Character Study: Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, Part 1

We've been taking notes, it's time to talk.
We’ve been taking notes, it’s time to talk.

Rasha: We’re here today to talk about Kalinda because we love her, we love the way she has moved through the storylines and relationships on The Good Wife, and we’re both sad to see her go and also very excited about what Archie Panjabi will do next.

Gemma: I hope she gets a successful pilot. I would like to see Panjabi write her own ticket after this.

R: It’s what we all want. I know that we agreed to launch the TV and film critique on this site after talking about Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog, but I suggest that it was our conversation about shows like The Good Wife, that we had every time we saw each other, that indicated to me that we could come up with things to talk about every week. A big part of our conversations in the year before we launched this blog involved how badly we thought S4 of TGW had gone, and how badly it had served Kalinda.

G: I’d agree with that. I think it was the House of Sand and Fog conversation that made us realize maybe we could be funny and relevant, but I think our regular check-ins on TV in general, and Kalinda in particular, made it happen.

Enter Kalinda.
Enter Kalinda.

G: Kalinda was tremendous for me, as a discerning viewer in general and as a queer viewer in particular. I was seeing a character I’d never seen before, a dimensionality to her self and her queerness that I’m not sure I’d ever encountered, certainly not on network. And in re-watching to prepare for this, the transition to S4 shocked me even more than it did at the time.

R: I won’t be rewatching those S4 episodes that I remember with such unfortunate clarity. For me, S4 was a transition in my viewing of TGW from sheer enjoyment and surprise and challenge, to a realization that the creators of the show didn’t really understand what made the character so special, or even: who Kalinda really was.

G: Okay, so who is Kalinda really?

R: Oh, goddess. She is the Boots of Justice. She is the dry comment that ends the conversation. She is the evidence that wins and loses cases. She is the invincible baseball bat taken to thugs who try to intimidate her. She is every awesome leather jacket ever made. She’s short skirts in a professional setting. She is friends in high and low and sideways places. I could go on.

Boots, jacket, sunglasses, baseball bat. Ready.

G: All of that is glorious, and yet only scratches the surface. Most of that I don’t think we’ve lost, with the definite exception of the bat.

R: She doesn’t end conversations like she used to. Dry Kalinda wit has mostly blown away. Or been rained on. She demurs, but she doesn’t shut down anymore. I think her only shutdown this season has been the bully on Dylan’s playground. Kalinda is worthy of better opponents than middle schoolers.

G: Certainly.

R: Okay, here’s something else I’ll offer about Who Kalinda is (or might be): She is deeply suspicious, deeply guarded, and we are left to guess at why and to what ends. And that leaves such a rich field of interpretation about her layers of guarding: she’s a Brown woman who has created her own professional domain of excellence and necessity by moving through very ambiguous waters of criminality/legality, fluid sexuality, and shifting alliances. She worries about people, even likes some of them, but she’s never putting all her cards on the table or giving anyone all of her weight.

G: I’d say she even loves some of them, and it gives tremendous potency to one of the themes of the show, the relationship between love and trust. Kalinda’s presence argues that this is not a straightforward one-to-one relationship. She is someone who has managed to have access to almost everything and belong to almost nothing.

In many ways, the heart of Lockhart Gardner.
In many ways, the heart of Lockhart Gardner.

R: For real. Her relationships with Alicia, later with Cary, with Will and Diane during the firm split — there’s not a major character on this show who’s life/career/case/campaign hasn’t depended on Kalinda and who hasn’t at some point wondered if they could trust her. And yet, beyond maybe the double-dealing with Cary during the firm split, it’s hard to say when she really betrayed someone. And with Cary, he didn’t give her what she made clear she needed to leave LG and work for FA.

G: Yes! And it works the other way, as well. One of the episodes I went back to was “Ham Sandwich,” Kalinda’s first episode with the grand jury and the one where we learn at the end that she slept with Peter. Leaving aside for a moment the difference between S1-3 and S4-6, there were some astounding moments in there where she clearly trusts Alicia, and loves her, and that doesn’t mean she confides or gives way or changes who she is. The lines Panjabi walked in that episode were incredible, and honestly, from this angle, I could see how flawed the script was.

