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The Best and Worst of The Good Wife

Photo: CBS

After The Good Wife’s final episode airs, the show will be remembered as an incredibly strong network TV series, and rightly so. But it’s also had its fair share of (inevitable) missteps over the past seven seasons. In advance of Sunday night’s series finale, here’s a journey back through the best and the worst The Good Wife has offered us, through the lens of ten of its best and worst episodes. Obligatory caveat that “best” and “worst” are completely arbitrary, and acknowledgment that season six is heavily represented on the “worst” list. In my defense, season six was very bad.

BEST: It tested the bonds between characters.
“Hitting the Fan,” Season 5, Episode 5

This episode will likely find a spot on every best-of list across the internet, and rightly so. It’s evidence of one of the things The Good Wife did best: building strong relationships between characters, and then putting those characters into situations where those bonds were tested. In exploring Alicia’s choice to create her own firm with Cary, the show is able to explore the scope of Alicia’s relationship to Will, the consequences of friends becoming enemies, and the limits and ethics of ambition. It accomplished a storytelling feat — in the span of 42 minutes — that some full-length feature films can’t muster. What other show can have one character violently swoop another character’s belongings off of a desk without it seeming melodramatic?

WORST: When it tried too hard to be funny.
“Shiny Objects,” Season 6, Episode 5

There have been moments of true humor throughout The Good Wife’s run (the strongest of those moments came from dry asides or from literally anything Alan Cumming ever did). But often, when it was clear the show was really trying to be funny, it fell flat. The Good Wife milked and milked and milked the humor behind attorney Elsbeth Tascioni’s quirky personality, but I wasn’t laughing when we got to literally see inside her head and found clowns and penguins and cruise ships. It’s damned both ways: Either it was trying to be funny and failed, or it was trying to legitimately convey what it’s like to be neurologically atypical, and that’s what it came up with. That’s reductive and insulting, at best. Sometimes, The Good Wife forgot that people shouldn’t be punch lines.

BEST: It never offered easy answers.
“Dramatics, Your Honor,” Season 5, Episode 15

In the age of leaks and spoiler culture, true television surprises are rare. The fact that Will Gardner’s death and, by extension, Josh Charles’s departure from the show were true surprises is remarkable. (My mother, the biggest Good Wife fan I know, still isn’t over it.) But what’s even more remarkable is how unflinchingly the writing portrayed the violence, unfairness, and terror of the moment of his death. It was incredibly difficult to watch, and no punches were pulled just because Will was so beloved. In its finest moments, The Good Wife doesn’t look for easy answers or pretty conclusions. It wades straight into ambiguity, and it’s not afraid to stay there, even when it’s not necessarily a comfortable place for viewers. It tells interesting stories, not easy ones, and that’s one of the things I’ll miss most about it. (This episode’s companion, “The Last Call,” bears mentioning here, too.)

WORST: It didn’t know how to handle Alicia as a parent.
“The Trial,” Season 6, Episode 10

It was deeply gratifying that The Good Wife wasn’t overly focused on Alicia’s role as a mother. There weren’t multiple episode arcs where she wrung her hands over work-life balance or wondered if she could “have it all.” Unfortunately, many of the moments that did focus on her parenting were so misbegotten that I wondered whether we were actually meant to believe that she was a terrible mom. “The Trial,” in which Alicia wrote a note threatening to stab a teacher “as a joke” that got Grace in trouble at school, was bafflingly illogical. I don’t believe Alicia is dumb, unaware, or a bad parent, but there were moments when the writing made her feel that way.

BEST: It perfected the art of the cliff-hanger.
“Running,” Season 1, Episode 23

“Running” had some incredibly compelling components, especially when you look at it as a culmination of the many, many moving pieces of Good Wife’s ambitious first season. Crooked cops! Gary Cole! Cary and Alicia as true adversaries! Peter’s mom confronting Peter’s pastor! But most notably, it brought us to the full-circle moment of Peter’s press conference announcing his run for state’s attorney. There were the lights and cameras and reporters, and there was Alicia, in the wings, about to stand by his side again. It’s a fascinating full-circle moment…until Alicia’s phone rings, and it’s Will. Say whatever else you will about The Good Wife, but from this episode onward, it was clear the show had perfected the art of the cliff-hanger. And that brings us to …

BEST: How well it planted storytelling seeds.
“Taking Control,” Season 2, Episode 1

In the season-two premiere, Eli erases the voice mail from Will from Alicia’s phone, without her knowledge. It was shocking in the moment (we knew Eli was heartless already, but not that heartless), but, more importantly, it put viewers in a position where we knew something the characters didn’t, and that’s a really fun standpoint from which to watch TV. The fact that this tiny action at the beginning of season two would become a plot point all the way in season seven was fascinating, and not surprising in hindsight. More than maybe any other show on network TV, The Good Wife excelled at planting storytelling seeds, then cultivating them until the right moment.

