8:32pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Good Wife' Series Finale Brings Alicia Florrick Full Circle
[This article discusses the Sunday, May 8 series finale of The Good Wife, complete with all the spoilers you'd expect.]
You probably don't need to be reminded of this, but the pilot for The Good Wife began with a close-up on the hands of Peter and Alicia Florrick as they arrived at a press conference announcing his resignation as State's Attorney of Cook County. As Peter admitted to his failure of judgment, Alicia stood by his side, unreadable. Afterwards, in the hallway, he asked if she was alright and she slapped him.
It's been pretty clear for a month that as The Good Wife was approaching its finale, it was heading full circle, approaching another press conference, more held hands, another hallway confrontation, another chance for Alicia Florrick to stand by her husband, or perhaps to make different choices this time.
I don't think The Good Wife made that home stretch pivot especially gracefully — or especially full of Grace, though Alicia and Peter's daughter was the one member of their family who appeared in the finale after everybody else got their departing hugs two weeks ago. Did we really need Matthew Morrison's Connor Fox leading a multi-episode crusade to bring Peter down, lacking both nuance and motivation, unless you accept "justice" as a motivation, which The Good Wife has rarely, if ever, done. A show that was, at its best, about so many things and did justice to so many characters became increasingly monomaniacal as the only thing it was doing with any focus was gunning toward that press conference.
Sunday's series finale felt barely like a finale to a small corner of the series, much less to the entire vast world of the series. Grace was there, but Zach and various parents and siblings weren't present. Cary made a token appearance that tried to convince us that he'd always been destined to become an adjunct professor of law. David Lee wasn't there, nor were any of the show's army of recurring rival lawyers, nor was there time for any judge other than David Paymer's Judge Richard Cuesta. Lucca was reduced to giving Alicia romantic advice, Eli to a single scene defending directing donors to Alicia's future candidacy for something, as if the show completely forgot how briefly disgraced Alicia was last time they did that arc, an arc she wanted no part of anyway.
But we did get the return of Josh Charles as Ghost Will, as Alicia found herself stymied and trying to choose between Peter and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Jason, only to realize that several years after his death, Will is still the one Alicia loves, however inconvenient that is.
It's here I must ask: Was that what The Good Wife truly boiled down to in your vision of the show? Was it really a show about a woman choosing between the philandering husband she hadn't been interested in for seasons and the sandpaper-voiced man who gives her plots of Martianland as a goof or a ghost? Was it a love triangle or a love square at the end of the day? At best, Alicia was staying with Peter for the solvency of her family, but with Zach off wasting his life in Europe and Grace ostensibly going to Berkeley, what lure did Peter still have for her? None that the show could defend, other than Lucca's explanation that Alicia tended to "confuse responsibility and love." Kinda? If you believe that, I guess that's fine. The show only sometimes defended that contention, nor did it give a great argument for Jason's insistence that if Peter went to jail, Alicia would never divorce him. I don't buy it wholly and I especially don't buy it because the only characters the show had make the case were characters who barely knew Alicia. Sorry, Jason. You haven't earned the right to make broad, sweeping generalizations about a woman you've been sleeping with for a month unless you're trying to get an out clause for yourself. Ghost Will ended up advising Alicia to go with the man who was formerly Ghost Denny, but was that because Jason was who Alicia belonged with or because her choices were subpar? The latter, I'd say.
In the end, Peter didn't go to jail at all. The finale was a lot of negotiating between Alicia and Connor Fox and a lot of posturing about bullet evidence that Peter may or may not have buried related to a murder case involving a donor. Did he do it? Probably. Did the show give us any reason to care? Probably not. His career was already effectively over and prison or probation were only details. Maybe that's why Diane got so pissed off that Lucca, at Alicia's insistence, attempted to smear Kurt, Diane's ballistics expert husband. This finale was two women fighting to protect the integrity of their respective husbands, but only one of the husbands had integrity worth fighting for. Baranski's silent response to Lucca trying to pillory Kurt, culminating in Diane walking determinedly out of the courtroom, was a spectacular guarantee of another Emmy nod.
