Forget civility: On "The Good Fight," "Luke Cage" and "Dietland," resistance means going low

"The Good Fight" season 2 shows the folly of clinging to civility in a world that's abandoned its conscience

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 30, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in "The Good Fight" (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)
Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in "The Good Fight" (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

Spoiler alert: In addition to discussing details about season 2 of "The Good Fight," this story mentions plot specifics about season 2 of "Marvel's Luke Cage." If you're not caught up on these shows, you may want to read another article.

A pivotal moment in season 2 of “The Good Fight” occurs when Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) stumbles across an aikido dojo nestled in the back room of a laundromat. This happens late in the season, at the start of episode 11 (aka “Day 478”) and purely by accident; she’s seeking refuge from a downpour amid the washers and dryers when she overhears the quiet sounds of the class.

Diane hesitates to take up the practice at first but a few scenes later she’s throwing larger opponents with ease. Aikido teaches students to harmonize with the energy of an antagonist, to meet the threat and neutralize by redirecting as opposed to avoiding it altogether.

Much of the legal system seems to be about avoidance — finding loopholes, buying time and ending suits through mutually agreed upon settlements. In several of the episodes Diane returns to one refrain time and again: “It’s alright that the world is crazy,” she says, “as long as I make my little corner of the world sane.”

But by this point in the season, Diane has learned quite a bit about how the world works now that Donald Trump is in the Oval Office. Lies persuade. The truth alone is no longer an effective counter against attackers who have no regard for the old rules. There is no mutual agreement to be found, no meeting in the middle with an opponent bent on your total destruction.

Crazy recognizes no borders and takes no quarter, Diane comes to understand. But this only happens after crazy kicks down her door and comes into her house.

“The Good Fight,” a spinoff of CBS' prestige series "The Good Wife," is a legal drama whose second season takes a hard and harsh look at what the law can actually accomplish in a regime bent on undermining it for its own purposes. Based on how season two concludes, the view ahead is anything but civil. Since the series airs on CBS All Access, however, most people probably haven’t seen it. Even if you’re one of the few million who have a subscription to the service it’s more likely that you bought it to watch “Star Trek: Discovery."

But now that we've entered the season of reruns, of catching up on series that escaped us during the regular season, and of high uncertainty, "The Good Fight" is ripe for a first time viewing or, better still, a re-watch to appreciate everything it accomplishes in its second season. For this is a series that reflects the current state of politics and the terrifying direction in which the country is heading without being depressing, ignoring the problem or leaving a viewer ready to give up or give in. Quite the contrary: to watch Diane and her fellow lawyers at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart, particularly her partners Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo), Liz Reddick-Lawrence (Audra McDonald), Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) and associate Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), Diane's goddaughter, is invigorating. Outnumbered and, from the looks of it, outgunned, they dig in and clench their fists.

The credits themselves are a symphony of shock and anger, the centerpiece being a parade of exploding elegant furnishings one would expect to see in a lawyer’s office: vases filled with orchids, crystal decanters, laptops, desks, designer bags, all spontaneously bursting apart as operatic music blares in the background.

Season 2 leaves no question as to whom the series blames for the shattering of our norms, adding exploding screens with footage of Trump and Vladimir Putin into the credits sequence. As if that wasn't a clue, every season 2 episode is a number marking the count of how many days Trump has been in office.

Nearly two decades ago, liberals and conservatives were snarling at one another too, but with markedly less intensity. Back then, when George W. Bush was in the White House, a segment of viewers took comfort each week by escaping into “The West Wing” and Jed Bartlet’s presidency.

Part of the reason “The West Wing” was so popular is that some of its very liberal characters weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and throw a few haymakers, particularly political operative Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver), who joined the series during Barlet’s re-election campaign in season 3. Gianelli’s brash style makes a number of White House staffers uncomfortable, including Barlet’s deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe).

The third season episode “Gone Quiet” crystallizes the clash of soft and hard power tactics in their conversations. “There’s such a thing as leadership by example,” Sam says.

“Yeah, it comes right before getting your ass kicked in an election,” Bruno retorts.

