"The Good Fight" is as gripping as ever as it tackles Jan. 6, race and ethics in 2021

A shortened fourth season gave the show an opportunity to pivot, and it's as fabulous as ever

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 24, 2021 4:44PM (EDT)

The Good Fight (Photos courtesy of CBS/Paramount+)
The Good Fight (Photos courtesy of CBS/Paramount+)

Among the many pleasures "The Good Fight" offers is its relentless commitment to idealism, even in the darkest of circumstances.

That doesn't mean Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald) and the rest of the lawyers at Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart always win. Showrunners and co-creators Robert and Michelle King know that the bulk of the legal system involves settlements and compromises, with the best resourced team receiving the greatest advantage.

The Trump era stretched that assessment of American justice beyond boundaries the most imaginative absurdist could have cooked up, providing terrific material for the Kings amidst terrible circumstances for our democracy. But the direst consequences of Donald Trump's ineffectual stewardship of the country affect us even now.

One of them forced the show's fourth season to run shorter, with seven episodes instead of 10, ending on a bizarre if satisfying goose chase involving Jeffrey Epstein.

It was a fine finale, although one that left a few important changes unresolved – namely the departures of Delroy Lindo, who plays name partner Adrian Boseman, and Cush Jumbo, whose Lucca Quinn transitioned to the show from "The Good Wife."

Lindo left to headline the pilot for ABC's "Harlem's Kitchen" while Jumbo says she wanted to move back to the United Kingdom; she stars in the upcoming AMC drama "The Beast Must Die." However, both wrap up their arcs in the fifth season premiere "Previously On," a hopscotch through 2020 that lands the characters at game-changing points in a year where the decks were stacked against righteousness and reason.

The Kings, who write the episode, leave Adrian and Lucca with fresh possibilities containing little but upside, which is both a relief and entirely predictable for a series that tends to cap the most awful and terrifying of circumstances with some brightness. It's also fitting, since the last time we saw them Adrian had aspirations to rise within the national Democratic party while Lucca cozied up to one of the wealthiest Black women in the world. 

As for where we meet Diane, Liz and the rest . . . well, you remember everything that happened in 2020, don't you? Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart was already under pressure from its new owners, the multi-national legal firm STR Laurie, whose demand to cut 20% of its staff sparks a rift before the pandemic brings the world to a screeching halt. Michael Boatman's Julius Cain was arrested on false charges, a result of refusing to play along with a powerful unseen cabal that appears to control everything by way of an inexplicable directive known as Memo 618.

The threat soon becomes a reality for players we know, but it pales in comparison to lethality of COVID, an adversary not even the white-collar class can escape, especially in Chicago. It continues from there. George Floyd's murder, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an election that tested the coronary health of the stoutest Americans – the Kings put every character through the wringer, along with their relationships.

By the time "Previously On" drops us off in 2021 the writers establish that a new, allegedly saner administration doesn't mean less material for "The Good Fight." Case-of-the-week plots tackle such real-world puzzles as the legislation that has enabled social media to effectively destroy local news and fact-based journalism, and in the same way that the pandemic hits close to home, so does the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Last year adversely impacted the world in myriad ways, but if there's an upside it's that the lockdown provided "The Good Fight" a chance to hit the reset button. "Previously On" is designed to serve everyone who has been with the show since the start, of course, but to those coming in cold it's a succinct summary of what happened before that nobly sends Adrian and Lucca on their way while moving confidently into the next chapter.

Beyond the premiere are fascinating pathways to a fraught new era that should be less stressful but isn't, starting with Diane's personal life. Until now passionate liberal Diane's marriage to conservative loyalist Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole) was written to resemble the amicable relationship we perceive that James Carville and Mary Matalin share as opposed to whatever is happening between Kellyanne and George Conway.

The rioters' storming of the Capitol building tests their bond in alarming ways. Initially, though, that doesn't weigh as heavily on Diane's conscience as being a white woman heading up an African American law firm based in Chicago, a city with only of the largest Black populations in the country.

The Kings needed to address that head on at some point, even if Baranski's starring in "The Good Fight" is what made the spinoff viable. (Next to Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick, and Archie Panjabi's Kalinda Sharma, Diane was one of the most popular characters on "The Good Wife.") Diane's whiteness is a source of ireful conversations between associates and partners throughout this series and her previous. But with 2020's protests against systemic racism reverberating throughout our culture, the writers wisely bump it to the front of the plot queue.

Questioning Diane's vaunted status atop Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart's is only where this season's hard look at internal biases and inequities begins. Events of 2020 vastly change the paradigm and career trajectories of the firm's investigators: Jay Dipersia (Nyambi Nyambi) is in the rare position of being simultaneously essential to the firm and subject the unequal social and class structure under STR Laurie.

Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele) holds a position of high privilege in the firm in several respects, but the pandemic inspires her to make a switch. And while "The Good Fight" never existed in a world that was not utterly insane, this new season invites tougher conversations about morals and ethics through the introduction of Carmen Moyo (Charmaine Bingwa) a new associate who is fresh out of law school and hungry to a point that impresses some very dangerous clients.

Various debates about ethics and morals in the realm of the law make "The Good Fight" one of TV's most consistently gripping shows, but Carmen enigmatic presence raises new questions. If a lawyer's job is to grant every client the best representation available regardless of what wrongs they may have committed, then is it reprehensible for good people to defend odious ones?

Also, what value does having principles have when the bottom line is what matters to the higher-ups? Answering that question at least is at the heart of a subplot involving Mandy Patinkin's "Judge" Hal Wackner, a regular guy who responds to the justice's system's favoritism towards the wealthy by setting up his own court in the back of a copy store.

Likely owing to the unforeseen shortening of the fourth season, the as yet undefined Memo 618 mostly fades to the background. Its presence remains – this isn't a show prone to leaving major threads to dangle in the breeze – but the writers correctly pivot the plot to speak to a world they couldn't have predicted a year ago. Patinkin's storyline, and Bingwa's, are promising results of that switch, each of which contributes in its way to the consistent, wry humor woven throughout every episode. Along with the A-plots driving Diane and Liz, guest star turns from Bebe Neuwirth, Jane Curtin, Wallace Shawn, Wayne Brady, and occasional appearances by the version of Frederick Douglass who was Afro Sheen's spokesperson, the spark and wit is as palpable as ever.

All is also in keeping with the Kings' optimism, if not about the state of the American justice system, then certainly about the gladiators navigating it with the best of intentions. (Heck, the premiere's credits sequence is, no kidding, adorable.) The 45th presidency may be over; nevertheless, "The Good Fight" is dealing with its hangover, same as the rest of us. But it also makes the lingering headaches bearable by reminding us that while the battle may not be won, it's still invigorating and worthwhile to keep on swinging.

New episodes of "The Good Fight" stream Thursdays on Paramount +.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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