It’s important for screenwriters to read pro scripts. TV, movies, webseries, the works. We have to see how they work. Not just the functions of the various formatting elements (slugline, action, parenthetical…) but the interplay of the language. The expression of a complicated idea in simple actions and dialogue.
Sometimes I want to share the love for a really good, well-written script. Right now, it’s the episode of The Good Wife that convinced me the show was truly something special.
I admire The Good Wife; now, in its fifth season. In the wake of Breaking Bad leaving the airwaves, it’s taken the mantle (for me) of best drama series on television. Back in its first season, though I loved it, it was always a tenuous love. The love you have for first season shows, watching them week-in and week-out, typically is. The show itself is figuring out what it wants to be, after all. The moment where I realised the show would be something more than the typical good guys / bad guys story was in season 1, episode 16, “Fleas”, where Alicia’s firm reluctantly represents a drug dealer. This began the line blurring between good’ and ‘bad’ – not beginning a polemic transformation of the show into an antihero, ‘defending evil’ type show, but one that delicately walks the line and asks questions about the line constantly. Rather than making a judgement, it opens a conversation: What is ethical and what is not?
The Good Wife 1×16: “Fleas” [PDF]
Written by Amanda Segel
Digging into the script itself, so much of the feeling of the episode that I loved is here. For example, a small moment:
Alicia smiles, pauses: this is the way it should be like to talk with your husband.
This small bit of direction comes immediately after her relationship with Peter is thrown into question, at the end of the previous scene:
What was that about?
Either they don’t like him or…
the rumors are true. Stern,
Lockhart’s going down.
They see a FLORIST taking flowers from a pot, leaving it
empty. Cary and Alicia trade a look: uh-oh.
Dammit, and I have student loans.
Alicia looks worried too. Her assistant, COURTNEY,
approaches, blue tooth in ear:
Alicia. Your husband.
Yeah, at least you have someone to
fall back on.
Alicia stares at him: not the most comforting thought.
The writers know where Julianna Margulies excels: the reaction shot. “Not the most comforting thought.” The writer leaves it all up to the leading lady to interpret instead of seeding it into dialogue. They know that when they write this, it will translate on screen because of who their lead actress is, and it does.
One of my favourite exchanges comes up, and the dialogue really nails the Will and Diane dynamic at this point:
Didn’t we agree to not take this?
No, we agreed to cut the flower and
paper cups; the least I can do is
take the cases I want.
You sure this isn’t pride?
Of course, it’s pride. What’s wrong
with pride? Pride built the pyramids.
(notices a vase of flowers)
God, they do look fake.
Those are the real ones.
Oh. Will pushes into…
Will’s more of a hothead, more driven by his gut. This is a man who, as of a few seasons later, has punched another lawyer (2×05), pursued a passionate affair with a co-worker, and been suspended from the bar for some shady business involving client money. Whereas Diane is more level-headed, typically. The button on the scene – the reminder of the downsizing they’re making, the pressure they’re under to land a big client, ties it all together beautifully. That final moment is especially great, in that it quietly sums up all of their fears about cutbacks: when you know they’re cutting back, even the real thing looks fake, another sign of weakness.
No, not that one yet. Mountain
climbing, never made sense to me.
Bunch of idiots who need something
to do. But he’s a good lawyer. And
a lucky one. We didn’t even have to
go to trial with that witness dying.
Bishop turns to her, eyes her. Intimidated, Alicia looks
away. Bishop smiles at that.
Again here, characterisation. Alicia’s clearly unsettled by this case, and by their clients potential guilt. She’s brave enough to ding Bishop here, but he reminds her how dangerous he is with a look – and enjoys the effect he has on her. The first season, a lot of episodes reflected on how clients saw Alicia and what that meant about them, and about her and her career. This is a similar moment.
One of my favourites in the script, after Bishop fires them:
INT. 28TH FLOOR – DIANE’S OFFICE – DUSK
Laughter. Diane and Will laugh in her office, beer in his
hand, wine in hers. Dusk.
And so I was pitching our firm to a
drug dealer, telling him we’d
validate for parking again…
Belly laughs. The two exhausted.
They don’t teach you that in law school.
He said, no. He checked our
financials and thinks we have a
Laughter, but less of it. Still funny. Then not. They take
sips of their drinks. In the silence.
So what are we going to do?
I don’t know.
I love this scene. It’s purpose is to tell the audience that, without Bishop as a client, the firm is in trouble and they’re looking at firing lawyers. This carries tension as Alicia is already on tenuous ground, fighting for her job with Cary. This scene reminds us that the firm isn’t going to magically ignore the ‘one or the other’ deal in place. Alicia or Cary will be fired.
But this scene is more than its function. The bond between Will and Diane is a huge element of the series, and this is yet another opportunity to see the strength of their connection in a crisis. Despite their ideological split (an earlier scene has them angrily debating the ethics of representing Bishop), they are always on the same team. The laughter in a crisis work fantastically to help us bond emotionally with them we’ve spent the entire script agonising over the questions they are, and their disbelief and sadness at their situation comes through perfectly.
My favourite scene in the episode involves the fight between Peter and Alicia:
No. A few more hours.
I found condoms in your bedside table.
Alicia pauses at the door. Looks at him.
I was looking for your letter
opener. At first I thought they
might belong to Zach: you found
condoms in his room or something.
But then I thought: no, you wouldn’t
take them. You’d have a sensible
conversation with him about
responsibility. Then I thought:
they were yours. But it didn’t make
sense. You have an I.U.D.
I had it removed.
Peter looks up at her, surprised.
So condoms do make sense?
Alicia just stares at him. A long pause. It could tip
either way. Alicia goes to the bed, turns her purse over,
pours the contents out.
Go ahead, check.
I was looking for the letter opener!
Alicia bangs open her closet door.
There are drawers in here too! Check!
I was looking for–! What do you
want from me, Alicia?! I will
never touch another woman– again.
Do you want a prize? That seems
like the minimum prerequisite.
For both of us.
Then trust me.
Then don’t go back to work.
There, he said it. Alicia stares at him, goes to the bedside
table. Opens the drawer. Takes out the condoms. Holds open
her purse. Drops them in.
And Alicia exits. Peter looks after her, pissed.
Here, it’s all about the dialogue. The key to Alicia, the reason so many of her best moments are reaction shots, is that Alicia is constantly silencing herself. Burying her opinion. Not speaking. The moment with Bishop above, where she subtly calls him out on his attempts at sounding legitimate, was a sign that Alicia is on edge. The case, the ethics of it, don’t sit well with her. And so this scene with Peter is all about what she finally says. Her actions – “bangs” open the closer. Her cutting response: “Do you want a prize? That seems like the minimum prerequisite. ” They’re finally fighting about what he did, and what her allowed responses are to that betrayal. Alicia has been goaded into speaking, and now she’s finally being honest, to Peter’s face.
Read the script. In fact, if you can, read the whole season one, as it has a fantastic writing staff who know how to write a scene well, how to pepper it with small moments or beats that mean bigger things. You’ll learn a lot. I did.