The Good Wife's powerful finale was exactly the ending this great series needed.

The Good Wife’s Powerful Finale Was Exactly the Ending This Great Series Needed

The Good Wife’s Powerful Finale Was Exactly the Ending This Great Series Needed

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Slate's Culture Blog
May 9 2016 8:35 AM

The Good Wife’s Powerful Finale Was Exactly the Ending This Great Series Needed

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If there have been moments this season when The Good Wife started to feel repetitive, this episode redeemed them.

CBS

The Good Wife was inspired by a question, one that has occurred to almost anyone who has watched the familiar bit of political theater that is the busted politician, contrite at a press conference, apologizing for his sexual sins, his wife standing beside him, her presence a sign of support, her face a sign of nothing: Who is that woman? If we can never really know Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards, Huma Abedin, then Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife, would let us get to know Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles), who stood by her husband Peter Florrick (Christopher Noth), Illinois State’s Attorney and solicitor of prostitutes—and, in a great series finale, stood by him once again, simultaneously back where she started and nowhere at all.

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

For seven seasons, The Good Wife has been generally excellent, and very occasionally spotty, showing, in the home stretch, some signs of fatigue. Alicia Florrick’s introduction to, familiarization with, and eventual comfort in the ways and means of power has been the long story arc of the series, but it has been wedded to the smartest procedural ever made. The Good Wife treated its genre mandate—to be a lawyer show—not as a drag or a crutch or an excuse to do the same thing over and over again but as an impetus to explore issues with uncommon energy. Its treatment of everything from search engines to online harassment, to the National Security Agency and drones has been complex, droll, and curious. The same can be said of its stellar and vast supporting ensemble, another genre necessity that The Good Wife elevated with unflagging verve. The scores of judges, lawyers, and investigators that have popped in and out of The Good Wife are nearly all characters in the “what a character!” sense and are played with so much mirth and distinction that it is hard to pick a favorite.

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Most importantly, The Good Wife used its procedural format to explore a sophisticated, and often cynical, moral universe. This wasn’t a show in which there were good guys and bad guys; this was a show working in a genre we associate with “good guys” and “bad guys”—those prosecutors working hard to put away the guilty; those defense attorneys working hard to free the wrongfully accused—that demonstrated how insufficient these concepts are at addressing the complex motivations, desires, needs, and realities of adult life.

All of these qualities—the intricacy of the case, the depth of the cast, the confounding morality—was on display in the final episode, one chock-a-block with action, performances, and ethical conundrums. (Sutton Foster even appeared for all of 30 seconds in a role that must have been longer on paper.) In the final weeks of the show, Peter Florrick, now the governor, was arrested for allegedly throwing a murder investigation on behalf of one his supporters. Peter, who began the series going to jail, was at risk of ending the series going to jail, which provided a very neat benchmark against which to measure Alicia’s development. She stood by her man last time. Would she stand by him again?

If there have been moments this season when The Good Wife started to feel repetitive, this episode redeemed them. Sticking with Peter, or not, was too simple a framing of Alicia’s options. As the episode began, Peter’s plight seemed to have the most bearing on Alicia’s personal life. Would she choose Peter? Or would she divorce Peter and end up with the dreamy investigator Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), with whom she’d been having a love affair? The ghost of Alicia’s true love, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), even appeared to help guide her through this choice. (His vote was for Jason.)  But as the episode played out, romance became an arena for realpolitik. Alicia’s long teased political career, which had been cut short in Season 5, was revived. Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) was once again pulling strings, telling Peter’s donors to move their money to an unknowing Alicia, who would divorce Peter after his trial and run for office herself, keeping power in the family. In this arrangement, being the good wife would mean being a divorcée.

As Alicia pondered what man she wanted to be with, she continued to fight like hell on behalf of Peter, which ultimately put her in direct conflict with her longtime colleague Diane Lockhart (the great-is-insufficient-to-describe-her-greatness Christine Baranski) and Diane’s own husband. By zealously protecting Peter’s interests—being a “good wife” to him—she sabotaged Diane’s ability to be a good wife and revealed herself to be a terrible friend, a mercenary colleague, and a ruthless person in the process. Over seven seasons, Alicia has learned how to be a more effective partner, in the romantic and legal sense: This by no means makes her a more decent one.

In the last moments of the show, Alicia agrees to support Peter as he gives up the governorship and accepts a period of probation. There she is again, standing by her man. But this time, she sees, or thinks she sees Jason in the wings. Peter reaches for her hand, but Alicia flees, chasing after Jason, though she is unable to find him. Walking back through the hallway, she sees Diane, who comes up to her and slaps her hard in the face. Alicia’s reaction to the slap is the final sequence of the show, and in its way, it is chilling: Alicia is shocked by the slap, though she shouldn’t be. She begins to tear up. Then she takes a beat and her eyes cut back and forth as though she is suddenly aware that someone could see her, and then she suppresses her feelings. She dries her eyes. She calms her face. She adjusts her jacket. She is once again unperturbed.

One of the great things about the finale is that it ends smack in the middle of everything, as was pointed out to me on Twitter, essentially in media res. Life doesn't stop because the TV show does. But I did not find all the loose ends frustrating, because though there is plot left up in the air, Alicia’s character is a certainty. She will find Jason or she won’t; she and Diane, who run a law firm together, will make amends or they won’t; she and Peter will go through with that divorce or they won’t. But through all those things, Alicia will be herself, a woman wedded to the idea of herself as decent, even when that makes her ethically indecent, a woman stringing so many people close to her—Peter, Jason, Diane, Eli, Cary—along.

In the finale, the Kings paid out the premise of the show, completely: that political wife, standing on stage, beside the husband who has besmirched her—we know her, and we know her better than she knows herself. Alicia is a woman who reflexively believes in her own integrity and decency, even as she makes moral compromises. Alicia wants to feel as if she is good, to appear as if she is good, more than she needs to be good. She dried those tears, she adjusted that jacket. In The Good Wife’s last moment, Alicia’s political education ended; alone in that hallway, she revealed herself to be a candidate.