Midway through the penultimate episode of The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick is presented with evidence of yet another one of her husband Peter’s infidelities. Alicia, who’s long been secretly estranged from Peter, is unfazed by the news, viewing it simply as useful to his defense in a corruption trial, until she notices that the man who brought it to her – rival lawyer Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) – seems disappointed by her lack of emotion.
“Were you wanting me to cry, Mr. Canning?” she asks, before screwing her face up like Lucille Ball’s and pretending to sob as she wails, “Oh my god, I thought my husband no longer cheated!”
As Alicia’s expression reverts to its familiar blankness, an impressed Canning admits, “God, I love you.”
“I know,” Alicia replies.
That moment’s striking not only because it’s one of the few genuinely entertaining scenes in what’s been a slog to the finish line for a once-excellent series, but because it’s so rare, even at this late date, to see Alicia completely drop the politician’s wife mask she spent decades hiding behind, even long after she stopped being a politician’s wife in anything but name. If I took off my shoes and socks, I’d probably have a couple of fingers and toes left over from counting all the previous times in the series that Alicia had been as open and direct as she is there with Canning.
TV has offered plenty of dramas built around men who hide their emotions from the world around them — just look at Dexter, which had its own stumbles in its final years (hopefully, Alicia won’t also run off to become a lumberjack) — but female protagonists tend to be more open about their feelings at all times, just as society in general expects women to be. Every now and then, you’ll see a China Beach or a Nurse Jackie built around a woman who doesn’t like to show her true face very often, but no show has dealt with the struggle to defy societal expectations and keep one’s feelings under tight wraps as often, or as well, as The Good Wife.
We met Alicia at the lowest moment of her life: another one of those poor political spouses who for some godforsaken reason stands beside her man as he apologizes for a scandal that’s brought abject humiliation on them both. She had put a promising law career on hold for decades to support Peter’s career even as he was cheating on her with both co-workers and prostitutes, and to raise two kids she’s not even sure that she likes. To survive this most public of implosions and attempt a second act more to her satisfaction, she not only didn’t drop the mask, but kept it more tightly affixed than ever. In nearly every situation, her celebrity put all eyes in the room on her, and she resolved to never let those eyes see any more than she absolutely had to show them: a cool professional who speaks only when necessary, and who’s much better at reading other people than she’ll ever allow them to be at reading her.
Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King used that as the starting point for a traditionally-structured legal drama in the vein of L.A. Law or The Practice, mixing done-in-one cases with longer arcs about the characters’ personal lives and their battles to control the law firm. But having Alicia as the heroine added complicated layers to the formula, breathing new life into familiar material simply because of how she reacted to it, and how others reacted to her. Early on, everyone — Peter (Chris Noth), judges, opposing counsel, her mentor and potential love interest Will (Josh Charles), Will’s partner Diane (Christine Baranski), Alicia’s fellow associate Cary (Matt Czuchry), and Peter’s fixer Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) — assumed she had some hidden agenda that they couldn’t quite identify. We were privy to the fact that her goal at that stage was mere survival, and while her reserve occasionally created more problems than it solved (particularly in her early rivalry with Cary), the assumption that she was up to something often worked to her benefit.
Alicia did find one confidante in the firm’s investigator Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), but real-world issues derailed their friendship. At the exact midpoint of the series (the 11th episode of season 4) — for reasons that everyone involved has done an impressive, Alicia Florrick-esque job of keeping secret — the two stopped physically appearing in scenes together. They would occasionally talk on the phone, and the show was forced to resort to green screen to have them appear to be drinking together in Panjabi’s farewell episode, but the friendship more or less ceased to exist long before Kalinda skipped town, rendering Alicia even more armored than before.