That's why Diane and not Alicia got to do the slapping as The Good Wife completed its circuit. I guess in the vernacular of the show, Diane got to be the unironic and unambiguous good wife and since Diane's reactions to Alicia have always been confusing and erratic, confronting her in the hallway and, without any words, slapping her made as much sense as anything. Alicia blew this one. She stood by Peter one step too many, stood by him past the point at which her support had value either to their family or for political optics. [UPDATE: At least one lawyer on Twitter has made the argument that Alicia and Lucca went after Kurt because that's what your job is in that case, to defend your client zealously. And you know how I know this is a valid point? Because Diane made it to Alicia earlier in the episode, telling her disheartened colleague, "He's your client. That's why you care." ]
In the closing moments, Diane Lockhart became the hero of The Good Wife, which was nice, but didn't make up for all of the lengthy stretches in which The Kings forgot that she existed or gave her nothing to do. Again, I don't know if that's what The Good Wife really was supposed to be about, women catfighting over how aggressively they chose to support their husbands, but that's what the finale was and if too many actors and characters were underserved, Diane and Baranski got to go out strong. [UPDATE: I confess to some confusion at the chronology of what Kurt did or didn't do and how that impacts things vis a vis Diane. I had one initial interpretation, but looking back, if things were in a different order, it changes the meaning. So I can interpret the slap several ways if I think about it.]
Alicia ended the series alone in that hallway, wiping away tears, adjusting her blouse and setting her chin. This was the correct ending, at least if we were stuck solving for romantic geometry. The idea that the conclusion of the show was going to be Alicia picking a man, either the same man or a different man or a ghost man, to stand by was probably a violation of the show's overall journey. But didn't she actually pick? She bolted off the podium and away from her husband racing after Jason's silhouette in the doorway, chasing him around the corner in the same hallway that was featured in the pilot, only to realize she was chasing nothing, that Jason wasn't there. The show never had the chance to make Jason truly substantive beyond Morgan's scruff and growl so, in its conclusion, Jason became a shadow, a ghost, an illusion, a delusion, a specter. He was no more Alicia's answer than Ghost Will. Alicia ran after the fantasy and Diane slapped sense into her, even if Diane was really just slapping her because she wanted to. So either you give Alicia credit for walking the hall alone, you pity Alicia for walking the hall alone or you scratch your head that Alicia's still having her head turned by ghosts and shadows. By this standard, the pilot began with Alicia slapping Peter, an act of independence, and going off to launch her own legal career, but the finale concluded with Alicia picking a hollow man, getting slapped and walking off into the mystery. That's sad, isn't it?
It's not bad, though. Not every show needs to end with a definitive choice and with satisfying resolution, be it positive or negative. Sometimes you can end with uncertainty. Alicia's going home to an apartment without kids and without any of her three male options (unless she and Ghost Will just spend eternity together). Professionally, she's either going back to the law firm she runs with a woman who just slapped her or she's planning another political run of some sort, even though the last time she did that, it wasn't good. If The Good Wife had ended with Alicia and Jason kissing as the music swelled, it would have made a lot of viewers happy and it would have been stupid.
I don't think The Good Wife did poorly by that last scene and the bittersweet nature of the very ending, but it felt like the show reached the end caring only a little about the 154 episodes between the premiere and the finale. That was a lot of show and a finale of fairly limited thematic scope, albeit great emotional range, down to oblivious Connor Fox basically telling Alicia to "smile" and Alicia offering a demure smile for a better deal for Peter, treating Connor with the contempt he deserved. Connor wanted to remember the Alicia he met long ago, the Alicia who made light jokes and talked only about her kids, basically a woman without any life of her own. That's not who we left the series with, but I'm not sure the show honored the new Alicia very much, nor did it honor the full range of concerns that drove the show.
This isn't to say that the finale of The Good Wife needed to be an Alicia Florrick, This Is Your Life segment with visits from Louis Canning and Finn Polmar and Lemond Bishop and Colin Sweeney, but I think that Cary Agos was more important to the show than the final season wanted to acknowledge. I think that slotting in Grace as a "Throwing dreams away to stand by Peter" parallel to Alicia was a weak proxy for what Alicia's family meant to her. And I know it was never going to happen, but if you're going to pretend that within the confines of the show, Will Gardner was essential to Alicia's moral compass, but nobody is even able to mention the name "Kalinda Sharma," something has been lost. As I wrote in my essay about the legacy of the show, The Good Wife was a show that did procedural storytelling well and the Peter case that dominated the home stretch was done horribly.
So the finale for The Good Wife was somewhat satisfying, somewhat fascinating and somewhat infuriating and muddled by missed opportunities. It was a perfect microcosm for the show.