The Good Wife Series Finale Recap: Ghost Story

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS
The Good Wife
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

After seven years and more than 150 episodes, it's no surprise that the finale of The Good Wife would revisit the themes that haunted Alicia from the start. Do you stand by your spouse when he's done a horrible thing? Are you loyal to your clients or to the truth? How do you balance responsibility and your own needs? It's especially predictable that we end up, once again, with Alicia standing next to Peter as he humbles himself in front of flashing cameras.

It certainly is a surprise that "End" gets there by way of the Ghost of Will Gardner, who steps in like some kind of Patrick-Swayze-meets-Obi-Wan-Kenobi spirit guide, steering Alicia through these major life decisions. It's even more surprising that our final image of Alicia is of her standing alone, cheek reddening thanks to the wallop of a (well-deserved) slap from Diane Lockhart, her friend and mentor.

From its initial real-life inspirations, to its preoccupation with weaving Alicia in and out of men's lives, to its eyeball-grabbing title, The Good Wife has always been fixated on the image of Alicia next to someone. If she's not standing beside Peter, she's in an elevator with Will, or she's on the other side of someone's door, or she's going up against Carey, or she's sitting next to Kalinda at a bar (or not, as the case may be).

In this last episode, we finally get Alicia standing alone. She's chosen not to take Peter's hand getting off the stage, but she can't find Jason either. At last, Alicia stands by herself in a place loaded with meaning. She's in that hallway that political shows love to use: the unattractive, industrial-looking, backstage corridor where people stand when they're about to enter or have just exited a big stage. Both of those things are happening here. Thanks to Eli's maneuvering of the Florrick donors, she's poised to pursue a political career and step out onto the stage herself. But for us, the viewers, she's also Alicia Florrick, who has just exited the Good Wife stage.

That hallway could be such a delicious, potent, pregnant setting, full of possibility and transitions and accomplishment. Maybe that's how we should imagine Alicia's future. But the image we actually get is not hopeful Alicia, proudly preparing to take on the limelight, nor is it relieved Alicia, thankfully leaving the stage for her own private life on a beach somewhere with Jason. Instead we get Alicia Florrick — shocked, smacked in the face, wiping away tears and steeling herself for whatever comes next.

We get to this moment by spending most of the episode following Peter's trial, which goes forward with the show's traditional swerves and speed bumps. At the same time, Alicia is caught in an odd, ghostly four-way with her own possible futures. She wants to divorce Peter, but she feels like she can't abandon him. (ABANDON HIM, ALICIA!) She wants to jump in headfirst with Jason, but cannot seem to get over the simple fact that he isn't Will Gardner. As a result, we get this neat set of matching images: Alicia comes into her apartment and finds Jason, and then Peter, and finally Ghost Will waiting for her.

It's a cute device. It gives us an easy visual representation of exactly how Alicia feels stuck. Over the course of the finale, she struggles with all of those possibilities, and in order to parse it all, she turns to — let me just say it again — the ghost of Will Gardner, who is apparently now the arbiter of Alicia's every desire and feeling. After some nice reminiscences over U.S. v Nuñez, Will tells Alicia to pick Jason. "He likes boy things!" she protests. "You like boy things!" Will tells her, before scolding her at how little she knows herself. Good thing she has Ghost Will Gardner to keep her up-to-date on herself!

So Alicia speaks to a ghost, then begs Jason to wait for her while she straightens out her life and the trial concludes. The details of the trial itself are stunningly unimportant. Vital evidence from missing bullets fades in and out of relevance, disappearing and then helping and then hurting Peter's case in turn. Plea deals rise and fall with the political tides. There is a tragic waste of Sutton Foster. There is a much more effective use of a cameo from David Boies. Lucca features somewhat, but her ultimate role on the series seems to be mostly to push Alicia toward a relationship with Jason.

No, the only thing that matters about the trial (including the fact of Peter's guilt, something that is true in all our hearts and is completely irrelevant on the show) is what happens to Kurt and Diane and Holly. I couldn't really keep straight how the lines of support and opposition worked, but Kurt's bullet analysis initially said one thing, his attractive protégé has said something else, and when given an opportunity to re-test everything, Kurt reversed his first opinion.

This does not work for Alicia, who is fighting tooth and nail to keep Peter out of prison — in spite of also admitting to Diane that she doesn't even know why anymore. And so, Alicia asks Diane to let her undercut Kurt's testimony in cross-examination. Diane refuses. Of all of the metaphor-laden, thematically dripping scenes in the finale, this one — with Diane arguing for truth, and her marriage, and a moral line, and Alicia arguing for her marriage, even though she barely wants it anymore — is my favorite.

In the end, Alicia uses Lucca to undermine Kurt's expert-witness testimony against Diane's wishes. It's worse than that. Lucca, exhibiting all of the loyalty to Alicia that Alicia is throwing away from Diane, doesn't just suggest that Kurt's opinion might be swayed in Holly's favor. She asks Kurt if the reason he sided with Holly is that he's been having a long affair with her.

The most obvious, telegraphed echoing in this finale is the shot with Alicia taking Peter's hand, calling back to the opening premise of the pilot episode. But the most heart-wrenching parallel is the mirrored shot of Diane's face, as she closes her eyes and takes in what Alicia's done, followed later by Alicia's face at the very end, as she stands swaying from Diane's blow. Christine Baranski's pained, silent, furious exit from the courtroom is stunning.

There are so many ways to read Alicia's closing scene. It's frustrating that "End" spends so much time delivering advice to her from her ex-lover, and that last shot can feel triumphant: Alicia, standing without a man, pulling herself together to face what comes! Or it's horrible: Alicia, without a man, and also having betrayed one of her closest female friends, is left alone and chastised. Whatever the case, it's an unusually ambiguous moral place for Robert and Michelle King to leave their protagonist, who has so frequently and beguilingly defied audience expectations for seven seasons.

It is also, in its own funny way, a final departure from something deep in The Good Wife's core. The show has often struggled with its procedural heartbeat, frantically trying to cram long stories and legal dramas and slow-burn character relationships into a tight network hour. When it was at its best, The Good Wife spun its many plates with the best of them. When it faltered, threads were dropped and characters got lost and stories took sudden U-turns in different directions.

Whatever else it is, the closing image of Alicia, stuck in a blatantly transitional space, caught in a moment between escape and pride and shame and rebuke, is not a procedural ending. It deliberately, even gleefully, resists closure. It's hard not to read a little message about storytelling, and The Good Wife's Emmy campaign, and the Kings' departure from the 22-episode series, into this last moment. "I was procedural, and I'm still able to end with this brashly unsatisfying uncertainty," it says. "I was a network show, and I still left you with this striking, inconclusive ending."

This finale could make you furious, and you would be right for feeling that way. (The episode's big move is to have Alicia be mansplained … about herself … BY A GHOST.) But for the sheer audacity of it all, for its defiant embrace of opacity, I think it's right to admire as well. Good-bye, Alicia; we'll miss you.