‘The Good Wife’ Finale Review: Alicia Revisits Her Past, Faces Ambiguous Future

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “End,” the series finale of the CBS drama “The Good Wife.”

You almost had me, “Good Wife” finale, right until the end. I have some very mixed emotions about that last sequence.

The good: It was satisfying that Alicia, in a scene that echoed a key moment from the show’s very first episode, did not take Peter’s hand at the end of his press conference. She left him hanging, which was only right, given that she was about to start a new life. She held his hand walking into that room, but after that, they were done. She’d done all the Peter Florrick hand-holding, literal and figurative, she was ever going to do. About time she set off on her own.

Intellectually, I suppose you can make the case that it made sense for her not to find Jason in that hallway. There was a certain logic to the idea that Alicia would exit that press conference — and her old life — on her own.

And yet I very much wanted her to walk into Jason’s waiting arms. I’ll never not want that. Tonally, it might have been too mushy an ending for this show, and given that the show was about an independent woman, again, the ending we got makes sense.

But “The Good Wife” can’t give me that swoon-y Alicia-Jason romance and then expect me to not want her to smooch Jason one more time. Am I made of stone? One moment from “End” gives me hope for Jason and Alicia’s future: The way he looked at Alicia longingly and lovingly, just before they walked into Cary’s classroom. That was the look of someone who is deeply in love. Somewhere, that tall drink of man is waiting for Alicia, as she asked him to, and as far as I’m concerned, at this moment, they’re in bed right now, sated in all kinds of ways and destroying a really good bottle of tequila. Or Scotch. Or wine.

The point is, they’re cozy, and they’re drinking. In my opinion.

The one thing that will never sit right with me about “The Good Wife” is the slap that Diane (Christine Baranski) administered to Alicia. This is not about whether Alicia deserved it; anyone who broke up the Diane-Kurt marriage, as Alicia probably did, deserved some kind of retribution. Physical violence is never the answer, unless you’re Diane in that moment, and even the most committed Buddhists would have a hard time saying they didn’t get it.

But there are a couple of deeper problems here. One is a matter of sloppy storytelling. Are we to understand that Kurt was having an affair with Holly (Megan Hilty’s character), during his marriage to Diane? I wasn’t clear on that point, at all.

And if Kurt was sleeping with Holly during those years, well, that plot point is a bit of a deus ex machina, isn’t it? How did anyone know about that affair? When did Alicia or Lucca find out? The courtroom revelation was part of a larger point the show was making, of course — the point being that Alicia would do anything and hurt anyone in order to win her case. That Alicia would be cold and calcluating is not in itself a problem: That idea is thematically of a piece with the show I’ve watched for seven years. I don’t have a problem with “The Good Wife” reinforcing that idea.

I do have a problem with the show reinforcing that idea via a very contrived, late-in-the-game sub-plot, I do have problems with ultra-convenient revelations, and I really have a problem with that whole mess determining that Diane and Alicia went out as enemies. Why was that necessary? 

“The Good Wife” is one of the most explicitly feminist shows in recent memory: A lot of the finale continued to explore many of the show’s core questions, which often revolved around one woman’s resistance to the idea that she had to conform to certain ideas about likability, ambition and spousal fidelity. At its best, “The Good Wife” has quietly but furiously depicted the kinds of limitations women bump up against, despite their competence, and the frustrations they feel as a result.

That’s all good. Why undo the idea that ambitious women can get along together, and even be friends and allies, despite differences in their agendas, with a slap straight out of “Melrose Place”? I understand that the slap is a callback to Alicia’s slap of Peter all those years ago, but that doesn’t make this slap carry any less sting. These are different situations, and these women slapping each other has a different context. It bothered me, and it gave the finale a sour flavor, frankly. 

To have the final scene of the show depict one accomplished, complicated woman striking another accomplished, complicated woman is tiresome at best and reductive and regressive at worst. A catfight, really, at this late date? A scene of two women fighting over a man has to be some kind of reverse-Bechdel Test fail, and I’m not going to pretend to like it, just as I didn’t like the contrivance of the abrupt and silly subplot involving Holly earlier this season.