And yet, Kalinda stands alone. Also, sits.
And yet, Kalinda stands alone. Also, sits.

R: What were the flaws in the script you saw?

G: There’s a sense of incompleteness to Kalinda’s dialogue, always, because she has to stay cryptic and the writers seem to have long been determined that she remain cryptic to THEM, not simply to the audience. There were angles of the story that didn’t quite make sense–the whole S2 arc about beating the witness/frameup of Kalinda was kind of dumb the way it was done. The direction they ultimately chose lacked heat, but Panjabi plays it all the way through. She knows the logic of every choice. I love the craft of TGW, overall, the shape of the cases, but Panjabi has made Kalinda a character that transcends the episodic story.

R: What are the angles that didn’t make sense, which ones should they have pushed more?

G: Well, Andrew Wiley pointed out that the glass was from a set that did not belong to the witness, but to L/G; would anyone seriously believe she carried a glass with her to beat up a witness? But Blake knew Kalinda, née Leela, had a husband, and mentioned it in an episode. If they’d pushed that, it would have made more sense that Kalinda was trying to protect Blake at her own expense to protect her identity, but nobody seemed to point out that Blake’s story was paper-thin, when it was obvious to pretty much every viewer that it was.

He figures out Kalinda's weakness, though: Alicia matters to her. Or at least, did.
He figures out Kalinda’s weakness, though: Alicia matters to her. Or at least, did.

R: This makes me want a roll call for every would-be nemesis thrown out there for Kalinda to chew on: Did we have one in Season 1? I don’t remember anyone.

G: Glenn Childs, sorta. They had a weird relationship. She’d worked for him, but somehow had much greater distaste for him than she had for Peter, and in a lot of ways that was what cemented Peter as a “trustworthy politician” over the seasons.

R: That Kalinda preferred him? Telling.

G: Yes. S1, Childs tried to make her testify against Peter, and her testimony made clear that the judge in the case had also been part of the prostitution ring, and as such the case got thrown out…

R: SEE, THAT’S WHAT I MISS. People who put Kalinda in a trap and find out that she’s lured them into a bigger, nastier one.

G: …with the support of a lawyer played by Poppa Pope, who was once Elsbeth’s law partner. I AM JUST SAYING.

R: Reviewing Season 1 made me appreciate how many of the long-term relationships and guest stars were set up even then, and how many awesome actor(esse)s were on that first season. Dylan Baker, Martha Plimpton, Carrie Preston, and yes, Joe Morton. Ah, the glory days So our Season 2 semi-nemesis was Blake, who seemed to prefigure both Nick and that Irish guy from S5.

G: Yes. And Andrew Wiley, in some ways, who begins in S2. He’s the one who reveals Kalinda’s dalliance with Peter to Alicia. That’s why he still hurts now.

Wiley's back now in S6, and so is Petra, who was around in S2's muckracking on Peter/Kalinda.
Wiley’s back now in S6, and so is Petra, who was around in S2’s muckracking on Peter/Kalinda.

R: The beginning of the end. It’s fitting, then, if he could be the one to deliver the coup de grace, in whatever form it comes. You know, the show still has some level of formal understanding of craft.

G: I know that Kalinda has such power that a minor character’s relationship with her in S2 still resonates.

R: I’m going to resist talking about Kalinda and Alicia here to return to the nemeses.

G: Yes. Though the loss of Alicia was one of the S3 nemeses. There was also Dana, and Wendy Scott-Carr, and Cary.

R: I thought, as an investigator nemesis, that Robyn made a better foil to Kalinda than the other nemeses.

G: Robyn was a foil, but not a nemesis. That was kind of why she worked—she was never trying to move against Kalinda, or harm her or even limit her in any way. Kalinda just kind of assumed she would be.

