Goodbye Good Wife

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite television shows, The Good Wife, aired its final episode. The Good Wife is a show about a disgraced state’s attorney’s wife, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) who must rebuild her life and career after her husband goes to jail for corruption charges. After years as a stay-at-home mom, she reenters the workforce as a lawyer and must grapple with what it means to be a modern woman–how does one juggle marriage, motherhood, career, friendships, and one’s personal and spiritual wellbeing? After her husband publicly cheated on her, what is her responsibility to herself, to her spouse, to her children? The show masterfully functions both as a procedural, with each episode covering a new legal case, and as a serial, with a larger narrative unfolding across the seasons. I have loved this show not only because of its excellent portrayals of interesting female characters tackling issues with which I resonate but also because of how well it has tackled questions about technology, religion, and politics. Though most of the key characters self-identify as left-wing or liberal, it is quite common to hear compelling arguments or presentations that reflect conservative and moderate perspectives. In fact, one of the most liberal female lawyers ends up marrying a right-wing, gun-toting, Sarah Palin-loving man–their steadfast, loving marriage yet regular, earnest disputes over differing values are a great reflection of the show at large.

Alicia stands beside her disgraced husband. Image provided for editorial usage by CBS on thegoodwife wiki.
Alicia stands beside her disgraced husband in the pilot episode. Image provided for editorial usage by CBS on thegoodwife wiki.

Having loved this show deeply, I was nervous about how it would all end. Final episodes can make or break one’s relationship to the entire show. For example, Lost’s finale felt like such a let-down and How I Met Your Mother‘s finale upset a good chunk of its fan base. 
By the finale, The Good Wife had been losing some momentum in the last couple seasons. It was time for the show to end, and I think the show-runners, Robert and Michelle King, intentionally paced the show in such a manner so that audiences would be ready to say goodbye. That being said, the last episode was no cakewalk and, indeed, garnered quite a controversial response from fans. 
From here on out, I’ll be weaving spoilers throughout my review of the episode, so if you haven’t watched the show or the finale, stop here! Come back once you are caught up.

The finale takes us back full circle to a parallel of the beginning of the show. Alicia is back where she started, standing at her husband’s side while he apologizes to the people of Illinois for his mistakes. This time around, however, Alicia has taken control of her life (or so she thinks) and made very active decisions that lead her to stand beside her husband in that moment–even though they are in the middle of a secret divorce. In that moment, as she walks out onto the stage, we return to the question posed by the title of the show: is Alicia a good wife? Does she even know what that is? Do we as the audience know what that is?

The episode references moments from throughout the entire show, reminding us that the answer to that question (if there is one) is complicated. It’s difficult to untangle the messiness that is one’s responsibility to family and friends, one’s need for self-care, and others’ expectations. What is clear in this situation is that Alicia is dangling precariously close to the edge of losing everyone that is important to her in her quest to take ownership of her own life. Her kids have left for college. She’s divorcing her husband, and he’s going to jail. Her best friend Kalinda is gone. Will, the man she actually loved and who loved her, is dead. Her current love interest may potentially also have left, uncertain of whether Alicia cares enough about the relationship to fight to make it work. She betrayed Diane Lockhart, her mentor and fellow lawyer, who slaps her bitterly in the last minutes of the episode. Cary, another fellow lawyer, has left the firm to find a happier, more fulfilling life. Even Jackie, the mother-in-law she hates, is getting remarried and thus spends less time harassing Alicia.

Alicia slapped. Screenshot from the show finale.
Alicia having just been slapped. Screenshot from the show finale.

Alicia in her struggle to recover from her husband’s infidelity–a struggle that she never actually acknowledges to herself–is compelled to be in control of her life to prevent something like that happening to her again. But that very control prevents her from taking the risks that would mean actual happiness and healthiness for herself and her kids. In contrast, Diane Lockhart, ultimately chooses love and integrity over her career. (Though her path resembled Alicia’s for most of her career.) She decides to represent clients with whom she disagrees because she values their right to free speech. She also recognizes that imparting a right to free speech requires a listening ear from those who disagree, and models that in her interactions with such clients. These actions result in several high-profile clients leaving the firm, horrified that Diane would “stray away” from her liberal convictions. Diane is also willing to lose a case in order to protect her husband from being defamed and manipulated on the stand. Another of the firm’s partners, Cary Agos, chooses happiness over career success when he willfully quits his job because he recognizes that the firm’s environment is toxic–opting for a less glamorous but more rewarding career in teaching. Alicia, however, time and time again jeopardizes her friendships in pursuit of what she deems as success.

What does Alicia see as success? I think she has come to the supposition, as many modern women do, that success as a female is found in always appearing strong, competent, and self-sufficient. At the end of seven seasons, though, feigned self-sufficiency has left Alicia with an alcohol dependency and no community. Stripped of the façade of empowerment, in the last minutes of the show, Alicia is revealed as she truly is–broken, exhausted, and lonely. She is forced to face the vulnerability that she refused to embrace willingly. We thought she had hit rock-bottom when we first watched the pilot of this show, but in truth, it took Alicia seven seasons to get to this realization: she needs people. To be a good wife and a strong woman, you cannot walk alone.

Ironically, Alicia herself taught this to the women around her–so many women looked to her specifically for their legal support because they also found in her emotional support and inspiration. They looked to her for help and compassion, and she gave it while never accepting that same love and compassion for herself.

As I watched Alicia come to these realizations, I was wracked with emotion. After spending hundreds of hours with her, I resonate with each of her decisions and impulses and realize that I too was so caught up in her triumph over tragedy that I too often forgot what Alicia was missing. I wept for Alicia, and I wept for my own delusions. And yet there is still hope. In that last moment, Alicia is the most alone she has ever been, but we do not know what will happen next. Perhaps Diane will come to forgive Alicia. Perhaps Jason has not given up hope on Alicia quite yet. Her children are not gone forever; they will return from their trips abroad and semesters at college. Even after Will died, Alicia was given new chances for love with Finn Polmar and now Jason–so too now, new opportunities can arise. If this is truly her lowest point, Alicia has only one direction to travel and that is up.

So, yes, this was a hard episode to watch, but I think it was also necessary. Some fans have criticized the episode as anti-feminist, but I think the episode is strongly pro-feminist. It does not shy away from telling a hard story about the struggles and temptations involved in striving to be a strong woman in today’s age and the pressing need for women to support one another and accept help when it is needed. Alicia can find hope and strength and healing, and so can we. It just might take learning some painful lessons to get there.

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