Over its first three seasons, The Good Fight has become adept at simulating what it feels like to live in Donald Trump’s America. Sometimes impassioned, sometimes off the rails, the show takes big swings and sometimes misses—last season’s manic turn by Michael Sheen as a licentious Republican lawyer was one of the most bizarre whiffs I’ve ever seen—but even when it misjudges, it puts all of its muscle into it. Centered on Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, a lifelong champion of liberal causes occasionally compromised by her fondness for wealth and power, the series came into its own at the beginning of the second season when its statement-necklace–wearing Hillary backer started microdosing LSD as a coping mechanism. The Good Fight has been high on its own supply ever since.
The fourth season, however, starts with an entirely different premise: What if Donald Trump had lost? Its opening replays the first shot of the series, an image of Diane’s face bathed in the light of a TV announcing Trump’s victory, only this time the news is different. But what should be a moment of blissful fantasy is tainted by one small thing: Diane knows that isn’t what happened. Or at least, it wasn’t what happened in her reality. At first, she thinks it was a literal dream, but when she starts polling her friends and co-workers, she realizes she’s living in the world she always wanted, and she remembers one that never was. It’s like the movie Yesterday, if the Beatles were Donald Trump.
The episode—titled, It’s Always Sunny–style, “The Gang Deals With Alternate Reality”—starts off shaky, and the idea isn’t helped by the timing of its arrival. Fantasizing about what might have happened if Trump had lost is a parlor game that has long since outlived its usefulness; it’s a sedative in a moment when we need to be more alert than ever. No amount of binge-watching West Wing reruns is going to make sense of the United States as it is now, and the idea that ideologues will slink back into the shadows if their hypocrisies are uncovered in a sufficiently punchy monologue is not only fanciful but, at this point, outright dangerous.
The fantasy starts to turn, though, when Diane realizes that Hillary’s victory has some unwanted consequences. For one, President Clinton is no more popular in office than she was running for it, and the scandals, both real and manufactured, that plagued her campaign still plague her administration. (If you thought a Clinton victory meant the word Benghazi would miraculously vanish from the Republican lexicon, well, showrunners Robert and Michelle King disagree.) And for another, the movements that sprung up in response to the country’s rightward tilt, like the Resistance cell that consumed much of Diane’s time in The Good Fight’s third season, no longer exist. The price of the country’s first female president is no Women’s March, no #MeToo, and—after Diane starts a Twitter account to try and get the latter trending—presidential functionaries who inform Diane that, as Hillary sets her eyes on a second term, prominent women need to dial down their anger to avoid spooking male swing voters. Justice, Diane realizes, is “the law times the zeitgeist,” and with a woman in the White House, the zeitgeist is telling women they should be satisfied with what they’ve got.
“Alternate Reality” turns out to be a bid of a head fake for the season of The Good Fight as a whole (or at least its first four episodes). By the second installment, we’re back in the real world, or at least the show’s subtly skewed version of it. Diane’s firm, run by the commanding Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo), is now a division of a shadowy conglomerate called STL, whose controlling figures have been installed on an upper floor accessible by a gleaming spiral staircase. And in the courts, where former partner Julius Cain (Michael Boatman) has become a Trump-appointed federal judge, there are whispers of something called Memo 618, a mysterious document whose mere mention is enough to bend the legal system to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. Based on the available episodes, it seems as if the hunt for Memo 618—and, more generally, the struggle to win battles in a system whose rules can be arbitrarily changed, or simply ignored, at any moment—will be the spine of the season. In one episode, Adrian runs afoul of the firm’s new zero-tolerance policy on offensive language after relating a historical incident involving a racial epithet—a subplot which parallels Walter Mosley’s departure from the writers’ room of The Good Fight’s CBS All Access neighbor Star Trek: Discovery.
But the show doesn’t simply roll its eyes at politically correct overreach, and though the episode floats the idea that enforcing the rule is the firm’s new owners throwing their weight around, the way the debate plays out, especially among the firm’s black employees, is nuanced and devoid of easy answers. For all the virtues of The Good Fight’s progenitor The Good Wife, and there were many, that series was largely silent on matters of race—a common omission, but not really a forgivable one given its Chicago setting. But with the departure of Rose Leslie, the show’s principal cast is now dominated by black actors, including Lindo, Cush Jumbo, Audra McDonald, and Nyambi Nyambi. The same episode that features the human resources complaint includes a debate on the political feasibility of reparations, one that doesn’t hinge on whether they’re justified so much as whether the Democratic party could make them happen.
The Good Fight has for years been a great show stranded in the no-man’s land of CBS All Access, but in these boom times for stay-at-home streaming, CBS is giving away two free months of the service (use promo codes GIFT and ENJOY at checkout), with all the Picard and CSI you can handle. There’s never been a better time to catch up, and if we’re lucky, there never will be again.
Once you’ve caught up on Star Trek: Picard, check out Slate’s spoiler-filled discussion of the first season.