E: You know what they say. You can’t go home again.
Somehow when I read the description of this week’s episode – someone from Alicia’s old neighborhood is accused of murder and she takes the case – I expected that her old neighborhood was the place where she grew up, and that it was the sort of place – perhaps – where people get murdered. I was expecting something hardscrabble, somehow. Instead, the neighborhood in question turns out to be the one she left a few months ago when she had to sell her mansion to pay for her husband’s legal defense.
Highland Park is a suburban fairy land of manicured lawns (at a mandatory 2 inches) and traditional architecture, with swank private schools and garden parties graced by manicured society wives, where “the neighborhood association wields a mighty sword”. While we blessedly escape having to watch a Gossip Girl or 90210 style paean to narcissistic teens, we do see kids making a lot of dumb choices. Kids being naive, kids being ignored, kids being self-indulgent, kids lying. When Kenny Chatham, the son of Alicia’s former fairweather friend Lauren, arrives at her office with a story about an accidental burglary and pot possession, we see a child of privilege and possession rather than love, a gentle boy seeking pleasure when he doesn’t get affection from emotionally absent parents. And it doesn’t take long for his troubles to turn out larger than they appeared. Alicia wasn’t the only one to put trust into empty friendships.
Kenny and another boy, Brian, climbed in a friend’s window to borrow (with permission) some of his personal stash. A security guard hired by the neighborhood association sees what he thinks is a burglary and winds up dead at the bottom of a staircase; Kenny says he left before anything happened, and Brian, given immunity for his testimony, says he watched Kenny do it. Alicia’s intelligence, empathy and diligence once again shine, and her faith in the boy she used to baby sit carries the day. Kenny’s parents don’t even share her certainty; “she’s not strong like you,” Mr. Chatham confesses of his wife to explain their absence from court. Alicia’s confidence is so solid that I was never in doubt of Kenny’s innocence (an interesting choice on the writers’ part) but only of her team’s ability to prove that innocence. And there are certainly ups and downs. Oddly enough, however, what made the episode the most fascinating and compelling is Cary, the weasel coworker played by Gilmore Girl‘s Matt Czuchry.
Since she had emotional connections with Kenny and his family, Alicia asks Will (Josh Charles) and Diane (Christine Baranski) for another associate to be the figurehead of the trial (first chair, even though she’ll do all the work) and of course Diane picks Cary. Cary, we’re unsurprised to learn, is a wizard at making a deal, and displays a talent for flattery and self-promotion. When he pushes Alicia to make an early deal, we just think it’s his style to care more about the perceived win than the client. It’s only when the courtroom work begins that we find out he’s never actually gone to trial before; the boy is terrified, and stumbling, and Alicia (as she promised she would) bails him out. He blanches when the judge, awesomely, upbraids him for using the pluperfect tense. We see the moments when he’s useful (getting a teenage boy to give them a statement), we see him stutter in the courtroom, we see his talents shine in a plea bargaining lunch crackling with sexual tension (with Lizzie from The Nine!), we see him acknowledge his debt to Alicia’s face and then promote himself as the prime mover of the win to Diane. And, of course, we see that by taking that lunch he’s stabbed Alicia in the back, offering to plead Kenny out before she’s fully investigated the case.
The best illustration of his complicated character is a beautifully written and acted scene with Josh Charles, when both are working late at the office. Cary cops to his panic over the courtroom and says he’s learning from Alicia and her confidence and skill, which Will jokingly attributes to their shared alma mater, Georgetown. Cary can’t let it rest, however; he delicately needles Will for championing Alicia so long after their school days. The words seem casual but are rich with implication. Will zings right back at him, subtle as well; the great thing about Alicia is that she’s a natural, he says, and she doesn’t have to work too hard at it. And it’s as clear as if Will spoke the words that the implied comparison doesn’t flatter Cary. No wonder Cary takes his charm to a more receptive source.
We also get some surprising insight into Alicia’s former life. Her kids gripe about only getting to talk to their friends on Facebook, and missing that swank private school, though a brief visit back shows Grace, at least, that her old haunt was more rosy in memory than reality. Investigator Kalinda snarks at the ritzy buildings (“This reminds me of the schools I used to vandalize”) and wonders why Alicia was drinking the kool aid. This doesn’t seem like a good fit, she says, and we wonder with her why someone so smart would spend her time with such obvious fakes. “I liked it at the time,” shrugs Alicia. “Ignorance is bliss,” counters Kalinda. We see Alicia’s public affection with Peter contrasted by the Chatham’s barely suppressed tension. This surprised me; I guess, like a Bill Clinton, Peter is just a touchy-feely guy. We even get a glimpse of their sex life, and a gouge in their headboard from Alicia’s ridiculously oversized engagement ring (the episode begins with her putting on only her simple wedding band). Peter conveys such warmth and passion for her that you truly understand how blindsided she must still feel.
I’m kind of astounded at how much I like this program. I like it much more than other new shows I was far more interested to see. Co-creators Michelle and Robert King – and this week’s writer Dee Johnson – I tip my hat to you. My imaginary hat, but still. From the writing to the casting, to the shadowy look of it, this show just clicks. And in case freckle-face Kenny looks as familiar to you as he did to me, I’ll bet we all remember him as young Lucius from Gladiator. After being menaced by Joaquin Phoenix’s evil emperor, Commodus, being accused of murder must seem like a jolly stroll through lush – but ultimately deceptive – Highland Park.