Then comes this ovation-worthy exchange. Remember, this aired in 2001:

We have no such fictional Pennsylvania Avenue equivalent on TV now, but that probably doesn’t matter. No fantasy White House can truly mitigate the agonizing, farcical reality foisted upon us by the real one. No scripted version of Congress can help us deal with the complicity of the one backing this administration's mindless cruelty. (Anyway, if you're aching for a vision of a White House with principles, “The West Wing” is streaming on Netflix. Have at it.)

What we’ve relied upon instead is faith that our laws will keep the worst legislation and fallout from executive orders in check. When all else fails, the only constant that we have is the law.

And this makes “The Good Fight” the current era’s “West Wing” equivalent, a show not for idealists but for realists: it argues and warns viewers that if we're not willing to fighting tooth and nail to maintain integrity of the bulwark the law provides, it may not hold much longer.

Through Diane and her fellow lawyers at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart, creators Robert and Michelle King and co-creator Phil Alden Robinson address the difficult and necessary job of taking on a menace that has the full force of federal power and a well-oiled propaganda legitimizing its misdeeds. With its majority African American staff of associates and partners, Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart is both respected and viewed as an underdog in Chicago’s legal community. The firm takes on a number of police brutality cases and a few clients competing firms don’t touch, some of them controversial. But they're also unquestionably the champions of the little guy in many instances. Nor are they above bending the truth and exploiting the opposition's willful stupidity to make sure the right side wins.

Without mentioning the word “civility” “The Good Fight” depicts the dangers of insisting on going high, on appealing to the non-existent better angels of the other side's nature while an autocrat and the people he empowers run roughshod over citizens by using all variety of dirty tactics. Actually, the writers define civility versus raw reality during the series premiere, in an exchange Diane has with another lawyer who smiles in her face even as denies her colleague a second chance.

When Diane presses her to drop the niceties and tell her the truth, the woman asks, "Do you want a civil conversation?"

Diane replies, "I want an honest conversation, with a friend." Therein lies the difference.

The series begins on Inauguration Day and with the camera locked on Baranski’s shocked, unflinching expression as Diane watches Trump take the oath of office. Soon after she discovers her wealth has been wiped out in a financial scandal orchestrated by Maia's father, which means the scam also annihilates Maia's reputation and nearly ends her legal career not long after she's passed the bar. No legal firm will touch her either Maia or Diane at first. But they're very, very civil as they close the door in Diane's face.

By the second season both women have regained their footing at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart. Diane also recovers from financial devastation thanks, in part, to Trump’s tax cuts. The series is bracingly honest in that sense, never glazing over the fact that Diane and her cohorts are in a place of extreme economic privilege; as much of the workforce suffers they still thrive. And Diane could have thanked her partners for the stay and headed off into the sunset of the retirement she had to delay. . . except for all that craziness to contend with.

In one episode, a well-connected opposing attorney who presents himself with the genial cool of Mike Pence (played, to perfection, by Alan Alda) taints a jury by targeting them with fake news.

In another, one of her key investigators, Jay DiPersia (Nyambi Nyambi), is targeted for deportation by ICE, even though, as far as he’s always known, he was born and raised in the United States.

A main subplot of this season involves unknown killers mounting a “Kill All Lawyers” crusade targeting Chicago attorneys, Diane included. Diane finds aikido not long after one shows up at her law firm and shoots a partner, nearly costing him his life.

All this happens after the episode that received the most coverage this season, "Day 450," in which a Democratic National Committee strategist played by Margo Martindale meets with Diane, Adrian, Liz and Julius to discuss possible strategic avenues to impeachment. The brazen writing within that scene is an act of catharsis, highlighted by this very Aaron Sorkin-esque verbal blast:

“I’m just done with being the adult the room. I’m done with being the compliant and sensible one. Standing stoically by while the other side picks my pockets, while the other side gerrymanders Democrats out of existence,” Diane seethes. “A three million person majority, and we lost the presidency! A Congress that keeps a Supreme Court justice from being seated because he was chosen by a Democratic president.”

What’s the sense in fighting fair? “This isn’t about truth anymore, and it’s not about lying,” Liz states in the same episode. “It’s about who’s backtracking, and who’s attacking.” To that end Liz suggests taking pages from Trump’s own playbook, weaving a scenario filled with salacious lies as an example. Julius, a staunch conservative, objects in horror, insisting that a legally elected president can only be removed by legal means.