WORST: Kalinda’s departure from the show.
“Wanna Partner?,” Season 6, Episode 22

On a surface level, “Wanna Partner?” isn’t a bad episode, especially by the low standard set by the rest of season six. But Kalinda’s departure from the show was unforgivably bad, and overall, the schism between Kalinda and Alicia (and/or between Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi) is a black mark on the later seasons of the show. When Kalinda and Alicia’s relationship was strong, they were one of the most compelling female friendships on the show. The Good Wife never recovered from losing that, and the fact that their final scene together was shot via green screen was just the final twist of the knife.

WORST: Kalinda’s ex-husband, Mark.
“I Fought the Law,” Season 4, Episode 1

The arrival of Kalinda’s ex-husband, Mark, at the beginning of The Good Wife’s fourth season was one of the show’s many attempts to try to build stories for Kalinda that were separate from Alicia. Some of those stories succeeded, but her relationship with Mark … did not. Viewers knew from the outset that even though Mark was violent and unstable, he wasn’t going to actually kill Kalinda. With those stakes removed, it felt like Mark was there with his danger and manipulation and mind games for the sake of being “edgy,” not for the sake of telling a story about Kalinda. The whole arc was misbegotten, and the fact that Mark would appear in seven more episodes after the season premiere proved The Good Wife co-creators’ occasional tendency to double down on a bad idea.

BEST: How it handled high stakes.
“Hail Mary,” Season 6, Episode 11

When I recapped this episode last year, I described it as “intricately constructed and perfectly paced and, perhaps most important, it gives Christine Baranski multiple opportunities to make ‘rally the troops’–style exhortations. And not for nothing, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.” There’s something about The Good Wife that’s intangible and difficult to describe, but there’s a little rush that comes when everyone’s working together to solve a seemingly impossible problem, when the stakes are high, and when characters you care about are in the thick of all of it. (Plus, Cary doesn’t go to jail!)

WORST: Setting an episode inside Alicia’s head.
“Mind’s Eye,” Season 6, Episode 14

Viewers spent most of season six wondering what, exactly, was going on in Alicia’s head, and the show’s answer to that was to actually set an episode in the inside of Alicia’s head. It felt like a frantic effort to retroactively explain or dismiss the elements of characterization that viewers hadn’t connected with earlier in the season — Alicia’s sexuality, her feelings about her children, her ethical qualms about her run for state’s attorney. But it was all “telling,” with very little “showing.” It felt like offering to do an extra-credit essay after slacking off on your English Lit course all semester. Because The Good Wife is normally so ambitious, its moments that feel lazier are that much more glaring.

BEST: When it used a case-of-the-week to tell a more human story.
“Nine Hours,” Season 2, Episode 9

The Good Wife’s second season was incredibly (and sometimes problematically) complex, which made the times where the show slowed down and homed in on one story that much more engaging. The dramatic tension caused by the limited time Alicia and company had to save a man on death row made the episode a nail-biter throughout, and the last-second appeal from Alicia was a great glimpse into her ability to leverage her own emotions into effective advocacy for her clients. It was one of the first times that The Good Wife’s case of the week was able to successfully tell a real story about ethics and morality by folding a contemporary news story into the narrative (the death-row case mimicked the case of Cameron Todd Willingham), something the show continued to excel at from that point onward.

WORST: How it dealt with its gay marriage story line.
“A Defense of Marriage,” Season 4, Episode 9

There are times when The Good Wife tackles a social issue or thorny legal matter with amazing succinctness and clarity for an hour-long show. Season seven alone taught me a great deal about artificial intelligence, drone surveillance, copyright laws, and more. But when the show gets it wrong, it really, really gets it wrong. That “A Defense of Marriage” tackled the subject of gay marriage without much nuance or substance was pretty disappointing.

