The Good Wife Wasn’t Perfect, But What a Great Show It Was

By
L-R: Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Jason Crouse. Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS

The slap and its aftermath in The Good Wife finale distilled the entire series into 60 seconds. It was one of the great series finale moments. And it wasn’t just the show’s heroine, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), who got slapped, by her colleague Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). We got slapped, too.  

Diane’s assault was about betrayal: Alicia encouraged attorney Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) to cross-examine and demolish Diane’s husband, Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole), on the stand, to prevent Alicia’s scandal-prone husband, Peter (Chris Noth), from doing hard time in prison for interfering in a murder investigation. The show ended with Diane (probably) losing both her friend and colleague, Alicia, and her husband, Kurt, who might’ve had an affair with a ballistics student (Megan Hilty’s Holly Westfall) testifying for the prosecution.

But Diane’s slap was also a preemptive, corrective blow aimed at viewers that might have wanted a happy ending for a show with a character who, despite her glamour and poise, was as cuddly as a porcupine. She leaves the press conference announcing Peter’s resignation to chase a phantom image of her latest lover, investigator Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and ends up face-to-face with another woman instead — one who’s furious at having her own prospects for romantic fulfillment, or at the very least her own innocence about Kurt, spoiled.

Snap out of it! the slap seemed to say to anyone who had (understandably) fixated on Alicia’s or Diane’s or any other female character’s love life. While The Good Wife was variously about romance, friendship, power, courtroom strategy, political theater, and women’s drive to excel in male-dominated spheres, those subjects were means of illustrating a more generalized struggle to behave ethically in a self-interested world, and defend whatever innocence one has left as a grown-up without getting played for a sucker.

Many of these struggles centered on Alicia. They were often resolved with compromise, surrender, an active bending of rules, or a violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of the law. Alicia could behave idealistically or fairly as well. But with each passing season she displayed more of the tactical opacity that distinguished her husband, a man whose precise levels of unfaithfulness and political corruption remained mysterious.   

Characters who evolve along Alicia’s arc are often described as having emerged at the end sadder but wiser. Alicia is both. But she’s also a flat-out harder person. When she throws other people under the bus or survives a personal disaster that’s partly or wholly of her own making, she walks away from it (as she did in the hallway after the slap) and barely looks back. If Alicia could time-warp into Mad Men’s universe, Don Draper might propose to her.

She’s also a woman who performs Terminator-like mental calculations of what to say and what to do with her face and body before responding to others. This was evident from the start, but it became a more obvious topic as the show wore on. From that opening press conference in the pilot to the mirrored press conference in the finale (which repeated an iconic close-up of Alicia and Peter’s clasped hands), the public performance of femininity was another of the show’s obsessions. The Good Wife rarely felt the need to turn subtext into text here, but when it did, the result was often gold. I love Alicia facetiously exclaiming to Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning, “I thought my husband no longer cheated!” (“I love you,” blurted Louis, one of the most comfortably expedient characters). Better still was Alicia in conference with assistant U.S. attorney Connor Fox (Matthew Morrison), puncturing a condescending reverie about her once-upbeat demeanor, then saying, “You give my husband one-year probation, no jail time, and I’ll muster a demure smile for you” and offering what was simultaneously a perfect demure smile and a withering critique of same.

On top of its fertility as a think-piece generator, The Good Wife was just plain fun to watch. Even a substandard episode was likely to contain laugh-out-loud dialogue, affecting moments, and cleverly imagined sequences. That last aspect, the filmmaking, deserves one more shout-out. The Kings and their regular stable of directors could always be counted on to convey information visually as well as verbally — sometimes just visually, in tandem with inventively chosen songs or sections of classical music. Few network series put as much thought into where to put the camera and what to do with it, and to what end. The Regina Spektor montage in the finale was sneakily devastating, not just because of the song’s lyrics (a commentary on Alicia’s betrayal of Diane, her own increasingly thick skin, and the audience’s tendency to want to reach out to her anyway) or Julianna Margulies’s reactions (few TV stars have done such brilliant work in close-up) but also because of those repeated whip pans following Alicia’s entry into her apartment, revealing Jason, Will, and Peter. (The whip pan was repeated later in the episode, revealing Peter again, as if to say, “Like it or not, this is the relationship that defines you.”) The repetition of compositions and camera movements gets us thinking about how many stories and relationships on the series feel like variations on psychological or ethical themes — a strategy that Mad Men, a series about the glacial slowness of growth, also employed.

What a great show this was; perhaps an all-timer. True, it was hampered by a patchwork-quilt narrative that often grew unwieldy: Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), among other supporting players, often seemed to be starring in his own show-within-a-show, though thankfully an entertaining one. And Margulies’s apparent feud with co-star Archie Punjabi made for ungainly structural decisions; it ended last season in an embarrassingly awkward send-off that was pasted together with CGI.

Most noticeably, the series struggled to find its center in the post–Will Gardner years. I’m grateful for individual episodes, scenes, and subplots that aired after that. But the aftermath of Will’s violent death feels, in retrospect, like a fine place to end the series, as it showed Alicia managing the trauma of an emotional assault greater than, or at least equal to, the betrayal by Peter that opened the series back in 2009. (Josh Charles’s surprise appearance in the finale as a Six Feet Under–style psychological projection of Will was as lovely and appropriate as it was unexpected.)

But ending there would’ve made The Good Wife a different, comforting show. In going further, The Good Wife moved us away from comfort, toward something more unsettled, and unsettling. The moment after the slap sums up Alicia’s journey through seven seasons of The Good Wife: She absorbs a blow (physical as well as emotional this time), then puts her game face on and walks back toward the public arena, the pressroom where her husband is resigning the governorship. Is she being strong, or is she just comfortably numb now, after all she’s been through? What do we give up in exchange for that kind of strength? How many figurative bodies are we willing to bury to achieve what we think of as happiness? Or as Regina Spektor sings in the finale, “If I kiss you where it's sore/Will you feel better, better, better/Will you feel anything at all?”