The return of “The Good Wife” to television is always one of the most welcome moments of the fall, and this year was no exception. The series, which stars Julianna Margulies as lawyer and Illinois first lady Alicia Florrick, kicked off its its sixth season with a corker of a plot development: Alicia’s business partner, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), was arrested for transporting a quantity and kind of drug so serious that his status as a seriously pale white boy could not save him.
The source of the charge appears to be long-time Florrick client Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), a drug dealer with legitimate businesses. The prospect of Bishop playing a more significant role in this season of “The Good Wife” is a delight, not least because Colter’s performance is a wonderful amalgam of menace and emotional vulnerability. Rather, it means that “The Good Wife,” which shares many interests with the acclaimed HBO drama “The Wire” including the role of technology in law enforcement and the dark magic of political optics, is picking up where “The Wire” left off on questions of masculinity and respectability.
Watching Lemond Bishop move through the first five seasons of “The Good Wife” like a reclusive shark has been fascinating not least because the character is a continuation of the truncated story of Stringer Bell, the magnetic, sophisticated drug dealer from “The Wire,” whose ascent towards legitimacy took a fatal detour in the show’s third season.
Stringer quickly became a breakout character on the first season of “The Wire” not just because of Idris Elba’s magnetic performance, but because the character himself was surprising. Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) trailed Bell and found him taking economics classes at a community college. On another occasion, McNulty spotted Bell at a Baltimore farmer’s market. Stringer was sophisticated, decidedly un-street by comparison to his best friend, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), whose dreams extended only as far as conquering Baltimore’s drug game.
But the gap between Stringer’s grasp and his gaze are what set him up for tragedy. His ambitions to become a serious real estate developer alienate him from Avon, who is not particularly interested in making the transition to legitimate business. And they expose him to terrible embarrassment when Stringer thinks he has cut a deal with a corrupt local politician, only to realize the man views him as an ignorant mark to be tapped for cash.
When Stringer is murdered in the third season of “The Wire,” McNulty is forced to reckon with the full gap between his initial assumption that Stringer was just a smarter-than-average criminal and the apartment Stringer leaves behind, full of books and a feudal-style Japanese sword (itself a stab at sophistication by someone who is still sorting out what is cultured and what is gauche).
On “The Good Wife,” Lemond Bishop is what Stringer Bell might have become had he lived, and had he overcome his own rage and humiliation at his initial experiences with politics. He operates legal businesses, though he has not gotten out of the drug game entirely, a division that lets Bishop simultaneously penetrate respectable Chicago society and keep troublesome employees who might not fit in at law firm parties close, rather than cutting them loose entirely.
Bishop also has a family, or at least a much-beloved son, who he tries to protect from seeing Bishop treated like a criminal. That attempt to separate his criminal and family life only extends so far: Bishop’s wife died in mysterious circumstances when she seemed to be pushing for a messy, public divorce that would have exposed how Bishop makes his money.
Family was something Stringer never quite achieved. Rather than conducting his own relationships, he attached himself like a parasite to other people’s families. When D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) goes to jail, Stringer takes up with the younger man’s girlfriend, Donette (Shamyl Brown). And when Avon Barksdale comes home from prison, Stringer sets him up in a gorgeous new apartment. It is the sort of gesture a man makes to a wife or mistress, rather than a friend.
And Bishop has also mastered the sort of charm that Stringer never had a chance to develop. He is smooth enough to sidle up to the governor of Illinois and suggest the two men find a way to work together. If the money Bishop has his associates tote around in shopping bags is the reason he gets invited to snazzy parties at all, Bishop is cool enough not to be insulted by it. Stringer, by contrast, blows his cool when he finds out that he has to pay more bribes to get permits. Where Stringer gets derailed by the prospect of the price of a ticket to play in politics, Bishop keeps his focus on what he is buying admission to.
If Stringer Bell’s story was about how it feels for an individual to try and fail to achieve respectability, it looks like “The Good Wife” is finally ready to reckon with the other side of that dynamic: what it means for so-called respectable people to relax their standards of decency in the face of money.
Lemond Bishop has always posed a threat to Alicia Florrick, her colleagues and her husband. He might not be alone in that — Alicia and her husband have stepped over ethical lines in order to woo a tech titan, too. But Bishop’s involvement in this story moves the consequences from the rather polite realms of political corruption and private qualms to the rougher regions of jail and violence. Alicia and her colleagues thought they could dabble in Bishop’s game without being infected by the more distasteful parts of his business. This season may test just how wrong they were.