BEST: The dynamic between Peter and Alicia.
“A Material World,” Season 5, Episode 17

Will and Alicia are talked about as The Good Wife’s core couple, and their romantic chemistry has been unparalleled throughout the run of the show. But as performers, I’d argue that no one works together the way that Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth have. It helps that the dynamic between Peter and Alicia is so complex and always evolving, but a lot of the credit goes to Margulies and Noth themselves. That’s on display in “A Material World,” as Peter and Alicia have their first frank conversation in years, on the heels of Will’s death. Watching Alicia finally confirm to Peter that she hadn’t had a husband in a long, long time was an incredible moment.

WORST: At times, its plot machinations were far-fetched.
“Hearing,” Season 7, Episode 16

There are times when the The Good Wife’s writers have been surprisingly inventive when it comes to writing their way out of tricky storytelling spots. And then there are times when they have … not. The season-seven episode that hinged on Eli’s being able to eavesdrop on Peter’s grand jury through a bathroom vent was nonsensical, unrealistic, and incredibly frustrating, especially on a show that’s capable of far more.

BEST: It never dumbed itself down.
“Pilot,” Season 1, Episode 1

It’s beyond difficult to make a solid TV pilot; a friend of mine jokes that she has a hard time watching the first episode of any TV show because the characters spend too much time saying their names and articulating their relationships to one another. But The Good Wife has trusted its viewers to keep up and stay engaged from the outset, never dumbing or slowing down (think of how much complex information the show often presented before the title screen even ran). It’s an impressive feat, made even more impressive by the show’s natural ability to develop characters while moving along exposition. That’s a rhythm some shows never establish, but The Good Wife nailed it right from the start.

WORST: Trying to make a story out of Bitcoin.
“Finding Mr. Bitcoin,” Season 3, Episode 13

More often than not, when The Good Wife has to educate viewers about a certain topic in order to explain its case of the week, that education pays off. Put a different way: The way the case wraps up makes spending the first 20 minutes of an episode only barely knowing what’s going on worth it in the long run. But “Finding Mr. Bitcoin” didn’t quite pull this off. I’m not quite sure if that was because Bitcoin is too complicated or too boring as subject matter, but either way, it wasn’t well suited for The Good Wife.

BEST: Alicia.
“Red Team/Blue Team,” Season 4, Episode 14

It’s hard to believe I’ve come this far in a roundup of everything that makes The Good Wife incredible without talking about the Good Wife herself. Simply put, Alicia is fascinating. She’s not likable, and she’s not a “strong woman.” She’s an interesting person, and the fact that the show allowed her to be just that for seven seasons feels almost revolutionary. In “Red Team/Blue Team,” as Alicia’s potential partnership is threatened, the show takes a deep dive into her feelings about power, her approach to/avoidance of conflict with growing her career, and her always complex, always compelling relationship with Will.

WORST: Its lame attempts at world-building.
“Anatomy of a Joke,” Season 4, Episode 7

The Good Wife tends to struggle a little when it needs to create something — a song, a TV clip, whatever — in order to tell a story in court. For example, when the show needed a fictional Silicon Valley company and corresponding search engine, we got … ChumHum. And while Christina Ricci is obviously very talented, she floundered as a “hilarious stand-up comedian” (who was fighting an FCC obscenity claim), simply because the comedic material that was written for her fell so flat. The scope of The Good Wife’s world-building was consistently impressive, but the execution wasn’t.

BEST: It knew how to make recurring characters feel integral to the story.
“Poisoned Pill,” Season 2, Episode 6

“Poisoned Pill” wasn’t necessarily a milestone episode. No bombshells, no massive plot twists. But it’s notable for introducing Michael J. Fox’s character, Louis Canning, one of the strongest players in a very, very strong rotating cast of recurring characters. The Good Wife has an uncanny ability to weave these characters into the plot, making them feel integral to the story line and familiar, even when we don’t see them that often. Yes, there were missteps in this area (Taye Diggs, anyone?), but Canning’s first appearance is proof of how frequently the show nailed this, without ever once making it feel like stunt casting.

WORST: The forgettable story lines.
“Parenting Made Easy,” Season 3, Episode 10

Remember the time Grace Florrick got kidnapped and everyone panicked and then Kalinda secretly saved her, even though it turned out Grace was just off getting baptized? You probably don’t, because there have been a fair amount of Good Wife story lines that you’re better off forgetting, and this was one of them.

The Best and Worst of The Good Wife