In any event, there was a strange, dream-like quality to that final scene. Who hasn’t dreamed of running down a hallway filled with an urgent need to find someone, only to discover that person wasn’t there? I almost wondered if the hallway sequence was all in Alicia’s head, but it clearly wasn’t. The final slap broke the dream trance and made the eternally resilient Alicia cry, but it didn’t break her. Nothing can break her now.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to the viewer, but I think that idea — that she is a survivor — makes sense as the thought the show wanted to go out on, though, again, I have objections to how some of the last moments played out.

Though I didn’t love how the choice was depicted, I can’t necessarily fault the idea that Alicia made a definite choice regarding Peter’s case. It was a tough call, but she had to pick between her work family and her actual family, and she chose the latter. The most successful parts of the finale were the ones in which she meditated on what it had all been for (hi, Will!). Ultimately, Alicia decided that her family needed some closure so that they could truly move on and work as a unit, even a fractured unit. With Peter doing a year of probation, Grace could go to college, her other kid could do .. whatever it is he does, and she and Peter could divorce. Finally, she could start her new life (with Jason, one hopes).

Alicia has probably lost her job at her former firm; I can’t see her and Diane working together after this. But she has a new job — running for office. This is only hinted at in the last hour, but I’ve long thought that the biggest missed opportunity of “The Good Wife” was not showing Alicia actually serving in elected office. There were long stretches in which I got bored with Peter’s various campaigns and Alicia’s own campaign had some dull spots, but I always wanted to see how she’d actually do if she was the State’s Attorney.

Let’s face it, Alicia, especially as depicted in the last few seasons, had all the qualities an effective politician needs: She doesn’t much care whether people like her, but she can put up a palatable front so that they vote for her. She’s tough and not much gets to her, and she doesn’t let her vulnerabilities show unless they work to her advantage. She’s a master of controlling her image and she actually has the tenacity to get things done. 

It probably would have been a pretty great season of TV if the drama had spent some time showing Alicia making the tough decisions of an elected politician. Perhaps the reunion movie will cover that? The reunion movie I hope the Kings and the cast make in a few years, that is.

A lot of what transpired before that final scene was good, solid “Good Wife” trial-based storytelling. There were reversals and surprises and ups and downs; there was a jovially eccentric judge and this show’s version of stunt casting (real-life superstar lawyer David Boies).

But it was really about Alicia figuring out what she wanted, once and for all. “I don’t know if I care anymore,” Alicia said laconically at one point, in reference to Peter’s latest legal problems. It was hard not to agree, because, oy vey, the amount of hoops people have had to jump through for that one entitled man. But the Kings, who wrote the episode, did a good job of walking Alicia through her life options, bringing her back into contact with characters like Cary, and getting her in a room with Will once again.

Grief is a weird thing; it ebbs and flows and resists logic. That’s why it made sense that as momentous decisions occupied Alicia’s days, her nights and private moments would be overtaken by thoughts of Will, the one who got away, the one who died before she could truly make up her mind to be with him. Those scenes were beautifully acted by Josh Charles and Margulies, and it was lovely to have her say a proper, resonant goodbye to Will before heading into an unknown and ambiguous future.

As for the goodbyes to Peter, those scenes were less momentous and, all things considered, less interesting. In the “Sliding Doors” scenario scored by the great Regina Spektor song “Better,” there was no tension in the Peter scenario, given that those two settled into an unspectacular and pragmatic friendship long ago. I often thought the show should have kicked Peter to the curb years ago, but it made some sense in the finale to have him wrestle with something many others (including this viewer) have known for a while: Alicia has long been a better candidate for public office than her husband.

In any event, my mixed emotions about the finale sound about right.

In the whole home stretch of “The Good Wife,” I have been beset by a wide range of thoughts about its impending exit. I knew I’d miss its intelligence and its wit and the fact that it was about complex people who l openly enjoyed being good at their jobs (an aspect of life that too few shows dwell on). I’d miss its willingness to be adventurous and subversive and the fact that it could introduce judges and supporting character that were often fantastically memorable after less than five minutes of screen time. I’d miss the winningly no-nonsense Lucca (ace late addition Cush Jumbo) and the sexy vibe between Alicia and Jason. Not that the chemistry between Morgan and star Margulies wasn’t electric, but it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that Morgan’s scruffy beard alone would be capable of creating incendiary sparks with an inanimate object.

