Television

The Good Fight’s Jeffrey Epstein Episode Was Bananas Even by Good Fight Standards

The season ended with one of the most jarring closing shots of all time.

A side-by-side of the final scenes of Citizen Kane and The Good Fight's latest season, both showing investigators navigating a labyrinthine warehouse of old possessions.
The fact that the ending was an homage to Citizen Kane was hardly the most audacious thing about it. Illustration by Slate. Stills from CBS All Access and Warner Bros.

This article contains spoilers for the fourth season of The Good Fight.

Like a lot of TV shows, The Good Fight was forced to cut its season short by the abrupt halt in production caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But the series still found a way to go out with a hell of a bang.

The seventh, and now final, episode of The Good Fight’s fourth season is titled “The Gang Discovers Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein,” and it starts with them investigating just that. Attorney Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald) and investigator Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele) are snapping cellphone photos of the empty jail cell where Epstein was discovered dead, asking the questions that still remain unanswered nine months after his death. Their hunt leads them to a trio of suggestive clues left with Epstein’s celebrity hairdresser: a coded message, a key, and a note reading, “If I am dead, look out for BUD.”

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Liz cautions the team of lawyers she puts on the case that she won’t tolerate any conspiracy theories, but as the season’s focus on the mysterious Memo 618 has emphasized, it can be awfully hard to draw a distinction between fictional conspiracies and the way the U.S. justice system actually functions, especially when it comes to the extraordinarily wealthy. As the season has laid out thus far, “Memo 618” isn’t a document so much as an idea, a quasi-Masonic code phrase that compels public servants—including Republican lawyer turned Trump-appointed judge Julius Cain (Michael Boatman)—to do the bidding of the powerful, with no questions asked. Members of this unofficial secret society can flout bench warrants, disobey court orders, and make their legal troubles literally disappear so that there’s no record of a case even having been tried; all they have to do is invoke Memo 618. It’s a culmination of the view put forth, albeit in a way more palatable to viewers of a prime-time procedural, by The Good Fight’s predecessor, The Good Wife: The law belongs to the people who most effectively wield its power. For justice, you need to look somewhere else.

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In the season finale, we learn that Memo 618 doesn’t exist, at least in any fixed form. It’s a placeholder for the powerful, a way for them to assert an action’s legality while deferring indefinitely the need to prove it. It was Memo 618 that justified FDR’s Japanese internment camps and George W. Bush’s torture memos, and it was Memo 618 that provided the foundation for Jeffrey Epstein’s decades of unpunished sex crimes. The episode reminds us just how closely Epstein—who, as the new Netflix documentary about him reminds us, raped and facilitated the rape of so many underage girls that it’s difficult to even keep them all straight—was entwined with the men who have ruled this country for years. The show, which can be as wacky as it is caustic, does it in a playful way, but the punchlines land like a fist to the gut. The coded message turns out to be a book cipher based on the novel about intergalactic sex slaves written by Donald Barr—which is funny, until the show reminds us that Epstein also taught teenagers at the Dalton School, where Barr was headmaster, and that Barr’s son, currently the attorney general of the United States, was the one who decided that Epstein’s death, for all the bizarre happenings around it, did not merit further investigation. The latter Barr is also, on The Good Fight, the coded message’s intended recipient, warned that he will have 12 hours after Epstein’s death to do … something.

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That something turns out to involve the mysterious BUD, a subject Epstein had (again, purely in the show’s universe) discussed as far back as the (this time entirely real) 1992 party at which he was videotaped in friendly conversation with Donald Trump. The trail leads Marissa and her fellow investigator, Jay (Nyambi Nyambi), to a gilded shrine atop a mountain on Epstein’s private island. Inside, they find a storeroom crammed with items, and they pick their way through the maze in shots that deliberately echo the final scene of Citizen Kane. Jay discovers a locked panel at the back of the room, one that the key they’ve been holding onto all this time opens.

What they find, at first, is nothing at all—a fitting rebuke to the idea that intricate systems of power can be explained with a simple dramatic flourish. (The show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, explained that they wanted to explore how “the left can go down its own pizzagate hole.”) And Marissa wonders aloud if they might have lost sight of the real issue—if they made a mistake focusing on the who-maybe-dunnit of Epstein’s death instead of his victims. But as they make their defeated way out, the camera returns to that apparent dead end—and finds a way to keep going. Barreling down a concrete corridor—this time a reference to Parasite, which Marissa, white liberal that she is, is horrified that Jay hasn’t seen—it emerges in a nearly barren chamber, lit only by the glow of light from two watery tanks. The first contains what we have to assume is Jeffrey Epstein’s brain, based on what the episode has reminded us was his obsession with cryogenics and the possibility of being reanimated long after his death. But what could be in the second? As the camera pulls closer, the sound emanating from the tanks—a repetitive schlop, schlop—grows louder and more disgusting, until we get close enough to see what’s floating in the liquid: Jeffrey Epstein’s severed penis. And then the camera moves downward to the plaque beneath it, which reads “BUD.”

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Even for The Good Fight, which has featured couples copulating in Trump masks and devoted part of an episode to an extended riff on Slave Play, it’s an audacious ending—audacious enough to overwhelm, at least for a bit, all the plot threads left dangling by the COVID-truncated season. It’s got levels, too. The first is literal: The real Epstein did, in fact, want to freeze his penis. But the last shot also mirrors the final shot of Citizen Kane, which focuses in on a sled that functions as a symbol of the wealthy Charles Foster Kane’s lost childhood and reveals its name: Rosebud. (What’s more, Gore Vidal once suggested that the filmmakers took the epithet from the name William Randolph Hearst, the real-life model for Kane, gave to his mistress’s clitoris: Rosebud, meet Bud.) Kane ends with the reporter who’s been chasing Kane’s story wondering if one dying word can ever explain a man’s life; The Good Fight wraps up its Epstein episode by wondering if we should care about the rich man at all. The details of Epstein’s megalomaniac fantasies are easy to get lost in, but they also pull attention away from his victims, seeking elaborate rationales for the simplest explanation: People like Epstein break laws and destroy lives because they can get away with it.

This wasn’t the ending The Good Fight had planned, and I pine for the stories that might never be finished—especially the farewell arc of the character played by Delroy Lindo, who has quietly been giving one of the best performances on television. But shoving Jeffrey Epstein’s penis in your face as a closing gesture has to be one of the ballsiest moves in TV history, one that will linger in my mind, whether I like it or not, until they’re able to start filming again.

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