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'The Good Wife' series finale: EW review

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Jeff Neumann/CBS

The Good Wife

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
Off Air
tvpgr:
TV-14
seasons:
7
run date:
09/22/09-05/09/16
performer:
Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth
broadcaster:
CBS
genre:
Drama

We gave it a C+

She came to us a victim. She leaves us a villain. A fair conclusion for Alicia Florrick? No, because to borrow from the lesson of United States v. Nunez (as interpreted by Will Gardner): “Nothing’s ever over.” Her story continues, even though we’ll never see it. To borrow from the Regina Spektor tune in the last scene, a “better” life and “better” days and “better” character awaits her — maybe – but only in the fanfiction of our imagination. One thing’s for certain: “End” – that’s the title of The Good Wife’s swan song – could have been a whole lot “better, better, better.” The show finished a frequently glorious seven-year run on Sunday by proving anew one of the great truths of television: It’s really hard to make a really good series finale.

Robert and Michelle King, who created The Good Wife and wrote the capper, executed the challenge of finishing strong by being all fashionably post-modern about it, subverting the Hollywood clichés of redemption, heroic victory, and romantic happily ever after. Instead, they indulged the clichés of new century TV cynicism: moral tragedy, “nothing’s-ever-over” existentialism, and cryptic cliffhanger climaxes we’ll be debating and love-hating/hate-loving for years. Those choices did affirm some of the show’s many virtues — ambiguity, toughness, and the complex dramatic take in the blurry divide between public and private, personal and professional — but in an unpleasing, vaguely punitive way. The “End” was all about Alicia breaking away from her dead-end life by breaking bad, but in service of trapping her in a corner so it could slap her for being a big, mean, self-centered anti-hero jerk. And maybe us, too, for being entertained by this kind of stuff?

“End” brought the show full circle, also a cliché*, a gambit that generates at least the illusion of design and meaning. It returned Alicia (Julianna Margulies) to the spot where we met her: a woman destroyed, standing by her cheating husband (Chris Noth) in public, but slapping him across the face once they were in private. Once again, Peter Florrick was resigning from office because of scandal, and once again, Alicia was standing by him, playing the role of supportive good wife. But this time, she really was playing a role. She was far from good, and she was hardly a wife. Over seven seasons, Alicia had reconstructed into someone stronger and tougher than she used to be. But her rise to personal and professional power had also made her an unapologetic moral relativist, with only utilitarian value for the truth. By the end, the show asked us to consider that she and Peter were spiritual equivalents. Her sleazy pursuit of victory in Peter’s corruption trial — rationalized as a lawyer’s responsibility to providing a “zealous” defense for her client — had devastating consequences for several characters, including her partner, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), and it was Diane who delivered her final judgment, slapping her across her two-faced face, just as Alicia did to her betraying partner in the pilot.

RELATED: The 11 Best Episodes of The Good Wife

The multi-episode trial of Peter Florrick – the storyline the Kings used to drive the endgame of the series — was a topsy-turvy confusing slog, but that was part of a point (I think) of a season that presented the political and legal arenas as quagmires where truth and justice are irrelevant. The legal conflict was framed by a shot a few episodes earlier, with Alicia half-listening to the prosecution’s opening remarks. “It’s a terrible thing, when someone loses their moral compass. It starts with a small infraction, something insignificant, and then it’s followed by two more… Like a pyramid scheme of moral laxity, the felonies become a way of life.” At this point, Alicia joins the jaunty musical score undercutting the pontificating thunder by rolling her eyes. The story wanted us to dislike Matthew Morrison’s smug, self-righteous prosecutor, Connor Fox, because, you know, “self-righteousness.” Who wants that? So evil! It wanted us to root for Alicia, Diane, and Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) to win their case, for various reasons (including an idea I never really bought, that stand-by-her-man Alicia wouldn’t let herself divorce Peter if he went to jail). Alicia — in one of several moments this season that allowed her to voice the sum of what she’s learned in the series (which basically boils down to: I don’t know anything about anything) — threw down a challenge to Connor in response to his belief that Peter was guilty. “Then prove it,” she tells him. “I’ve defended enough people to know how shallow those words are. I don’t care what you believe. I care what you can prove. So prove it.” It was amusing watching Alicia do everything she could to get Peter off, if only for her sake, including playing the part of “The Good Wife” for the jury, a subversive reclaiming of a degrading role, a weaponizing of “St. Alicia.” What I found most subversive about the trial, though, was how it manipulated us to cheer for the wrong side. Peter was a dirty politico and serial douchebag that was probably guilty and deserved the meager jail time he was facing. But the person on trial really wasn’t Peter – it was Alicia, or rather, her moral character.

All of this built to an ironies-within-ironies climax, in which the jury made a request that suggested a deep interest in larger matters of truth and justice, even though the matters in question didn’t really matter to this very small case. Alicia and company – believing the jury’s noble interest as an opportunity for Peter – suddenly became mobilized to satisfy their desire. It came down to a mystery of missing bullets. Solving it backfired on them; exposing the truth risked blowing up their case. When they failed to suppress that truth from being revealed, Alicia, thinking she saw a way to win and ruthlessly obsessed with getting it, prodded her friend/underling/proxy, Lucca, to chase an even more devastating disclosure by trying to get Diane’s husband (Gary Cole) to admit to an affair.

