"The Good Fight" bosses on that inevitable violent finale, optimism and delivering us to "Evil"

Michelle and Robert King spoke to Salon about idealism, misguided justice and what informs their storytelling

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 26, 2021 7:06PM (EDT)

Mandy Patinkin as Judge Wackner on "The Good Fight" (Elizabeth Fisher©2021 Paramount+, Inc.)
Mandy Patinkin as Judge Wackner on "The Good Fight" (Elizabeth Fisher©2021 Paramount+, Inc.)

Everything was going so well, until people decided to mess things up. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.

We could be talking about the great experiment that is America, or the micro-experiment that was the 9 ¾ Judicial Circuit Court that features centrally in the fifth season of "The Good Fight." The unofficial court, which ran out of the back of a copy shop and was presided over by Mandy Patinkin's Judge Wackner, presents itself as an idealistic, fairer alternative to the conventional justice system. At first.

Where established courts are thoroughly manipulated by politicians to favor the wealthy over the common man – a hard truth explored in the show's shortened fourth season – this one ran on a much purer principle.

Wackner, a self-styled arbiter with no formal legal training, decided that since the law doesn't work for the people on the ground, he would create a justice system that does. Enough people agreed with him that soon, his alternative court attracted financial backing from self-interested billionaire David Cord (Stephen Lang). Cord brought cameras and streamed its proceedings on the Internet, transforming Wackner into a star.

But the show also inspired other community-based courts, each with their own set of laws – and attracted extremists, which was Cord's intent all along. The 9 ¾ Judicial Circuit Court matters, he posits, as long as we agree it matters. And if we don't agree? Well, somebody will simply find a new way. That may have sounded lovely coming out of an idealist's mouth. From a corrupt power broker who exists to sow dissent, it's downright frightening.

This was always the point "The Good Fight" co-creators and showrunners Robert and Michelle King sought to make through Wackner. His heart may have been in the right place. It certainly was in his final ruling, which he preceded by pointing out that "so much of our country has been built on people finding their own way. But if we only follow individualism, that way lies chaos."

And that's precisely what he reaps by ruling against secessionists who come to his court arguing to allow southern Illinois to pull away from the more liberal northern half of the state. From his moment the gavel falls, Wackner's courtroom devolves into violence, and he and Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele), his assistant and the court's voice for the defense, hide in a supply closet fearing for their lives. Cord, meanwhile, quietly exits the place unbothered and unscathed.

Season 5 makes up for lost time after the shortened fourth season, saying farewell to longtime characters Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) and the main firm's name partner Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo). It began with a reckoning by way of the Jan. 6 insurrection and ended with one, and the Kings and their writers also shifted the game in other ways. Christine Baranski's Diane Lockhart at first turns against her partner and friend Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald) after their firm's mostly Black associates demand Diane, a white woman, relinquish her name partner status. But in the finale, titled "And the Violence Spread.," Diane relents, agreeing to step down as name partner and work in the trenches with the associates.

All along, though, the Kings designed Patinkin's Wackner to be the element that would mess with our minds the most. Salon spoke with them this week about what they wanted to say about the justice system through that character, and how "The Good Fight" in some ways relates to their other Paramount + series "Evil."

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this season was the Judge Wackner storyline and what it said about our view of justice which, as you know, has changed significantly in recent years.

The show always connects its overarching themes to politics and culture, as you did with the Trump season. Then of course, there was the ending with Jeffrey Epstein's secret island last year, which I thought was dark. But this new season finds an even darker ending that seemed a little pessimistic about the future of our justice system. Was that your intention?

Robert King: Uh, yeah.

Michelle King: Maybe, yeah.

Robert King: I think the bottom line is that this year is about January 6, and where it's headed. But I do think the more pessimistic the show is, the more it has a smile on its face. You know, there's the sweetness that comes from some of the shows now, "Ted Lasso" and things like that. But you've got to try to at least look at the way things are going wrong with eyes open, you know?

There seems to be this breaking up of justice, the idea that justice means one thing in one state and one other thing in another. So the more we our country becomes bifurcated, the more worrisome I think it all is. But we're not pessimistic people! I mean, I don't think we are.

Michelle King: One thing that was important to the story was getting an actor like Mandy Patinkin, who brings such warmth and likability to [Judge Wackner].  The audience is meant to like him in the same way that the folks in Wackner's courtroom like him so much, and kind of get brought along to this idea of, "Yeah, maybe this is good. Maybe he's really cutting through it." And then suddenly, you realize, "Oh, dear, I've walked into vigilante justice, where laws no longer matter. And it's one person making choices that are outside the law." So hopefully, people recognize that because he is a likable character, it's easily done.

. . . This is really just a continuation of some of the themes of the season before where you saw that subpoenas were no longer demands that you show up in court. They're just more like, invitations to a dinner party that maybe you accept, and maybe you don't. This was just stepping that out a little further.

Right. Last season was about the failure of the justice system in terms of how it can be at odds with what we have on the books, with our laws. Another continuation from last season is the show's examination of the fact that if you have money, you can buy the justice you need. And if you don't, you're just at the mercy of the court or whatever person decides that they're going to use you for their own purposes.

You just said you're very optimistic, but it seems like we're coming to a sort of valley in this series, where we're used to the characters fighting against a decline before meeting a new kind of fight. And so it goes.  But as a nation, and in the show, we're really hitting a new low.

