in the legal profession becomes the problem of whether there are any good places in the legal profession at all.
This problem is explored in individual legal-procedural episodes, as well as across the long-arc Chicago plot, which covers Peter Florrick’s return from prison, reelection, and subsequent political ascension to governor and beyond. Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) engineers and damage-controls the long arc as Peter’s master strategist, a Rahm Emanuel with a tiny gentle core. Alicia is a good wife, but she toils under the mistake that her contract is with Peter rather than with Eli. Eli pulls the strings, masterfully ghost-governs Illinois, preserves his sensitive side as nurturing father and lover, polishes the image of every Florrick family member, suffers Peter’s dalliances with another campaign manager, hangs fast. He stands by his man; Eli is the good wife.
Such wifely work of Chicago corruption centers the final season. It starts with Alicia serving as a bond court attorney and ends with Eli orchestrating her campaign financing for a future election. In between, she founds a one-woman firm in her living room, acquires a partner, re-associates with Lockhart & Gardner, and reconfigures the firm from within yet another time to form the female-led Lockhart & Florrick. There is a manic, uncrafted quality to these constant crises of the firm form, but they echo the protracted workplace restructurings at the center of prestige programs like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. If we read the crises structurally, as the repetition compulsion of The Good Wife’s action, they speak volumes about the principle propelling the show: namely, that there is no good firm. The just practice is well-nigh impossible in the Chicago of Homan Square.
Indeed, it is Homan Square that sparks the seventh season’s professional peregrinations. The sixth season’s finale, filmed just a few weeks after The Guardian broke the story of Homan Square’s existence, is punctuated by desolate gray shots of the black site. Alicia, who has been banging her head against the brown brick of the Chicago PD’s ingenious legal circumventions, recruits a co-counsel from the prosecutor’s office to voice bipartisan outrage: “A place where citizens are taken without warrant, without warning, without rights, and then questioned until they confess. Now, Your Honor, I am staggered that we still have to stand here and argue over the legality of this.”
It is the very absurdity of such arguments that drives Alicia to reject the whole edifice of her debased profession. She says, mostly to herself, “It’s like a puzzle: how do you get the law to help someone?” The season ends with a last word from her manipulative nemesis Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox), who comes knocking to ask, “Wanna partner?”
Season 7 opens with her answers to both questions: we find Alicia not in the cushy Canning offices but in the abject bond court, where the municipality sets bail for arrested persons. In this court, under the vindictive gavel of Don Schakowsky (Christopher McDonald) (surely kin to longtime Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky), an average hearing length of 47 seconds passes for due process. This is barrel-bottom lawyering: meeting clients moments before their minute in court, scrambling to keep the poor and the brown out of long-term pretrial holding, scrambling to contrive the just practice in the city of big shoulders. Alicia isn’t long for bond court, but her crisis of conscience is assuaged as she takes on bigger cases and instigates new rounds of the aforementioned innovations of the firm form.
This mobilization of the legal system’s worst instances of abjection as fodder for its protagonist’s personal growth speaks to the show’s greatest weakness: its objectification of women of color. Compelling personas played by talented actors like Archie Panjabi, Vanessa Williams, and Cush Jumbo often get used as props for Alicia’s and Eli’s character development. It is almost impossible to tell whether the show is hugely naive, or hugely cynical, in confining its richest characterizations and heftiest narrative focus to a white elite while deriving its dramatic intensity from this elite’s wary interventions in the racist injustice system. The show ends by celebrating Chicago’s first female-led firm, even though that firm form represents Diane’s triumphantly insufficient response to charges of racist hiring practices. The Good Wife, as the first female-led prestige drama, walks back from the insights it knows better, handing us first ladies of leadership in paltry reparation for brutality and inequality.
Chicago’s racialized malpractice fades into the background in the show’s final three episodes, which foreground Peter’s last travails. His second prosecution is even more show trial than his first, juxtaposing the frivolity of prostitution and horse trading with the malignity of Homan Square, crimes at once incommensurable and continuous with one another. The governor’s case inscribes a marked circularity for the series, and therein lies its most commanding critique of American justice. In the tradition of The Wire and The Sopranos, The Good Wife ends almost exactly where it began: Peter resigning political office as a result of criminal proceedings; Alicia standing beside him on stage; close-ups of their clasped hands, repeating and reversing the very first shot of the pilot (now she’s on the right).