Despite the fact that “The Good Wife” long reigned as the best broadcast network drama on TV, in recent seasons, it was obvious that it was time for the show to go. Another season — especially if creators Robert and Michelle King weren’t steering the ship —  would have likely been mostly an embarrassing and floundering spectacle. Of course, there were dud episodes and sub-plots every season, and the Kings weren’t necessarily wrong to point out that making 22 really good episodes of TV every season isn’t easy. But in the seventh and final season, there were notably more of subplots and segues that were, at best, time-fillers and at worst, eyeroll-inducing. For instance, there were long periods throughout its run in which “The Good Wife” didn’t quite know what to do with Diane, so it would make her engage in some silly side plot or court case, and the recent one in which she lost her temper to Holly felt contrived and overly petty.

All “Good Wife” fans could describe elements throughout the show’s run that they never wanted to see again (a partial list from me: Most scenes on Peter’s campaign bus, Kalinda’s seeming inability to escape Lemond Bishop’s kitchen, and just about every scene involving David Lee or Howard Lyman. Also I’m still sore about the fact that Alicia never slept with Finn Polmar; there may be a class-action suit in the offing about that.)

Of course, there were many more things to love about this show, and one of the great things about it was that, week to week, you never knew what you were going to get. That 22-episode order could be burden, especially in an era in which cable seasons were typically 13 episodes and done — and some shows these days only knock out only six or eight episodes in a season. But a drama with only eight or 10 or 13 episodes can’t make many side trips or experiment much, whereas some of “The Good Wife’s” best arcs and moments came as the result of experimentation. 

As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out recently, a show with 22 episodes to work with can play, and during the past seven years, very few broadcast network dramas even came close to “The Good Wife’s” spirit of adventure and lively curiosity. One week, we were inside the NSA; the next, we could be sitting in on a juicy divorce, speeding through bond court, or witnessing a weird passive-aggressive battle between Alicia and one of her delightful nemises (Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning, Mamie Gummer’s Nancy Crozier, Martha Plimpton’s Patti Nyholm, Anna Camp’s Caitlin; the list goes on).

If I were to only list great recurring characters, I’d be here all night, but who won’t miss Elspeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), her wonderfully odd ex-husband Mike Tascioni (Will Patton), Tim Guinee’s Andrew Wiley (the investigator/dad who always had his kids in tow), Lucca, Eli’s daughter Marissa (Sarah Steele), who stole every scene she was in. For all the terrifically entertaining judges it brought us over the years, I will forgive “The Good Wife” for introducing the word ChumHum into my vocabulary. Probably. Someday.

(Does the fact that the show pulled off at least a dozen landmark episodes like “Red Team, Blue Team” mean that I have to forgive it for the preposterous green-screen disaster of the final Kalinda-Alicia scene? Hm, not sure. Ask me after my third shot of tequila).

Anyway, it’s appropriate that the show’s final run was such a prickly, wonderful, annoying, enjoyable, alluring, frustrating experience. This last season was like the drama’s lead character: Inscrutable, unpredictable, thoughtful, engaging, a little self-indulgent and never simple.

Like the people around Alicia, I never quite knew what to make of the polished, intelligent lawyer, and the fact that “The Good Wife” brought such an unapologetically complicated woman to broadcast network TV is the show’s biggest accomplishment. Whether you loved her or disliked her or simply couldn’t figure her out, it wasn’t easy to take your eyes off Alicia.

Alicia never pandered to our desire to know exactly who she was and exactly what she wanted. I raise a glass of red wine to “The Good Wife,” and for all the ways in which it confounded us, satisfied us and kept us guessing. 

A few final thoughts:

  • Now that “The Good Wife” is off the air, what’s your contender for smartest broadcast network drama? My nominee would be “Jane the Virgin,” but the CW program trends toward comedy so perhaps it doesn’t qualify. If you have a contender to nominate as finest broadcast network drama currently airing, leave it in the comments.
  • Spinoffs I would accept: “Elsbeth and Mike,” a legal dramedy set at an all-Tascioni law firm, from the viewpoint of the dog. “Legal Jeopardy,” in which Lucca and Jason investigate and try cases, with occasional appearances from Jason’s girlfriend, a high-powered lawyer from Chicago. I’d also accept a “Rockford Files” remake starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
  • All the judges we saw here should just start popping up on other law dramas, eternally. This is reasonable. In my opinion.

 

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