We had a chance to catch up with director Nikki M. James to chat about The Good Fight Season 5 Episode 5, which I deemed the best episode of the season.
You think you’re emotionally prepared to watch shows cover the COVID-19 pandemic, having already braced yourself from the horrors that could be coming our way, but then something like this airs, and it undoes you in a way you didn’t know was possible.
Read on to find out what Nikki had to say about directing such a powerful episode, working with such dynamic actors, and what she wants the audience to take away.
How did you approach such a serious subject matter?
When you get a script like this… we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. Everyone on set is wearing masks. I have to wear a shield to even talk to anyone. We’re testing all the time. So we’re just living in this pressure cooker.
But simultaneously, as I was shooting this episode, you would see a person be gone for a day — a technician or someone from the sound department or a grip — and realize that everyone was being vaccinated because we were shooting this around March/April.
So my first thing is figuring out what the story is about and how they’re connected. In each of the storylines, people are finding things out about themselves that they weren’t sure of, weren’t aware of. Jay is going through this very intense experience where he has flashback PTSD memories.
Up until this point, it’s been kind of funny where his COVID symptoms have these hallucinations of these characters, performed brilliantly by some incredibly talented comedic actors. Then he’s investigating this tragic death of a young woman, which illuminates parts of his life he hadn’t thought about.
There’s also Carmen, who’s finding her way. She’s learning what kind of lawyer she’s going to be and that she can form alliances. Even our guest stars are learning things. Oscar Rivi’s looking to blame someone for his daughter’s death, but he realizes that how he’s lived his own life played a factor.
All these things are being unearthed, including the Diane/Kurt storyline, so I’m just trying to find the threat. What is the thing that’s happening to each of these characters, and then making sure that that is the focus of the scenes, whether they be comedy or drama?
Then honestly, it’s trusting these performers to do what they do and get out of their way. I feel like I know these characters as well, and it was thrilling to throw in my two cents but then also allow everyone else to supply as well.
The unraveling of Jay’s trauma from his time at Harbor Hospital was stellar. At first, you’re confused over whether this happened to him, and then, by the end, you’re cursing the health care system.
The COVID patients stashed in the basement that’s based on a real story. I’m hoping that the idea that we were all lost is a big part of it. There is racial discrimination in medicine — that is not something that we are trying to deny by any stretch. But also, people make horrible mistakes in desperate, desperate times.
I’m hoping we come out of this with the understanding that although the hospital was charged with caring for all of these patients, this was an unprecedented time. Nobody knew what was coming, and they were in flux. Then in that chaos, people made decisions that were wrong in hindsight.
So I want to have a bit of empathy for the people who are in charge of making decisions when they feel that there’s no winning. But then also saying that the people who suffered really suffered. What I love about Jay’s PTSD is that the overall PTSD is not the thing that he’s thinking about.
He keeps attributing it to these COVID long haul systems, like, “Oh, I have COVID. I have a foggy brain.” That’s what he thinks is happening. I love that in this episode, it’s like, yes, that’s happening, but underneath he suffered serious trauma.
At that moment, two things are going on here. Nyambi [Nyambi, who plays Jay,] is one of the best actors on television. He’s such a gifted comedic actor. I was thrilled and excited to give him the opportunity and work with him and watch him build a beautiful arc for Jay in this episode.
Then, you have the other half of that storyline where Oscar Rivi, an alleged murderer, is suing the hospital. How did you come at trying to find sympathy there because he’s done some horrific things?
That’s true Good Fight, where nobody gets to be all one thing. Nobody gets to be all bad or all good. When you meet Oscar earlier in the season, you’re like, “Oh, this is a bad man who got out of jail under very suspect reasons.
Then you realize that he’s in pain — he’s a father who lost her daughter — and that people, even criminals, have families of people they love and people they care about. Working with Tony [Plana, who plays Oscar] and helping him build this character and give him two sides of the coin.
As we go forward, we’ll learn more about Oscar and who he is, and what he does. The best part about working on shows like this with incredible writers is that people can go pretty far in one direction and then come back, and none of it ever feels congruent. It’s cool.
This episode also saw the return of Agent Madeline Starkey, played by Jane Lynch. So what was that like?
She’s just such fun in that role. Jane Lynch is incredible. The day she came on set, my first day working with her, Robert King had indicated that there would be this sort of walk and talk, very long Steadicam shot throughout the whole office where Jane’s character is chasing Diane.
So she comes to set, and I’m like explaining it, but as an actor, I know it’s code we’re going to be here all day. But Jane was such a champ and so funny and absolutely brilliant. I think that was one of the fastest scenes we ever shot during my episode. Jane and Christine [Baranski] together are so incredible.
She comes in and understands the camera and being on set. She’s amazing. You wonder if she has some real secret power like she’s a Marvel superhero that we don’t know about.
One of the things that surprised me about this episode was Kurt’s reaction to Diane’s betrayal. His reactions were more subdued, and he didn’t even seem that angry, at least not externally.
But that’s so Kurt, right? Kurt is one of the most fascinating characters. He and Diane have this marriage where they have such disparate views on the world, but they have this ease. Kurt understands that Diane needs to move like this, and he needs to stay in the middle.
I also think that Kurt is always kind of playing against this stereotype of a guy who shoots guns, so he must be a hothead. But Kurt’s not like that. He has faith and belief that things will work out. When things go wrong for Kurt, somehow, they always right themselves.
Well, he also has Diane in his corner, who will do anything to protect her husband.
Did you love that in sort of a reversal, Diane secretly helps Kurt out, similar to how he helped her out last season? She’s not going to tell him, ‘Oh, by the way, your gun buddy came forward because I threatened to out her to her Gymboree group.”
They have each other’s back, and neither one of them needs to be congratulated for that. It’s just what they do for each other. It’s a very dynamic marriage.
What do you hope people take away from this episode?
Selfishly and sort of embarrassingly, I hope that people watch the episode and think it was a great episode. I hope it fits into how this show allows each episode to have its own color while also staying true to their vision and the style of show and the elevated storytelling and complex ways that they approach very hot-button and current issues.
So I hope that nobody notices that it was Nikki M. James directing. I hope they see my name at the beginning, and I hope they don’t notice it. I hope I made a great episode of a show that I think is a great show. That’s the first and foremost thing for me.
And then, secondarily, I hope that they come away from this, realizing that there are so many more colors to every person you meet, and that person can be more than one thing.
New episodes of The Good Fight drop Thursdays on Paramount+.
Jessica Lerner is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.