This time, however, Alicia exits the stage early, depriving Peter of his final press-junket embrace. And this time—reversing the pilot’s opening sequence—it is Alicia who is slapped backstage, Diane’s payback for backstabbing at the denouement of Peter’s trial. Even if the future of the first female-led firm therefore looks dark, the revolving door churns smoothly, greased by Eli for Alicia’s next campaign. Such abiding circularity is the axiom of Chicago law: corruption is endemic; it’s in our circulation. In the words of the finale-resurrected Will, “Nothing is ever over, nothing. Remember that.”
The largest corruption plots are never over, and here they are left deliberately unresolved: did the governor intend to reward his donors? Does the Illinois Democratic Party fix the elections, and for whom? How long can hierarchies withstand egregious violence? The series’ lack of resolution underscores the structural rather than moral determinants of “Crook County.” But the smaller instances of corruption take on definite, and devastating form: the SA’s office maliciously prosecutes Cary to compel him to turn against Lemond; Will is temporarily disbarred in a bribery fiasco; Diane suborns perjury from her expert-witness right-wing husband, imperiling his reputation; and, in the Season 2 premiere, Eli deletes a voicemail in which Will professes his enduring love to Alicia, so that the Florrick marriage pageant carries on.
Illuminating systemic corruption on an intimate scale is the show’s finest idea: there is no sex that is free of politics, no affections untainted by power, no loyalty other than to the machine. These interpenetrations come to a gut-punching hilt when Eli confesses a quiet treachery in the Season 7 midseason finale. Over a whiskey, across a dining room table, in his least polished speech of the entire series, Eli discloses his Machiavellian conceits, his Learian regrets:
Six years ago, you got a message from Will Gardner. A voicemail, and I erased it. You were about to go onstage and stand beside Peter for his SA run and I didn’t want to hurt that. I listened to the voicemail. Will said he loved you, and would give up everything to be with you. And I erased it, I never let you hear it, and I’ve been sick about it ever since and I don’t want to stand in the way of your happiness again. That’s why I’m sorry.
In a show inaugurated by marital infidelity and brimming with interpersonal perfidy this is the single greatest treachery, and it is utterly impersonal, all for the campaign. If it takes the NSA to secure the body politic, it takes Eli’s frenetic tentacles of communication monitoring, press-releasing, and photo-opping to secure the seat of power. Eli’s admission, prompted by his guilt at banishing Alicia’s newest lover from Chicago for the duration of Peter’s presidential campaign, frees Alicia from responsibility for her own intimate fulfillment; there is no personal experience exempt from political calculus.
All along, the hybrid of episodic-procedural and long-form narrative has been essential to the show’s success. In Eli’s confession scene the layering of multiple kinds of plots—the feminine-self-actualization, the masculine-self-aggrandizement, the Chicago-style systemic self-perpetuation—defines the show’s brilliance: every level of the justice system, every level of emotional duplicity, bolsters every modality of Illinois corruption. Ever the portrait of imperturbability, Alicia reaches across the table, removes Eli’s drink from his hand, and evenly says, “Get out.” Not even the most grievous personal injury can melt her steel, honed on the anvil of constitutional misrule.
The betrayal of only friends, the sabotage of sexual fulfillment, the mortgaging of a spouse’s capital for one’s own gain—these are lesser wages of corruption than the assassination of Laquan McDonald or the plunder of the Chicago Public Schools. They are less harsh fates than befall black and poor workers and families under Chicago’s racist oligarchy. The Good Wife frequently grasps this systemic interdependence, the complex causal connections between who profits and who dies. But as commercial TV, of course it ultimately promotes the pathos of the white governing class above the persecution of the underclass. This is surely artistic failure (or at least prime for a black-protagonist spinoff, with Cush Jumbo’s Lucca Quinn exposing Chicago scourges). Yet it is also political truth, one that neither female firms nor black presidents necessarily mitigate: a monopoly on the good life cannot advance the good.