R: Let’s go through the notable ones. Blake as a nemesis for Kalinda never really landed for me. I cheered when she left him black and blue with that baseball bat. His menace seemed mostly borrowed: the threat that he would drive a wedge between Will/the firm and Kalinda. But Kalinda was too clearly valuable then. I think I remember Blake making vague threats about her husband, but I can’t remember if it was pointing to Kalinda’s husband or just something like “he’s coming, boogety boo!”

G: Blake brought up her husband once, and the major secret he held was that he knew her name had once been Leela, and that Leela had ostensibly died in a house fire in Canada. But he didn’t know much about the whys or the hows.

R: Blake’s threat was a genuine one, then, they just misused how he tried to make good on that threat. The real loss in Season 4, aka When Kalinda’s Husband Comes Home, is that there was an opportunity to really get under Kalinda’s skin and to see her truly vulnerable to someone who really knew her. When Nick arrived, it was instantly clear that not only did this man not know her now, but he had in fact never known Kalinda/Leela, and neither did the whole room of writers working on the show.

We know, and they knew then, that Kalinda doesn't need help at the hardware store.
We know, and they knew then, that Kalinda doesn’t need help at the hardware store.

G: YES. Which is so odd, because how did Panjabi know Kalinda, and how did we? Rewatching the Nick cycle of S4: It’s lazy writing, and it would be lazy writing even for a character not as iconic, as original, or as fully realized as Kalinda. For any other character this would have been a hollow, generic storyline about “gender roles”; about Kalinda it revealed a startling lack of insight and connection. They were asking the viewers and Panjabi to do all the work of character continuity, offering literally none themselves. And to be fair, Panjabi DID it.

R: My strongest memory from that arc is Nick asking for an omelette, and Kalinda breaking some raw eggs on a plate and handing it to him. That’s the kind of screenwriting the show was offering then. It felt both cheap, and probably like the truest moment of how Kalinda/Panjabi might have felt.

G: It was ludicrous. It bore no connection to Kalinda. None of it made sense. If he were a real threat, why didn’t he threaten Will, with whom she spent tons of time? How could Kalinda still socialize and work the way she did if Nick was controlling her? Because she started hitting him in an elevator? And if he wasn’t a real threat, then why did we care about any of this? Based on the press they did about Marc Warren, I got the sense that they were vaguely going for BDSM, but they knew nothing about it and didn’t care to learn. Like, even less about it than E L James.

I refuse to post any 'caps of the Nick year except this one.
This is not BDSM.

R: Well, Sweeney understands BDSM better than Nick did. I just don’t buy it that Kalinda would go for a bad-boy mobster.

G: You mentioned a long time ago that Kalinda’s husband should have been a brown man, and had some real connection to family and past for her, a connection that we would be allowed to understand.

R: Yeah, it’s one way I could understand Kalinda marrying young—being tied to someone in a way she can’t fully escape, and not able to be herself in the context of those family and cultural expectations—and yet, still having that claim and that hold be deeply intimate and deeply implicating in a way she can’t disown or disavow. That would connect the Kalinda we know now and show how she got from an early marriage to this point.

G: I buy that. I would also buy a more Lemond-Bishop-esque figure of any race. I would buy a combination of restraint and threat. Nick’s lack of restraint—how obviously criminal and how a horrible person he was to every single person he met ever, how he garnered no one’s sense of connection or sympathy—made no sense for who Kalinda became when we knew her.

That is, when we knew her as someone with all the leather jackets.
That is, when we knew her as someone with all the leather jackets.

R: I would buy her being married to someone with fluid sexuality, or at least someone who was polyamorous.

G: I would, but I would also buy her understanding of her own fluidity being a post-marriage thing.

R: Her conversation with Lana at the end of S1 makes clear that she’s been down this road before, of women questioning her sexuality/sexual validity because she had kissed a man or was involved with a man.

