Christine Baranski, star of The Good Fight, on the cover of emmy.
The Good Fight started out as a relatively well-behaved series five years ago.
Lately, though, the show's violence has been getting out of hand. Car bombs have been exploding and mock grenades have been tossed into elevators — in Chicago! And an assassin was assigned to walk into a restroom at a Democratic Party fundraiser, point a gun at a long-running character and pull the trigger.
But who exactly should be taking the bullet? That was a dilemma the producers faced as they planned the series' sixth and final season, now streaming on Paramount+.
"They were going to kill me!" cries Alan Cumming, in mock shock. He needn't have worried. Offing Cumming's Eli Gold would have been "a bit gimmicky," says cocreator and executive producer Michelle King. After all, Eli, a much-beloved presence on The Good Wife, hasn't been around much on its streaming spinoff, The Good Fight.
So why bring him back for a small cameo only to kill him off moments later? That could only recall the famous Good Wife plot twist when Josh Charles's character, Will Gardner, was shot down in court, a major event on the original series, which ran from 2009 to 2016 on CBS. But The Good Fight — which debuted in 2017 on CBS All Access (the predecessor to Paramount+) with Christine Baranski as star — has a lighter, more surrealistic tone, and there's little room in its world for pure grief.
"If we'd killed Eli, it would have been funny to see his funeral," says Robert King, also a cocreator and executive producer. (He and his wife Michelle are the dynamic duo behind both series.) "It would have been It's a Wonderful Life in reverse, because no one really cared about him. It would be dark comedy."
Ultimately, David W. Zucker — a fellow executive producer — called the shot: "If you kill Eli Gold, I will never talk to you again," he told the Kings. Aurin Squire, a coexecutive producer, proposed that the assassination be treated in a more absurdist way, and the Kings agreed.
"Violence," Robert King says, "is never the way you see it in movies or television, where somebody aims a gun and hits exactly what they're after." So this killer, it was decided, would be an anti-Semitic screw-up who means to kill Eli but instead shoots a non-Jewish bystander. "There's not a straight line between the thought and the action."
Deciding whether to kill one character mirrored a larger concern that had to be dealt with — the demise of the show itself. The creators had decided to make the sixth season of the critically lauded series its last. But how do you craft a satisfying ending for a show that does not pretend there are easy answers in life, and doesn't subscribe to the fantasy of justice? And if you're Christine Baranski, how do you say goodbye to lawyer Diane Lockhart, a character you've played for thirteen years across two series?
"I got a call from Michelle King on the morning of a shooting day," Baranski recalls. "She said, 'Are you free to talk at any point?'" Baranski had to finish her scene first, of course — a fantasy sequence in which Diane is placed between two men, her husband, played by Gary Cole, and her therapist, played by John Slattery. (A typically rich Good Fight situation: "What actress at any age, much less my age," Baranski says, "finds herself between these really marvelous and very sexy actors, playing a scene like this?")
When she called the Kings later on and got the unhappy news, "I didn't react," Baranski remembers. "I didn't say, 'How can it be?' It didn't seem like there was any argument to be made." She would need time to process this development.
The Kings had been processing it for a while already. They knew the theme of the final season would be the increasing political bifurcation between the left and the right, and the threat of a new civil war. (In support of this theme, Baranski had sent the writers a copy of Tom Kawczynski's 2018 book, The Coming Civil War.)
It was a logical conclusion to the show's examination of the breakdown of the U.S. justice system, just as season four's Memo 618 storyline and season five's kangaroo court — which "Judge" Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin) held in the back of a copy shop — had worked as comic metaphors for what the country was experiencing. When VIPs can ignore federal subpoenas (which the mysterious Memo 618 allowed them to do) or decide which court's authority to recognize (honoring the rulings of makeshift courts, but not federal courts), a political cataclysm would be an obvious possibility.
"I loved how those storylines highlighted the ridiculousness of the legal system," says Michael Boatman, who plays Trump-supporting lawyer–turned–judge Julius Cain. "It danced beautifully along the line of what happens when the governed no longer consent to be governed."
Bringing the narrative to an end also afforded a last chance to deal with proposed storylines — some dating back to The Good Wife — that had never made it onto the screen. One example: a legal case about a pop singer pulling out of a tour contract to perform in Israel, which is finally heard in court in season six, amid legal arguments about human rights abuses in various countries, including China.
The subject of China has surfaced on both The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Some of those references resulted in The Good Wife being banned in that country and The Good Fight being censored by CBS — a contentious issue internally, over which the Kings threatened to quit. The compromise? In the episode "The One Where Kurt Saves Diane," a placard reading "CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT" briefly appeared onscreen, blocking a segment of a playful animated musical short that took issue with the censoring of content by American studios to allow their shows and movies into the Chinese market.
"When they wrote the episode that called out the Chinese government, the way they handled the resulting CBS censorship was just so graceful and genius," says Sarah Steele, who plays spunky investigator-turned-rookie lawyer Marissa Gold. "They just called out the censorship, which felt even more powerful. It felt like more of a protest."
If there's a message in The Good Fight, it is about the importance of staying in the fight. There are limits to what we can control in life, the show seems to say. Diane Lockhart can't control the outcome of a case, only whether she's going to give up on it — or give it all she's got, even if she disagrees with the client.
"Most of the show deals with the idea that court is not really a place where you can give a good speech and you win," Robert King says. "In our show, you often have to do something cunning. You have to lie a bit. You have to tell a good story. You have to bamboozle the judge or the jury. It's pretty cynical and dark about how justice works. If your idea of reality is that the arc of history bends towards justice, then you are living in a tragedy, because that's not reality. Reality is crazy, corrupt and worrisome. The world is not a happy-ending place."
And yet, viewers might expect a happy — or happy-ish — ending. What to do? Says Michelle King: "Without pretending the world was suddenly the most happy place, we wanted to give the characters an ending they deserved."
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, under the title, "She'll See You in Court."