CBS’ The Good Wife ended Sunday night on a note of deep, deliberate ambiguity that, for all its clever dodging of definitiveness, struck an oddly incorrect note.
Nothing changes the fact that this was the best network drama of the past 20 years or so. Mad Men, by contrast, may have concluded on a note of crystalline, acidic perfection, but the show itself was often bafflingly uneven. I’ll take Good Wife.
I mean, it’s not as if Kalinda Sharma lept out of the bathtub with a knife.
Spoiler warning: For those who haven’t seen The Good Wife series finale, plot details will follow.
In the very last scene, in a clever return to the series’ beginnings, Peter Florrick was expecting extremely estranged wife Alicia (Julianna Margulies) to stand by his side as he resigned the governorship. (He had been indicted for meddling in a criminal case involving the son of a donor. Was he guilty? Given that Chris Noth played him – exceptionally well – with a look of stern, skulking displeasure, possibly.)
Alicia agreed to appear with him, proving the essential assessment of her character by her friend and colleague, Lucca (Cush Jumbo): “You tend to confuse responsibility and love.”
That was the entire show in a nutshell.
And yet Alicia, leaning for the moment toward romance, toward the impulses of the heart, pulled away from Peter at his press conference and went off and down a corridor in pursuit of her lover, investigator Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). But she found no Jason and no fire escape out of which he might have ducked. Did she imagine she’d seen him?
Jason, in fact, might have gotten fed up being asked by Alicia and company to ferret out tantalizing fragments of exculpatory evidence to rescue Peter, who happened to be his rival. The poor man’s name was Jason, not Job.
Instead Alicia was confronted by law partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), who chose this pinchedly intense moment to air her own issues with Alicia: Diane’s husband, ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole), had also been drawn into the trial, and in an especially vicious cross-examination by the defense – in other words, by his wife’s firm – had been compromised both as a professional and a husband.
And so Diane, face to face with Alicia, slapped her. Then strode off. It all seemed so wildly dramatic, you wondered if Alicia had imagined this, too. After all, she’d spent portions of the episode in a kind of fugue state, mentally wandering in and out of conversations (not just flashbacks – conversations with Josh Charles’ Will Gardner, the murdered love of her life).
But Alicia reeled – the slap was real – and her eyes were wet with tears as she was left alone, with no one to tell her where to go next, whether to the left or right in that godforsaken corridor. (This is why politicians have aides.) She was just there, in the corridor.
Well, we’re all just in the corridor, aren’t we, wondering what to do next? Although most of us haven’t just been slapped by Christine Baranski or disappointed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And yet this is an all too – what? – existentially convenient a way to leave Alicia.
To some degree it echoes the famous (and, at the time, very controversial) open-ended conclusion to The Sopranos. But that conclusion, while evasive, was an ironically archetypal image of a suburban American family who were, as we knew from the start, trying to fool themselves that their whole way of life wasn’t based on murder and crime.
Alicia, on the other hand, was possibly on the cusp of becoming a significant political figure. She had never been archetypal, or average – to play the “good” political wife, she merely pretended to be – and perhaps she now had the potential to be out and out extraordinary. That, at any rate, was the insight of Peter’s campaign manager, Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), in one of the finale’s sharpest scenes. Eli, realizing that Peter had no more future in politics than Richard Nixon – I’m referring here to a dead Richard Nixon – had begun advising donors to funnel money away from Peter and toward Alicia. On receiving this information, Peter looked as if he’d felt the explosive impact of a torpedo in each of his loafers.
But mightn’t Alicia, alone in that corridor, instead of looking like a beautifully but rather conventionally distraught heroine, have been given the option to display a slight gleam of ambition in her eye and to say, “I think I’ll give Eli a call”? Or, “If Peter wants to stay in politics, he can be Bill Clinton to my Hillary. Let him start a foundation, if he’s so determined to be viable.”
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Perhaps this is what she’d do, anyway. Perhaps, even now, she and Eli are texting about focus groups and slogans. (“Unleash Alicia!”) But it didn’t feel that way.
Hadn’t the show been moving us beyond the question of how much Alicia should be defined by whom she loved? Or by who loved her? The episode’s scenes with Will were a kind, sentimental gesture to fans, but by now I’d learned to feel Will more strongly by his absence than his presence. Was he even necessary this time?
While we’re at it: Should the show, at the very end, have redefined Diane, a powerful attorney, as a woman betrayed, boiling over with the desire to strike out and strike back?