G: Her understanding of, and insistence on, her own fluidity remains a revelation for me, still. I do not remember that kind of connection to a character before or since.

R: Yeah. I use the word fluid, but I think the word Kalinda actually uses onscreen is “flexible.” I do think Kalinda’s clarity about that is key. I remember when Cary tells Alicia that he’s been seeing Kalinda in S5, and Alicia is like: I thought Kalinda was gay. Which was part of a season of Alicia Makes Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic assumptions. Which also contradicts the conversation at the end of S3 where Kalinda and Alicia discuss her sexuality. Alicia knows Kalinda isn’t merely gay because Kalinda’s already told her.

Told her while wearing this leather jacket.
Told her while wearing this leather jacket.

G: Seriously. And looking back, they used to allow so much more room for nuance in Alicia’s understanding of things and people. I think Kalinda knows herself deeply, and I think Panjabi knows her that deeply, and it’s so fun to watch.

R: It’s one of the worst things about S5 on, but part of me enjoys it as revenge on Alicia for spurning Kalinda’s friendship. I’ve already shared my theories about why that change happened. I’m tempted here to talk about Kalinda’s lovers, but I want to make sure we’ve covered what we want to from Kalinda’s nemeses.

G: Dana. We need a bit of time with and about her, and she makes a good transition from nemeses to lovers.

R: Go for it. Your summation in one our S5 reviews was apt. Elaborate!

So, Dana and Kalinda walk into a bar...
So, Dana and Kalinda walk into a bar…

G: You’re right that Kalinda’s clarity about her own desires is key. Kalinda knows herself, and knows who and what she wants. Dana does not, and so her own internalized homophobia gets in the way of both their professional and their personal relationship. I watched the episode I spoke of in the S5 review again. It’s S3, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Kalinda and Dana have drinks, Dana questions the “point” of sex between women, Kalinda makes every queer female viewer of the show at that time f*cking SWOON with her response.

R: You have to quote Kalinda’s response about the point of sex between women.

G: I’m not going to get it precise, but it’s something like, “When you get a woman excited, it’s not like a man. It’s slow. Suspenseful.” Most of it was in the delivery, because Archie Panjabi.

[fans self]
[fans self]
R: Whew. Yeah.

G: Seriously. Dana has clearly been attracted to Kalinda for some time now, and is dating Cary, a fellow SA. She’s coming after Will and L/G and is trying to manipulate Kalinda in that quest. The end of the scene in the bar is ambiguous: Drunk Dana stumbles, Kalinda catches her, there’s a suspenseful tension moment then a cut to Dana in bed with someone, and it turns out she’s in bed with Cary, telling Cary about her conversation at the bar with Kalinda.

G: Anyway, there are Dana and Cary having sex with each other while mutually fantasizing, and openly so, about Kalinda. Then over the course of the season, they go on to fight Kalinda and hers fiercely. Dana especially. If ever the potency and threat of queerness in a straight-dominated world has been better elucidated on TV or film, I’ll be shocked.

Not pictured: the Kalinda between them.
Not pictured: the Kalinda between them.

R: What exactly do you think that threat is? I see it as a threat to people who don’t know themselves well and don’t care to know others for who they fully are.

G: Kalinda can upset patterns that others around her rely on unconsciously, i.e. hegemony. In that season, it was the conception of monogamy, of straightness, and ultimately of professionalism and … honor, and the fact that those things were related. Cary and Dana were no longer able to assume that the way those things related and the way they desired and the way they worked was automatically right, or how the world Should Be.

R: Honor is an interesting word to bring up with Kalinda, and yet it seems fitting. Honor in the sense of old codes, samurai-style. Which feels disorienting when you talk about such a thoroughly modern character. Disorienting, and totally right, and thrilling for those reasons. And that totally makes Kalinda for me. She’s all these embodied things that should seem contradictory but in fact are not.

G: Right, exactly. Kalinda is one of the reasons I believe in contradiction.

Back with Part 2 next week.
Back with Part 2 next week.

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