Season finale review: ‘The Good Wife’ – ‘What’s in the Box?’

A review of “The Good Wife” season finale coming up just as soon as I watch “Hostel 3″…

“What’s in the Box?” was so much fun for so much of its running time – a blend of everything the show does well: a twisty case mixing the legal with the political, and a murderer’s row of guest stars(*) from familiar faces like Martha Plimpton, Dylan Baker, Ana Gasteyer and Denis O’Hare to first-timers like the great Estelle Parsons as Nana Joe – that I actually felt extra disappointed when the final moments seemed to be returning to the Alicia/Will/Peter love triangle. Despite game performances from all three actors involved, Alicia’s romantic life has never been as compelling as her professional life, and to have an entire season of fascinating ups and downs at Lockhart Gardner build simply to Alicia choosing one guy over the other seemed a fundamental misunderstanding of what “The Good Wife” does best.

(*) A few weeks back, I wrote about the show’s gift for writing juicy roles for its guest stars. BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur did me one better with an insanely exhaustive ranking of 76 “Good Wife” recurring guests. Whether or not you agree with the exact placement, seeing all those names and faces on one page is a stunning reminder of how good the show is at this area (and, as a 22-episode per season legal procedural, it needs to churn through guests a lot more than, say, “Breaking Bad”).

But though the Kings have made some miscalculations over the years (Kalinda’s husband chief among them), they made the absolute right choice here. The revelation that it was Cary, and not Will, at Alicia’s door was the perfect note to end this season on, and a great set-up for a season 5.

I didn’t have time to write about last week’s episode, but it was one of several episodes this season shining a light on the idea that, while we root for Lockhart-Gardner to succeed because it’s where Alicia works, the partners – not just David Lee, but white hats Diane and Will – often do shady things in the name of self-interest. Given the way they were screwed out of their partnerships, it’s no wonder that Cary and the other fourth years would quit to start their own firm. And given Alicia’s own growing disillusionment with her mentors, it’s not a surprise that she would choose to follow Cary out the door, even if it means continued exposure to Colin Sweeney.

And what’s great about the move is how many possibilities it creates on both the professional and personal sides of the series. Not only will we have both Alicia and Cary competing against the old firm (a kind of parallel narrative, just like on “Mad Men” with Peggy and Ted Chaough), but Alicia has now likely burned her bridges with Will; does this mean she’s going to give it a more serious go with Peter (even after she bailed on his victory party and acceptance speech), or will she be going it alone again?

Besides offering our first Patti Nyholm appearance since last season’s finale(**), the complicated case involving the tampered ballot box was an example of the show using its plot twists to good effect rather than to just keep the story hopping. Because both sides had to keep switching positions – and, at one point, had to team up in federal court to stop Jordan – it was a reminder of how so many characters on the series take positions not out of moral stands but personal expedience, and nicely set up Will and Kalinda’s discovery that it was Peter’s own people who stuffed the box. Peter’s been treated as more of a good guy this season, but he will never be a saint, especially when he’s involved in Illinois politics, and moral ambiguity is the territory where “The Good Wife” best operates.

(**) It appears based on her “Raising Hope” schedule and contract, Plimpton’s usually available to pop up at or near the end of each “Good Wife” season.

And that’s another reason I’m looking forward to the new set-up. As much as Alicia and Cary might believe they can run things differently from Diane and Will, when their anchor clients are likely to include Colin Sweeney, Lemond Bishop and Chumhum, they’re likely going to have to make the same kind of moral compromises they turned up their noses at as associates.

The mark of a great season finale is one that  makes you look as fondly as possible on the season that just ended even as it’s exciting you about what’s coming next. “What’s in the Box?” did both those things, and Kalinda’s husband is now an extremely distant memory.

What did everybody else think?