the good wife: how close are we to the inside of her head?

I’ve more or less completely savored the 6th season of The Good Wife, so it was in a defensive crouch that I read Sonia Saraiya’s recent critique of the show. Even with a modicum of objectivity, I think it’s hard to fault the show overall: Rather than retread an established style and tired plots from earlier seasons, recent episodes have often been formally inventive and touched on real issues — and not only of the ripped-from-the-headlines variety. Next to these facts, the odd lackluster character arc or ill-conceived plot point don’t matter so much. Give the thing credit: A show that could easily skate by on its prestige is actually taking risks. Last week’s episode used innovative sound tricks, and a plot this week revolved around the mechanics of systematic civil rights abuse. What more do you really want from a popular show?

This past season, I was especially taken with an episode that might have been the most experimental of the series, “Mind’s Eye,” which is primarily composed of scenes taking place entirely in the imagination of lead character Alicia Florrick (the eponymous Good Wife). In season 6, Alicia is running for State’s Attorney in Illinois and the episode establishes in the first few minutes that she’s facing a major interview in a few hours. At the same time, she has to prepare, at least mentally, to fend off a lawsuit from the exceptionally clever and unscrupulous Louis Canning, played by Michael J. Fox.

Many of Alicia’s thoughts are represented as dramatized scenes involving her in some way. Most of these, taken out of context, could pass as clips from the show – Alicia sparring with Canning, Alicia composing herself to answer a pointed question during her interview — but some “exchanges” are actually characters directly addressing the camera, which here is plainly supposed to be Alicia herself. In one of the more satisfying examples, her Machiavellian political adviser (played by the incomparable Alan Cumming) practically barks while looking straight into the lens. (Okay, it’s probably just satisfying because it’s Alan Cumming, but still.) Scenes like this never cut to Alicia facing her co-conversant, and this is why it’s clear that in some way Alicia herself is the audience for these talking heads.

15-05-11 Eli Gold head

This direct address to the camera seems, at first glance, to be a clever way to impart the idea of an internal debate, but the way it is staged – characters interjecting, cutting out mid-sentence, raising a sardonic eyebrow to make a point — makes it more self-conscious and makes the viewer more aware that rather than merely appearing as abstractions in Alicia’s mind, these are really the actors themselves giving full life to their roles.

At other times, the breaking of the fourth wall (as it were) is far more direct. Alicia’s assistant and Eli’s daughter, Marissa, shows up in Alicia’s internal debates as a counterpoint to her father, and at one point she simply makes a sarcastic comment about how she (i.e., Alicia’s conjuring of Marissa) is, after all, just a figment of Alicia’s imagination.

The playful self-consciousness pops up in another way when Kalinda and criminal overload Lemond Bishop are in the middle of a back and forth conducted in Alicia’s head, that is, until she just runs out of lines for Kalinda, at which point, she and Lemond pause awkwardly and seem to look at the camera — that is, Alicia:

15-05-11 Kalinda and Lemond

I have to admit, as enjoyable as it is to see the writers work out ideas, these kinds of asides don’t ring as real, since, at least in my own mind’s eye, I’ve never been called out by anyone I’ve constructed in my head. In the end, the device is too cute for its own good.

Still, it’s hard to think of a show other than a broad comedy that would attempt such a stunt. Maybe The Good Wife is failing here, but a smidgen of failure is always better than a heap of of predictability.

the mind eye’s as tv, and vice versa

Even as I defend it, I will say that I think this episode is misnamed. The 40-some minutes taken as a whole do not conjure up Alicia’s inner life as much as you’d think they would, given the title “Mind’s Eye.”

Definitely, there are a few segments that do indeed succeed in synchronizing us to her emotions and bringing us into her experience. I think the scenes that work on that score are the ones with the least narrative and dialogue; they’re also, partly because of that, the ones that seem the least motivated by conventional narrative and logic and more by pure stream-of-consciousness, not to mention a bit of lust. A flash of Alicia under the covers, a momentary cut to her lover’s face, a series of rapid cuts, one lover speaking with another’s voice, kisses in close-up: These fragments of pure lived sensation are the building blocks for a deeper psychological identification with Alicia.

Most of the episode, though, is composed of scenes that are substantially more than brief glimpses of feeling or passion, and they are shot, lit, and dramatized much the same as “real” events in Alicia’s world.

That seems like a pretty decent explanation for why most of the show doesn’t come across as a peek inside Alicia’s perspective. Even so, let me offer another reason: Maybe the episode doesn’t feel like it’s actually in the mind’s eye of its lead character because so much of TV feels like a waking dream anyway.

I remember read some pieces around the time of Inception about how that movie’s dream thematic could be read as a comment on the shared characteristics of movies and dreams. This formulation always bothered me, I think because conventional filmic storytelling is only at best superficially similar to the grab bag of impressions and notions stuffed into dreams. What cinematic entertainment does feel like is a product of a conscious imagination; both are constructed for dramatic and narrative effect to the purpose of a story.

Watching film or TV is like borrowing a daydream, with just about the same relationship between us and the fantasy: It is at once both vividly present but also decidedly ephemeral. A daydream about other people having a daydream is a dream too far, though, and so the two levels of abstraction flatten back into one. If we can’t quite see into Alicia’s daydream, it’s because she is already ours.

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