When 'No' Meant 'No' on 'The Good Wife'

Did a scene on the season finale of 'The Good Wife' toe the line of rape?

Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) talks to Cary (Matt Czuchry) about Wiley, Alicia, and Peter in the 2011 "The Good Wife" episode, "Foreign Affairs."

The friends-with-benefits relationship between Cary (Matt Czuchry) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) takes a dark turn in the season finale of "The Good Wife."

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The only thing not surprising about the twisty season finale of “The Good Wife" Sunday was that it was full of surprises.

[This story discusses plot points in the season finale of “The Good Wife,” as well as recent episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Scandal” and the film “Divergent.” It also discusses sexual assault.]

One such instance may not have shifted the narrative of the show in the seasons to come the way that Diane (Christine Baranski) offering her services to Florrick-Agos or Eli (Alan Cumming) suggesting Alicia (Julianna Margulies) run for state's attorney did, but it still stood out, particularly when compared with the television landscape at large. For a few moments, it looked like Cary (Matt Czuchry) was on the verge of raping Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), but when she told him no, repeatedly, he backed off.

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The scene came not long after Cary learned that Kalinda had been exploiting their close friendship – one that also included casual sex – in the game of chess between their competing law firms. He was visually upset by the revelation, and a few scenes later, in a tightly shot scene of them having sex in a tent of sheets, he appears to be getting carried away, perhaps motivated by the anger he feels at her. He gets more aggressive than she is comfortable with.

“I am not one of your women,” Cary says (Kalinda is bisexual). “I am not going to go slow when you want me to go slow.”

“Get off of me, Cary,” Kalinda says, twice. And after a tense moment, he does.

The decision to have Cary respect Kalinda’s wishes in bed should not feel like a big deal, but it is. It's reminiscent of the praise given to the teeny-bopper dystopian flick “Divergent” about its portrayal of sexual consent. Tris (Shailene Woodley) tells her brooding love interest Four (Theo James) she wants to take it slow, and he respects those desires. Wrote Beth Lalonde:

"'Divergent' marks the first time I have ever seen a teenage girl articulate, in no uncertain terms, that her body belongs to her. That she gets to decide who touches it, and how, and when. That her 'yes' and her 'no' are final, and unambiguous, and worthy of respect."

Compare that to recent controversies stirred by other critically adored dramas for their depictions of rape and consent. An episode of “Game of Thrones” a few weeks ago recast a scene of consensual – albeit incestual – sex from the books as a graphic rape scene that even the show's most ardent fans found troubling.

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The A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya wrote about the show's decision to make that change, as well as another consensual-sex-to-rape change it made earlier in the series:

"It’s hard to shake the idea that 'Game Of Thrones,' the show, doesn’t see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape. It would be easier to accept that idea if it were clear what the show was trying to do with those changes. Rape is a tricky thing to use as character development, for either the victim or the rapist; doing it twice raises a lot of red flags. It assumes that rape between characters doesn’t fundamentally change the rest of their story – and it assumes that the difference between consent and rape is, to use the parlance, a 'blurred line.'"

Likewise, an episode earlier this year of “Scandal” sparked a similar level of debate when it was revealed that Mellie (Bellamy Young) was raped by her father-in-law. Fans of the show worried the assault was a cheap trick to elicit sympathy for a character often maligned by viewers (that contention received pushback from other critics). As the season continued, it became clear that the assault had a lasting effect on Mellie and her relationships with other characters.

And that’s not to say the depiction of rape on TV is inherently bad. Some shows – “Veronica Mars” comes to mindmasterfully use rape as a pivotal aspect of a character’s entire, series-long development. However, too many times, television is lazy at best and even problematic when using rape as a plot device, as characters and storylines quickly move on with little regard for how such an experience drastically affects and traumatizes those involved.

That sexual consent is seen being respected on TV is important, considering the surge of attention being given to the plight of sexual assault victims on college campuses, which has even gained White House scrutiny. Part of the campaign against sexual assault is showing what consent looks like, and television can – and should – be part of that education.

To be fair, “The Good Wife” scene could not exactly be called the perfect model of respecting consent. Kalinda had to ask maybe one too many times for Cary to stop, and others have found fault in how their dialogue played up her bisexuality. Furthermore, not every woman in her situation would feel empowered enough to deliver a threat – “I swear I’ll hurt you” – that the routinely derriere-kicking investigator so coolly tells Cary.

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In a finale post-mortem with TV Line, Robert King, who co-created the show with his wife Michelle and also directed the episode, said writing the scene spurred a lot of disagreement:  

“What we really wanted to do is that … Cary had been injured. Cary feels like Kalinda doesn’t respect him, and he needs to more be the aggressor in their sexual relationship. It was him wanting to be the aggressor [for a change], but obviously, he went down the wrong fork, so to speak. I mean, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable.”

But he also said they didn’t intend for the scene to play off as an almost-rape: “We wanted it to just play as the emotional give-and-take of two people who have given information about each other, and it’s coming out in odd ways.”

Of course, the question that will certainly be debated is whether the scene was necessary in the first place. But the show deserves kudos for showing Cary respecting Kalinda's protests and for resisting the urge to have a major character rape another major character – a depressingly low bar, for sure. It amounts not only to responsible television-making, but to better storytelling as well. However Cary ultimately copes with Kalinda double-crossing him, it will almost certainly be more interesting and true to his character than any revenge-rape initially hinted at. Here’s hoping other showrunners are taking note.