For most of its run, The Good Wife had to shoulder the burden of being called The Last Great Broadcast Network Drama. Never mind that its lifespan overlapped with Parenthood, Hannibal, Scandal, and a few other broadcast shows that, at their respective peaks, equaled or bettered the best that it had to offer. Good Wife was the one still going toe-to-toe at the Emmys with the big boys from cable and streaming outfits. At the moment, its 2011 nomination for outstanding drama series is the last for a traditional broadcaster in that category, and while it surely won’t be the last one ever, it seems increasingly likely (as Linda Holmes pondered on Twitter last week) that it will be the last one to produce 22 episodes (or more) per season. If a broadcast drama is going to muscle its way back into the awards picture, it’s sure to be one with a shorter season and a heavily-serialized format.
The Good Wife was not that. It was, like most of CBS’ drama programming, a defiant throwback, albeit one that tried to find new twists on old structures in the same way Grey’s Anatomy has with hospital drama tropes. Given the show’s fascination with the difference between Alicia’s public and private lives, it’s unsurprising that the Kings would be excited by the many ways that technology is rewriting expectations for our own privacy, as the firm got mixed up with both a fake Google and a group of NSA analysts who were keeping tabs on Alicia as much for their personal entertainment as for the idea that she could somehow lead them to evidence of terrorism or corruption. Some of these stories were lively, while others felt like your Aunt Wendy trying to seem cool by breathlessly telling you about some Mashable article her friend forwarded her.
It’s asking a lot of any drama these days to fill 22 hours a season (23 for Good Wife‘s first two years), though it had its unexpected advantages. The series’ one consistently great stretch of episodes — the period at the start of season 5 when Alicia and Cary left to start their own firm, going to war with Diane and Will in the process — came about more or less as a fluke, inspired by what was meant to be a filler episode the previous season where the senior partners and the associates competed against each other in a mock trial. As good as the Kings had been at creating and casting sketchy outside lawyers for our heroes to face — not only Canning, who exploits his physical illness to gain sympathy with judges and juries, but the eccentrically brilliant Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston), the deceptively ruthless Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton), and many others — they realized the show became much juicier when the conflict was happening between the core characters.
The civil war arc unfortunately didn’t even last a full season, ending after Will died in a courtroom shooting because Charles wanted off the show. Soon, Diane was joining Alicia and Cary’s firm, then merging it with the original firm, then forcing Alicia out, then pulling her back in, then pushing Cary out so she could turn it into a female-led firm, and on, and on, as the Kings’ allergy to maintaining a status quo for more than three episodes gradually sank the show. The creative death knell was not only Alicia’s improbable decision to run for Peter’s old job as Cook County States Attorney — which flew in the face of everything she had come to value about keeping the world at large out of her business — but the fact that she lost the job shortly after the election over a scandal she had nothing to do with, meaning the show had to go back to the same game of law firm musical chairs that had long since exhausted itself. This final season has been a complete mess, including this full-circle plotline of Peter being on trial again, which has at times left Alicia oddly on the sidelines of her own show. I’m not sure what outcome, if any, would satisfy me in the finale, short of maybe a Margulies/Panjabi detente that allowed the two actors to unequivocally be in the same room one more time.
That the series was able to so often be very good, and at times great, through its first 100-odd episodes would be an impressive feat in any era, but particularly remarkable at a time when almost no one makes dramas like this anymore. The Kings, acutely aware of the more restrictive programming model they had to operate in, and envious of the greater freedom and acclaim their cable rivals got, introduced a show-within-the-show called Darkness At Noon, parodying the kinds of gritty anti-hero cable dramas that were always treated as more prestigious than their own series. And each year at Emmy time, they would give interviews arguing that they should be granted degree of difficulty points for making the show at CBS, with all that entails.
That’s not the way life works, though, as the Kings’ heroine could tell them, assuming she felt it was to her benefit to be honest with a pair of strangers. Alicia knows that the world isn’t fair, and that as the wife of an infamous politician — or, simply, as a woman — she’s held to different standards than many of the people she works with and against. Alicia never asks for special treatment, never sheds genuine crocodile tears in front of people like Louis Canning. She puts her head down, does the work, and tries to figure out a path that allows her to leave any situation with her dignity — and her secrets — intact.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org