So what kind of future do you think there is for both the lawyers at STR Laurie [and Reddick and Associates, where the show is set] and the justice system that we're dealing with?

Michelle King: In terms of the lawyers of STR Laurie, I have faith in our characters that they are fundamentally smart and caring individuals that make mistakes. And that's something you got to see a lot of this episode, especially between Diane and Liz – that Diane wasn't right. And yet, you could also see what she was thinking in terms of their fight for power within the firm. Those struggles will remain and those struggles will be real. And yet I anticipate they will get through them.

Robert King:  The difficulty for us is we want to entertain and we want to be honest about what's happening now. But I do think there were episodes, which are about attempts to solve this kind of ditch we've run into. I think we're going to return to that next year. What are the ways that you could try to get us a little back on track? To return the guardrails to the law, which was always [Adrian Boseman's] interest.

This year started a bit like Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" with Mandy Patinkin's character, and then moves towards the movie "Network," where it's more like Paddy Chayefsky in the end showing the absurdity of how the country can take things and abuse them. But I do think there's a way in next season, that things can be brought back on track. I hope that we were not crushing your spirit.

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Not quite. In fact, I'm glad that you brought up Adrian Boseman because after watching the season, I thought back about that conversation that he had with Diane and Liz in the room where they're all having scotch. [He asked: "Doesn't justice define the law?" ]  Everything since then has been picking that argument apart. If you perceive any pessimism, that's where it may come from. And yet, I am curious to know if there's ever a point where you thought that maybe Wackner's solution was viable.

Michelle King: Speaking for myself, no. We did not think at the beginning that this was a potential solution. I mean, we saw the trajectory of where this was going and saw that there's no good can come from an individual, even if they are a thoughtful, well-meaning individual, who takes justice and tries to put their stamp on it.

Robert King: What we wanted was Wackner to kind of say things that made sense to the common man, common woman about the way justice should be brought about. And I think that felt like a more entertaining way to get at this issue of everybody having their own justice system, to show that there are some things that you would agree with, because they do seem to make sense.

Obviously, a lot about this season season was written or significantly shifted after the insurrection. But did the Wackner character exist before the January 6 ?

Robert King: No, he came out after January 6. I remember – it was one of the writers in our room, Aurin Squire, who's this great writer who just came up with him, the whole cloth. And it was partly, it was this idea of a law unto itself. And it was after January 6.

I've been watching "The Good Fight" while watching "Evil"

Michelle King: We're so sorry.

Believe me, it's a good thing. But it seems to me that there's a connection between the two in that on "The Good Fight," there are all these on-the-book solutions for operating in morally gray areas to achieve an end, whether that's considered to be for the greater good, or the opposite of that, in terms of the interests that the lawyers are serving. Whereas "Evil" warns about staying in those areas too long, that they can lead to a bad place. I'm wondering whether what you're doing on this show bleeds over into what you're doing with "Evil," philosophically speaking.

Robert King: First of all, that's a very good analysis, I do think "Evil" is working with absolutes. And "The Good Fight" is dealing with the gray between the absolutes. Probably, that means "The Good Fight" is the more complex, morally. Science deals with absolutes, you know. There are mathematical certainties. And spirituality deals with absolutes – there's absolute evil, absolute good. I think as time goes on, "Evil" is going to move more towards a "Good Fight" universe, where even though they continue to talk in absolutes, people are going to act in versions of gray, and approve of actions that are versions of gray. There's a little bit of a conversation about the moral justification, the Christian or Catholic idea of, is there a moral war? Is there God? Can God approve of war? And it raises this gray area of, are there violent acts that are Christian or supernaturally good in character? That, I think, is the gray area that is more what "The Good Fight" deals with. (To Michelle) What would you say?

Michelle King:  What's interesting is that in both shows, the characters are adhering to their professions. That in "The Good Fight," they're not allowed to be considering absolutes; to do so would be to work against their clients. And in "Evil," they're really meant to – they're there on the team, really, because of their beliefs in absolutes. What the two groups of characters share is a commitment to do their jobs well.

Let's end on a note about "The Good Fight." Like I said, I know that this season was a very much a product of, and inspired by, January 6 in a lot of ways and of course, everything that went on in 2020. Are you remaining a little bit open as you look toward the next season? Or do you have a general plan of what you want to cover?

Both: No.

Michelle King: The room has not started yet. And more than any other show we've ever done, "The Good Fight" is really influenced by what's happening in the world. And what happens in the world seems to change hourly. So you really can't get too far ahead.

Robert King: I would say this: the only plans we seem to have now are for the first episode, like the episode that started Season 4, with Diane thinking she woke up and Hillary was president. That was a plan before we knew what the current events would be. And then this season, because 2020 was like being tumbled around in a dryer for a whole year, we just thought the whole episode would be taking care of characters through the chaos what 2020 had been. So that was decided before. Otherwise, we wait to see. Who knows what's going to happen with the craziness?

So when you talk about possibly having a more optimistic season next time, we just don't know, do we?

Robert King: Right. We don't.

Michelle King: But let's hope!

All episodes of "The Good Fight" and the latest episodes of "Evil" are streaming on Paramount+. New episodes of "Evil" premiere on Sundays.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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