The finale — a twisting, twisted riff on the old maxim that “the truth will set you free” — was basically a courtroom bloodbath like the episode that killed Will Gardner (Josh Charles), except here, it was all character assassinations. Were they fair, though? Did they deserve them? That’s what I’m wrestling with. I never would have thought The Good Wife would have ended with me kinda hating Alicia and feeling sorry for everyone who knew her. Poor Grace (Makenzie Vega), left shock-eyed and mouth agape at the spectacle of awfulness. The only person that got anything close to a redemptive ending and clean conscience was Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry). He got it by quitting this ship of fools a couple episodes earlier. That’s kind of depressing when you think about it. Yay! for being a conscientious objector. Boo! for dropping out.

*The whole idea of “full circle” storytelling is well spoofed in the season 1 finale of The Grinder, airing Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox. It might offer some mirthful catharsis for anyone frustrated by “End.”

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Speaking of Will, he showed up in the finale, courtesy of Alicia’s clouded imagination. They talked, they kissed, and they embraced, and judging from my Twitter feed, the fans loved it. There was something subversive about this fan service, another example of the Kings manipulating their audience into relishing bits of business that maybe shouldn’t be relished at all. The Kings used the fantasy of Will to coach Alicia toward “heroic” actions in this episode that actually damned her character and set her up for slappy judgment, whether it was tipping her to the “nothing’s ever over” case law that helped push Peter’s case forward or exhorting her to chase after private investigator Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Jason himself was an interesting bit of representation. He was her lover, her wish-fulfillment fantasy, her untamed spirit animal, at first representing the romance of unfettered freedom, but really representing her pathological need for tethering. After seven seasons, Alicia still needed to be somebody’s someone for completion, to be “good.” Standing by Peter’s side in the final scenes, Alicia caught a glimpse of a shadow that seemed to be Jason, and the second after she fulfilled her last favor to her terrible, tainting husband, she ran after him. But either Jason had vanished, or he had never been there at all. Ultimately, Will and Jason were trickster shades in Alicia’s hero’s journey, tempting her toward final confrontations with the stuff inside her that needs confronting. So Diana’s slap was something else, too, a wake-up call to enlightenment and the human and social cost of living dimly. In the “nothing’s ever over” moral gospel of The Good Wife, life is a series of great awakenings. The trick is stay woke.

There is no doubt The Good Wife should be remembered as one of TV’s great new-century dramas. I refer you to this appreciation of the series by my editor, Henry Goldblatt, for all the reasons why. The Kings upheld and honored the tradition of prestige legal dramas that function as venues for venting and discussing the ideas of our time, but also advanced it and reinvented it by organizing it around the compelling character arc of Alicia. One of the things I loved about the show was its extraordinary gift for reinvention — best demonstrated by that incredible stretch that opened season 5, when Alicia and Cary broke off and started their own firm — and how the constant, sometimes frustrating, even tedious disassembling and reassembling (culminating this season with Diane’s bid to reposition the company as a female-led firm) worked to the show’s advantage. In the years that The Good Wife has been on the year, we’ve experienced turbulent, painful flux, confusion, and reconsideration in so many areas of American life — technology, national security, issues of gender, and racial and sexual equality — and the Kings captured that energy quite well, with stories that explored those matters with great intelligence and wit.

And yet, as much as The Good Wife deserves to be remembered as a great show, perhaps it would be best if we didn’t remember the past season and half at all — everything since Will’s splashy, equally empty death, basically. This season in particular was disappointing. Peter’s doomed bid to get the Democratic nomination for president was another dull slog of a storyline, one that suffered in its sputtering, failed attempts to sync with the real-world election drama — a daunting ambition. The Peter-centric focus hijacked the promising storyline that began the season: Alicia’s return to the law as she started over against the very bottom rung after a disastrous flirtation with politics. I would have a long, rigorously considered exploration of this climactic bid at reinvention.

Another choice undermined the series, too: Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) finally telling Alicia about deleting that potentially life-changing voicemail from Will. Alicia’s furious, plate-throwing response was appropriate — a painful jab at many sore spots, including the fact the machinations of men still controlled her life (and may control her still: We left Eli clandestinely scheming to groom Alicia for governor). But it also catalyzed the progression that took her into the finale, moving her from sulking, self-pitying petulance to her self-pleasing, no-commitment, I-don’t-have-to-do-anything-I-don’t-want-to-do rebelliousness to her destructive, by-any-means-necessary quest for victory and liberation by the end. There was a lot about this journey that was interesting. And I don’t want to penalize the show for making Alicia “unlikeable,” and I don’t want to cast shade on Margulies, who I think did a remarkable job playing everything written for her. I’m not sure I buy or trust Alicia’s aggressive turn toward anti-hero status and easy, commonplace cynicism presented as “honesty” that came with it. I do wonder about the what-could-have-been had Josh Charles not quit in season 5.

Perhaps this was the end the Kings had in mind all along. Perhaps they were trying to signal that at midseason, when Margo Martindale’s Ruth Eastman tried to pull Alicia out of her pity-party funk by telling her that destiny is genetic, that even the road less traveled leads to the same destination. Everything’s inevitable. Okay. But I still want to slap it.

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