Bold Ending, Bolder Show

Last week, one of my favorite shows, The Good Wife, called it quits after seven seasons.  For the uninitiated, the show tells the story of Alicia Florrick (played by the crazily talented Julianna Margulies), who works to rebuild her life after her husband Peter (Chris Noth), the State’s Attorney of Cook County, IL, resigns amid a sex and corruption scandal.  The show follows her return to the practice of law, and the various ups and downs in her relationships with Peter and others.  While the finale has enough material in it for an entire post, I’d like to zoom out a bit and talk about all the things that made the show one of my favorites, and why it deserves to be remembered well.

Probably what I most liked about The Good Wife was its boldness.  Many content creators choose to play it safe, telling a story or creating music that while compelling, is fundamentally inoffensive and will infrequently challenge fans (the band Daughtry has built a career out of this, and Royal Pains is a good TV example).  But Robert & Michelle King, the husband-wife duo behind TGW, did exactly the opposite.  In the later years of the show, they made some risky moves that kept the show fresh and interesting, but likely alienated some fans. One example was Alicia’s starting a new law firm and poaching several clients from the firm she currently worked at, Lockhart/Gardner.  This plotline produced one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, where an enraged Will Gardner (Josh Charles) confronts Alicia in a scene that is made all the more charged by their characters’ romantic history.

"I took you in.  I hired you.  I pushed for you."
“I took you in. I hired you. I pushed for you.”

A far bolder move came just ten episodes later, when Gardner was killed off after Josh Charles’s contract ran out.  One of his clients, traumatized by abuse he suffered in prison, grabs a policeman’s gun and shoots several people in the courthouse.  Will’s death came completely out of nowhere and sparked a revolt among some fans, but it definitely prevented the show from stagnating, which I feared it was in danger of doing after a series of weird plotlines which I’ll elaborate on below.

"He doesn't look like himself."
“He doesn’t look like himself.”

The somewhat ambiguous ending to the show may have been the creators’ most daring move of all.  Rather than tying everything up with a neat little bow and giving Alicia her happy-ever-after in which she divorces Peter and runs off into the sunset with new lover Jason Crouse, the audience is instead forced to confront the person she has become over the past seven years.  When the series started, Alicia was a broken woman.  But after she returns to her law career and gains confidence, there are hints that she has become just as ruthless and manipulative as Peter.  None more so than when she betrays her co-worker Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)  by undercutting her husband’s expert testimony and revealing that he had an affair.  While this was an important scene, I found it a bit disjointed, mostly because it wasn’t clear how Alicia knew about the affair and Diane didn’t.  Maybe she took a gamble and it paid off, who knows.  But Baranski’s performance in the scene where the betrayal is revealed was Emmy-worthy.

This brings me to another favorite part of the series: the characters.  Baranski’s performance as Diane was a great example of the sort of smart, strong female characters that are beginning to show up more and more in pop culture and media.  But she wasn’t just a “cold hard woman” stereotype either.  She had a good sense of humor too, and possibly the best laugh on television.  Her chemistry and repartee with Charles was electric, one of the best depictions of a platonic male-female relationship I’ve seen.  Rumor has it that a Diane-centric spinoff is close to happening at CBS, and I think that would be a brilliant idea.

But honestly, the character I’ll probably miss most from this show is one who was only in a handful of episodes.  Carrie Preston’s performance as irrepressibly quirky lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni was so good that I literally cheered every time I saw she was in an episode.  She had a way of lulling people into a false sense of security before flashing her steel-trap mind to beat them in court.  And she produced some of the series’ funniest moments too.

And then we have Kalinda.  Lockhart/Gardner’s investigator was more of a “cold hard woman” than anyone else on the series, but she had many layers that kept her interesting.  Archie Panjabi did an excellent job in her first year of the show, winning an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and putting her on the map as one of the show’s best characters.  But while her performance didn’t suffer, the writers didn’t use her well, featuring a weird rivalry with fellow investigator Blake Calamar (played by Scott Porter) in the second season, and another weird plotline involving an ex-husband.  She exited the show in season six amid tensions with Margulies, and remains one of the few examples of a situation in which The Good Wife didn’t quite live up to its potential.

The character of Kalinda Sharma was a rare example of a wasted opportunity by the show's writers.
The character of Kalinda Sharma was a rare example of a wasted opportunity by the show’s writers.

Finally, I’ll also miss Eli Gold (Alan Cumming).  While he was introduced in the first season as Peter’s slick campaign manager in season one, he became much more multifaceted and likable as the series went on.  He even fell in love in the last season!  But probably his best moments were his verbal takedowns, such when he confronted Becca, the girlfriend of Alicia & Peter’s son Zach, who was damaging Peter’s campaign to return to the State’s Attorney’s office through a series of damaging tweets.

Many police and courtroom procedurals bring current events into their stories, but The Good Wife was especially adept at it.  They managed to weave them in without feeling like they were pandering to their audience, and also helped the audience learn more about a particular issue.  Two of my favorite examples of this were when they tackled the digital currency Bitcoin in a season 3 episode, and when they addressed the Planned Parenthood undercover video controversy when the firm represents a conservative group that sues the organization on the show.  In a twist, Diane, a Democrat, is forced to defend the conservative side of the case that her client is on.  This would be a recurring situation throughout a few episodes.

So, in short, I thoroughly enjoyed The Good Wife’s seven-season run.  Sometimes, it feels like smart, sophisticated shows are in short supply, and only more so now that this show is gone.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend binge-watching it, especially if you’re a legal/political nerd like myself 🙂

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