“Nothing’s ever over.” That’s what the late Will Gardner (Josh Charles) told Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) during a fantasy sequence in The Good Wife’s series finale, which aired May 8. He was talking about Alicia’s latest case, but he could’ve been talking about the episode itself, which refused to offer anything resembling resolution. After seven seasons, The Good Wife ended the same way it began: Alicia stood by her husband, and someone got slapped. This time, it was Diane (Christine Baranski) smacking Alicia — though, as critics pointed out, the anticlimactic finale was a slap in the face for many viewers, too. Some plotlines had been settled long ago. Will was dead, so there was no lingering will-they-or-won’t-they with Alicia. Eli (Alan Cumming) had already confessed to deleting a very important voicemail, so there was no looming confrontation. And the show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, have always insisted that Saint Alicia had been slowly evolving into a less sympathetic character, so if she wronged Diane in the final moments, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The rest of the show’s overarching questions were left unanswered. Was the episode’s title — “End” — meant to be ironic? What we got wasn’t an ending at all.
What happened to the finality of the finale? Closure used to count for something. For better or worse, there was no limit on the major things that could happen in an hour or less. Take the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H, which concluded with nothing less epic than the ending of an actual war — or the 1985 ender of Alice, which saw all of the waitresses receive life-changing news (commonplace for finales of that era). Or think about the 2004 capper to Friends, where Monica and Chandler adopted twins and moved to the suburbs, and Ross and Rachel—finally!—got together for good. Seinfeld managed to have it both ways in 1998 when it wrapped up things with a wry ending that both utilized finale clichés and subverted them. Yes, we got a dramatic ending, but it was a polarizing one that said, “You’re conventional enough to want a dramatic ending? Fine. How about Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in jail?”
Sure, sitcoms are easier to wrap up in a satisfying way, because they’re naturally suited to happy endings. But the last series to offer a truly gratifying glimpse of its characters’ future was actually a drama —and a dark one, too. In 2005, Six Feet Under flashed forward to show the major life events and, eventually, the deaths of characters who’d started to feel like family to viewers. This wasn’t just the finale of an all-time great show. It felt like a finale for life itself.
We don’t often get great swan songs like that anymore, and you can blame The Sopranos. In 2007, when the last episode cut to black right in the middle of Tony Soprano’s dinner, it was a masterwork of suspense. By refusing to kill off his main character on screen, writer-director David Chase left us feeling the exact same paranoia and anxiety that landed Tony in therapy: the feeling that death was out there, waiting for the right moment. Chase left the series deliberately unfinished, and because he did it so successfully, other showrunners now believe that an unfinished ending is a virtue in itself. The creators of Lost were vilified for trying (and, to be fair, failing) to provide an answer to all of the questions the series raised. Today, an ambiguous finale is viewed as the only “smart” way to end a series. If you demand answers, people assume you’re dumb.
But is that really true? The worst ambiguous endings have a false air of poignancy simply because they allow for multiple interpretations, even if there’s no larger point. By relying on the audience to imbue the finale with meaning, the showrunner expects the viewer to do all the work. Isn’t that just as unambitious as a lazy coda that wraps things up too neatly? It’s deceptively hard to write a finale that, in hindsight, seems inevitable. Just look at the way Breaking Bad painstakingly plotted Walt’s fate from the beginning. He started selling meth so that he’d make enough money to support his family and possibly beat cancer, but in the end, he was dead, and his whole family was probably glad. With plotting that precise, you’re not focused on what happened after the credits rolled. You’re free to deconstruct the richness of the work.
We invested seven years in Alicia Florrick’s life. Don’t we deserve some closure? I’m not talking about rewarding fans with a pat ending at the expense of a more complex character arc. And I’m definitely not suggesting a rom-com send-off for Alicia and a man. I’m talking about offering some insight beyond the obvious idea that the victim became the victimizer. Post–Breaking Bad, too many other, better series have ended that way. We have to get rid of the ideas that darkness equals quality and that all happy endings are basic. Besides, we’ve already debated who’s really responsible for Alicia’s ethical lapses: Alicia herself or the systems (marriage, law, politics) that reward them. Wouldn’t it have been more subversive to see who she’d become if she broke away from those systems and built a new life for herself? Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to see her figure out how to function in a complicated world where it’s harder to be good? “End” felt more like the conclusion of an episode, not a series. Maybe Will’s right that nothing’s ever really over. But TV would be a whole lot more interesting if he were wrong.