Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

I admit to being a latecomer to The Good Wife.  I only began watching it a few weeks ago, succumbing to various recommendations, but I am all caught up and felt I had to write something about it. The Good Wife fills a space recently vacated by the original Law and Order by entertainingly and critically using “ripped from the headlines” episodic storytelling that is grounded in characters who exist in the tension between idealism and practicality.  But unlike Law and Order, The Good Wife revels in its melodramatic serial elements.  It recalls 19th century novels, particularly Austen and Dickens in a few ways: the constant presence of public scrutiny, the romantic tension between Alicia and Will (and especially the missed connection represented by the “lost” voicemail from the end of the first season, reminiscent of the miscommunications that undergird the romantic novels), and, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of semi-Victorian attention to guilt.  Guilt is not shame in this conceptualization, though they are linked.  I’m using guilt here to play not only on the legal elements of the show but also to confine the affect to the specific sphere of the Florrick family.  While Peter and Alicia might feel shame (or at least portray themselves in public as ashamed as required by the political machine) as a result of the press and public attention to Peter’s affair, guilt within the Florrick family is a little more slippery.

The reference to morality at home and morality at work in the title of this post is lifted from the second-season episode “Wrongful Termination.”  Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, an in-court antagonist to Alicia, describes her as feeling guilty about what she does in her job, particularly the moral compromises required of her as a high-powered lawyer.  He advocates moral compartmentalization while much of Alicia’s character arc over the two seasons occurs in the space between her (and others’) idea of herself as a moral person and the moral pragmatism required of her as both a lawyer and a politician’s wife.  And yet, as Suzanne Leonard wrote for Flow, Alicia is often afforded a degree of privacy that somewhat obscures the question of her morality.  She is shaped by the political world around her and is mostly reactive to it.  Attention to her morality (and her guilt) is elliptical.

Giving Angela Landsbury a run for her money in the category of playing hateful, manipulative, political matriarchs

Jackie Florrick: She may look harmless, but she can out-maneuver Eli Gold (while being less charming).

If Alicia does, as Canning claims, go home and feel guilty about her work, it seems in direct contrast to Peter and his mother, Jackie.  The show executes a fairly masterful work of sleight-of-hand in its jump from the initial press conference where Peter resigns from his post as State Attorney and admits to his adultery to six months later when Peter is in jail and Alicia has started her job.  It keeps the viewer from seeing his apologies, from seeing his expressions of guilt.  By the time the action of the series really begins, it’s six months later and any apologies seem rote instead of earnest.  Jackie tells Peter in “Boom,” “You are a good man. You want to blame yourself. But you apologized. You apologized again, and again. Anybody who wants another apology from you only wants you to be weak. So stop this. Stop this now. My son will not be made weak.”  It’s a moment that she is pitting herself against Alicia and her requirements and reminders of Peter’s guilt.

Apologies are easy; repentance is hard, and it’s repentance that Alicia seems to want.  Repentance requires acknowledgement of guilt from within then earnest attempts to atone; it requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s own weakness.  Jackie thinks only in terms of public scrutiny: Peter apologized publicly and went through the motions of a repentant politician, but–and this may be due to Chris Noth’s performance and intertextual persona–Peter never seemed all that guilty at home, particularly in his relationship with Alicia.  He accepted her requirements for his return home, including sleeping in separate rooms, but he often framed his self-reform in terms of never committing the same sin again.  This is a key element in religious repentance, yes, but it elides over the deeper issues in his personality and in their marriage that led to his affairs.  He goes through the steps of repentance, especially as mandated by Christianity, but I never got the sense that Peter feels guilty.  And Jackie serves as an absolving force, pushing Peter away from feelings of guilt and casting Alicia’s desire to see his guilt as completely ludicrous and cruel.  Jackie even sets herself against the possibility of Peter’s movement toward guilt and atonement when she tells the pastor from whom Peter seeks spiritual guidance, “You just say ‘God’ and you think you can make people feel bad about themselves. . . . You don’t know my son. This is a phase. You are a phase” (“Running”).  But I never saw Peter feeling bad about himself, in deference to neither God nor Alicia.

What's the verdict: Guilty or Not Guilty?

While Peter’s relationship with Pastor Isaiah folds into his political ambitions and maneuvering–it helps him shore up the black vote and provides a place for him to surreptitiously meet with political operatives during his house arrest–it is still a viable avenue toward atonement, especially with Alicia if it can help him to display guilt.  However, as the politics of his race for State Attorney heat up and the political benefits of the pastor fall by the wayside, Isaiah is essentially dismissed as spiritual advisor.  This occurs as Peter continues to cover-up an affair from his past that Alicia does not know about.  The cover-up and betrayal push Alicia over the edge, and she moves Peter out of the house.  Guilt would have Peter disclose all his past sins in order to seek atonement and Alicia’s forgiveness.  Such simultaneity is not coincidental, and I’m very interested to see how Peter is characterized next season regarding his affairs, his guilt, and his either continued or halted (and ostensibly completed) path of attempted redemption.  And I’m interested to see where Alicia’s morality goes and how her possible turning away from guilt could be liberating instead of morally isolating.  After the final betrayal, she is hardened but also perhaps more herself, and as she insists to Jackie, “I am this way.  Your son made me this way” (“In Sickness”).

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6 responses to “Morality at Home and Morality at Work: Guilt and Repentance on The Good Wife

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick

    Charlotte,

    Thanks so much for giving some thoughts after mainlining both seasons of the show. I hope you’ll be tuning in for season 3 (and join the rest of us in hoping that the NFL lockout continues!).

    I really love the approach you take talking about the show, particularly the inclusion of 19th century novels, which is something that had never occurred to me, but I find your connection to be really very spot on (and it only helps the idea that TGW is The Wire‘s successor!).

    While I was watching season 1, I was obsessed with the show’s (seeming) obsession with photography (so many of the cases rested on photographic evidence, and then there’s that gorgeous title card). The idea of public scrutiny in relation to the 19th century novel, however, gave me a little bit of that puzzle to think through the first season’s emphasis on photography.

    Certainly the idea of public scrutiny occurred to me as did an idea of guilt or innocence, but I like that contextualization a great deal. Something else to mull over in the future.

    • Charlotte Howell

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Noel. I couldn’t get Austen out of my mind after Eli deleted Will’s second message, but there actually isn’t really a clear analog in Austen that I know, just a general sense of others manipulating a miscommunication between would-be lovers. Though, I do find the modern voice mail serving a very similar function to romantic epistolary interjections in late 18th and early 19th century novels: a moment of insight into the honest emotions and mindset of a suitor. It’s a cheat on the voice-over while still setting apart the message as somewhat special (at least on the scale of modern communication media; email’s easy, but leaving and receiving a good voicemail is rarer).

      Your point about the fixation on photography is really interesting, and I hadn’t noticed it at all. I do think it fits into the sense that lives are lived in public, playing on both contemporary fears of the diminished private sphere (everything ends up on their version of not-youtube or CCTV; cell phone cameras are a constant danger to all of the Florricks; Grace [ha!] even finds religion through the internet) and the tradition of constant public attention to love lives in those earlier novels.

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