But does it matter if we’re a country of laws if the laws aren’t just? Diane ponders this aloud during a conversation with Liz and Adrian during one particularly dark night of the soul. She recounts the story of an undocumented pregnant woman who was sent back to the country where she was born even though there were death threats against her there. Within six months, Diane says, the woman was murdered. Diane points out it was the law to deport her. But it wasn’t . . . just.

“Doesn’t justice define the law?” Adrian asks aloud.

“No,” Liz replies. “Conscience does. It has to.”

And this brings us to where we are right now, on day 526, in the midst of a national crisis of conscience.

Season 2 of “The Good Fight” ended in May, before the government began putting children in cages, before a gunman stormed the Capital Gazette, a small newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people who worked there. But, like a number of dramas running right now, its storylines have proven eerily prescient because its producers and writers do what all great television writing staffs do, which is to look at the reality of the situation and imagine intriguing and sometimes alarming scenarios of what could happen. What's telling is how many plot scenarios that may have seemed preposterous in past eras have effectively come true. As season 2 ends, the conspiracy to "Kill All Lawyers" retrains its crosshairs on journalists.

And "The Good Fight" is not the only series taking a hard look at the value of justice versus the law, particularly when the law fails to achieve justice for citizens. In “Marvel’s Luke Cage” that sad truth frustrates Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to the point where she joins Luke, the bulletproof Hero of Harlem (Mike Colter), to mete out justice whenever the police cannot.

Even when the cops and courts succeed in taking down Luke’s nemesis Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), the shark that’s been preying on the borough for years, Misty and Luke discover that sometimes the evil you know is better than others seeking to replace her. Mariah’s demise leaves a power vacuum in Harlem; the resulting collateral damage and injury to its citizens is tremendous. The police are overwhelmed.

Thus it dawns on Luke that Harlem needs a king less than it needs a hero, resulting in the Netflix series' morally ambiguous season finale. The only politics that matter are local in the end, and in Luke's Harlem, the most heated local debates tend to be settled with fists or worse.

On AMC, Marti Noxon’s “Dietland” terrorizes the patriarchy with the specter of a faceless international group of vigilantes known as Jennifer, targeting rapists and abusers enabled by a system that favors their positions and privilege and making them pay with their lives. This is a fantasy, of course, and exactly the sort of violence vocal proponents of civility warn against.

Fundamentally, if these were normal times, they’d be right. But our days are as far from normal as we’ve ever known, which “The Good Fight” acknowledges. Orchestrated and well-funded attacks on our civil rights are anything but civil.  The president’s sustained effort to dehumanize immigrants by likening them to an infestation, his attempts to demonize journalists, and the Supreme Court’s upholding of a travel ban targeting brown people from Muslim-majority countries demands to be met with a forceful "No more!" This week's announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy only further throws into question whether the law will be able to protect our democracy.

Mind you, like "Luke Cage" and "Dietland," “The Good Fight” is a work of fiction, one where a rich white woman throws her lot in with her similarly wealthy and well-connected African-American counterparts. But their setbacks are caused by the same national insanity currently engulfing us. First insanity came for Diane’s partner Adrian, and then it came for her loyal employee, the son of Nigerian immigrants.

By the time crazy comes for Diane at the end of the season, seeking to hang one of the highest crimes in the land around her neck, she’s ready to turn its own energy against it. Appropriately enough, she uses a lie to temporarily disable the agent who is hunting her.

There’s a dark lesson here, one that would make the self-proclaimed guardians of civility shudder. There’s also a wide gulf of strategic compromise between afflicting powerful evildoers with discomfort — a time-honored tactic of civil disobedience — and fabricating weaponry out of falsehoods to battle other falsehoods. One way works, if enough people get behind it. In Diane’s case, her back is against the wall, and she has nothing else to lose.

But through her story the writers of “The Good Fight” present us with a compelling argument: If the adversary is chipping away at that moral high ground on which we would take refuge from a place beneath us, how does going high prevent us from being toppled into the abyss? What other choice to do we have but to charge down into the basement to confront them?

In that aforementioned conversation about conscience defining the law, Adrian, playing devil’s advocate, floats the question of whether, in order to achieve justice, it’s OK to break the law.

Liz shrugs. “If it offends your conscience, yeah.” On this, the defense rests.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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