Why ‘The Good Wife’ Didn’t Earn That Ending

'Good Wife' Finale: Objections to the
Courtesy CBS

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

During the past few seasons, “The Good Wife” has poked fun at Prestige Drama cliches by giving viewers scenes of Alicia watching a pretentious show called “Darkness at Noon.” Viewers could debate which overwrought drama “The Good Wife” was making fun of — maybe it was “Low Winter Sun,” perhaps it was the second season of “True Detective,” or maybe the mockery was targeting another ambitious drama that took itself far too seriously. It didn’t really matter which show “The Good Wife” was dragging, because most of us got — and enjoyed — the joke.

Satirizing some of the most tiresome tropes of dramatic television served a few purposes for “The Good Wife”: It made the CBS show seem more enjoyable by comparison to some fictional, pompous, macho mess, and it made the adjacent point that a broadcast network program churning out more than 20 episodes per season simply didn’t have the time or energy to engage in self-important grandiosity and unremitting bleakness.

So here’s my question for “The Good Wife”: Why did it spend a good chunk of its finale contorting itself into “Darkness at Noon”?

Your honor, the show asserted facts not in evidence. Many, many aspects of the final sequence of scenes in “The Good Wife” didn’t make any sense, on a plot level, on a thematic level or on a story level. Trying to pull off that slap and trying to make it fit with the contortions that preceded it was like watching a slick TV lawyer trying to get something dubious past a judge on a technicality by employing some fast talking and some very hinky arguments. 

Motion denied.

As I noted in my first assessment of the finale, I don’t necessarily have an issue with “The Good Wife” — or any other show — having a dark ending. The problem is, “The Good Wife” didn’t earn its dark ending. It’s as if it wanted to go out the way “Breaking Bad” did, but it didn’t want to have to do the heavy lifting and the multiple seasons of set-up to get there.  

“The Good Wife” wanted to assert that, in the end, Alicia Florrick was completely alone. She’d cut herself off from Diane, Peter and pretty much everyone else in her orbit, and Jason was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’d be around, maybe he wouldn’t: We didn’t deserve to know. In any event, in the finale’s closing moments, Alicia betrayed her closest work colleague and in doing so, blew up her job and a substantial part of her future. After seven seasons of a pretty good and sometimes great legal show about a complex woman with good and bad tendencies, we’re supposed to be OK with the idea that she was isolated, calculating and cold-hearted at the end.

The problem with that ending is not that it’s too dark — I love a bracing dash of nihilism! But only when it is of a piece with what came before. “The Good Wife” wanted to be “Breaking Bad” in that moment, but it ended up being “Darkness at Noon,” because it did not lead us to that slap and that hallway through inexorable and irresistible storytelling choices.

As I said in a recent podcast, it’s as if the drama put a 10-foot tall cupola on top of a two-foot tall house made of Legos, and called it an architectural masterpiece. Well, no. There’s nothing wrong with Lego houses or with life-size cupolas, but one can’t support the weight of the other.

While I stipulate that I did love the best parts of the show’s run, the ending was so hasty, sloppy and poorly conceived that, yes, it does affect how I view the rest of the final season, and even certain aspects of the show in general. If nothing else, I don’t feel my patience with the show’s last couple of seasons was rewarded by that ending. In season seven, I sat through almost no Louis Canning and had to endure Howard Lyman’s dating life for that? Oy

I get that it’s hard to end anything, especially after seven seasons of variable themes, tones and characterizations. The best episodes of “The Good Wife” had structural integrity, thematic richness and beguiling characterizations. The finale had too little of all those things, and it had a lot of other problems as well. 

Here are just a few of the objections I have, your honor:

  • Alicia didn’t just throw Diane under the bus (more on that in a moment), she threw Lucca under the bus too, and so did the storytelling. It makes zero sense for Lucca to publicly air Diane’s dirty laundry in open court, with no warning to the woman who was her boss, by the way. By doing that, Lucca almost surely got herself fired from the firm Diane runs. Why would Lucca do that? Why would the show assert that she would do that with no explanation and no qualms? There was no scene of Lucca and Alicia conferring over how Lucca’s career would be or was damaged, and discussing the steps they could take to deal with the fallout. We’re just supposed to take it on faith that would Lucca severely damage her career for Alicia … for reasons? What reasons? Sure, she’s zealously defending Peter as a client, but at the cost of her job? And Alicia making Lucca do that in the first place is pretty gross. If Alicia was going to sell out Diane, the least she could do is insert the knife herself. (Sidebar: The finale conference-room scene of Diane and Alicia loudly arguing while ignoring a woman of color said a lot about how the show treated its non-white characters. They were sort of important until they weren’t, and then they tended to disappear or become afterthoughts. One of “The Good Wife’s” biggest missed opportunities was not giving Cush Jumbo far more to do. Think about a final season with a time jump in which Alicia was State’s Attorney, Lucca was one of her chief lieutenants and Cary and Diane were among her most frequent adversaries. That sure sounds fun to me, but what do I know?)
  • I’m not the only one confused about when Kurt was sleeping with Holly. This aspect of this contrived cheating subplot was very badly handled, and given that the storyline contained defining aspects of Diane’s exit arc, that’s completely unfair to a character the show too often treated poorly in the past. If Kurt and Holly were sleeping together before Kurt and Diane were an item, so what? The Diane I know wouldn’t care much about that. But we don’t know what Diane knew or assumed: Were they sleeping together during her marriage to Kurt, or before that point? It’s an important distinction, but it remains unclear. Diane seems unreasonable if she objects to Kurt having slept with other women before her, but it’s reasonable of her to be profoundly angry with him if, after they decided to be exclusive, he slept with Holly. It’s sadly typical of the way the show tended to treat Diane that there is little clarity on this point, and it’s really problematic that “The Good Wife” introduced this storyline and then didn’t do it any kind of reasonable justice. But it would appear that to the show, it doesn’t matter whether Diane comes off an unreasonable, vengeful person or a very hurt spouse. Those are two different things with two different meanings, but to “The Good Wife,” clarifying that characterization just didn’t matter. 
  • My jaw dropped when I read an interview the Kings gave the day after the finale. Robert King talked to Variety about the infamous slap, and here’s part of what he said: “[W]e were with Alicia at the party episode, two back. And we saw Alicia watch Diane and Kurt McVeigh huddling and kissing, and her jealousy in many ways of their relationship. And you can’t say that that didn’t play into this end.” Wait, what? For seven seasons, this program asserted that women could be confident, complicated and sexy — and it rewarded Diane for being all those things by giving her a relationship with an intelligent man who loved her charisma and power — but in the end, “The Good Wife” burned that idea to the ground, certainly where Diane was concerned. To review, we left “The Good Wife” with Kurt and Diane’s relationship in tatters, and probably over for good. “The Good Wife” was the rare drama to show us a woman of a certain age who had a dynamic career and a thriving personal life, and on the way out the door, the show said, “Psych!” and casually destroyed that idea. That decision wasn’t just a highly questionable and extremely disappointing thing to do to Diane and to the show’s depiction of women, it comes in a context of TV’s problematic history in all these arenas. Male characters get to have enviable jobs and interesting personal lives all the time, whereas it’s still a struggle to see women, especially women over 40, who receive those kinds of well-rounded depiction as a matter of course. But sure, let’s exit “The Good Wife” with a jealous woman ruining a married woman’s happiness — a female friend’s happiness — and let’s have that second woman wrap up her arc by slapping her former friend. Let’s just take these gender politics back to the Stone Age, why not?
  • So, all this was done for Peter? Several people’s lives have been seriously damaged, again, all to get him out of a jam? If only he’d seemed worth it, but he’d mostly been a drag on the show since the middle of its run. He basically brought nothing to Alicia’s life but problems and complaints — but she burned everything down for his benefit? That’s the arc of Alicia’s story? That is not only profoundly meh, it is distinctly odd that a lot of these contortions occurred so that Grace would not… take a gap year? I can’t think of a less compelling reason to do so much damage, but maybe that’s just me. In any event, I’m having twitchy flashbacks to certain sloppy seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” in which every preposterous decision that occurred rested on the existence of some bad guy in Ireland whom we’d met for five minutes at some point in the past. Suffice it to say, Alicia’s cost-benefit analysis certainly looks way, way off to me. In order to shave down the time Peter would serve by a year or two or bump his punishment down to probation, Alicia blew up her job and her chance to be a name partner with a friend, torpedoed Lucca’s job, destroyed Diane’s life and ensured that she’d be alone at the end. (Let’s leave aside the weird, troubling ethics of Alicia negotiating with Fox, Diane and her spouse being deeply involved in this case, etc.) The more I think about it, the stranger it is that this was all about Grace not deferring college for a year or Peter, heaven forbid, having to don the jumpsuit for a few more months. Sure, OK, seems legit.
  • Why was so much of the finale about Peter and his convoluted case, anyway? Why was this entire closing arc not primarily about a woman named Alicia Florrick? That case Matthew Morrison’s character brought in these last few weeks became the Thing that Ate Cleveland, and the best part of it was the weird lawyer with the dog, but he’s been gone for a while. The final weeks and/or season could have shown Alicia and Lucca expanding their own firm, partnering with Canning, establishing a new, all-female firm with Diane, taming unicorns or riding a rocketship into space. Literally anything would have been more fun than this old case that we were supposed to care about a lot but had very little to do with anything of current relevance to the show’s universe.
  • At the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the idea that the Kings were far too wedded to the idea of circularity. There was a slap in the first episode, so there must be a slap in the final one. Why? Was a piece of TV legislation passed by Congress when I wasn’t looking? Tony Soprano didn’t try to feed some ducks in the “Sopranos” finale. Circularity is not a virtue in and of itself.

Of course, callbacks to a show’s first episode in a finale can be a lot of fun. “The Good Wife’s” last hour had plenty of those, and that’s all it needed. It didn’t need need a slap — or if it was going to engineer one, it needed to start that process much, much earlier than it did. It needed to lead up to that moment for at least a few seasons. It didn’t.

During these last couple of seasons, which weren’t quite at the level of the first five often great years, it gave us a show about an interesting woman who found herself in a lot of different kinds of legal, moral and ethical situations. Sometimes she made bad or selfish decisions, but more often made creative, smart and challenging ones. She had friends and lovers whom she relied on who were also smart and often cool, but flawed.

Alicia could be cold and cruel sometimes, but she could be empathic and caring at others. This finale came down forcefully on one of those sides, and by in doing so in a sloppy, rushed and inconsistent fashion, it wasted a lot of the goodwill the show had accrued over time.

“The Good Wife” could be daring and risk-taking in some of the subject matters and topics it took on. It had fun with structure on an episodic level, but it never quite nailed the kind of season-long structures and arcs that its cable cousins were more likely to pull off. It was, in the end, a fairly conventional show. That is not an insult. It tried to entertain us, and that’s a good thing, and more shows should try to do that. But at the last minute, it lost faith in itself and became dismissive about the world it had created and the audience it had cultivated, just to chase some extremely debatable ideas about what constitutes “great” TV. 

I’d make further arguments in this case, but I’ve got some TV to watch. I hear “Darkness at Noon” got really good this season.

The finale of “The Good Wife” was discussed on the most recent episode of the Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.