Now that CBS’s The Good Wife has tried its last case, will Emmy’s verdict be a good one?
On Sunday, The Good Wife concluded its seven-year run on CBS. As a show that has won five Emmys, has been heralded by critics consistently since day one, and has built up a loyal fan base, the end of The Good Wife is a loss for the medium and art form of television. As most “sophisticated” audiences have flocked to “cool” cable shows, The Good Wife was practically the the last man standing of esteemed network dramas. With current Emmy standards being what they are, it’s quite possible The Good Wife’s two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in 2010 and 2011 may be the final time a network show is ever taken seriously in the Emmy’s most prestigious category.
Despite often pushed aside for audience-pleasing, intense cable shows, The Good Wife’s quality was a constant. More than just being relentlessly outstanding, creators Robert and Michelle King’s television masterpiece grew deeper, richer, and more complex as it aged. There has never been a show like The Good Wife, and it’s doubtful anything widely broadcasted in the future will ever resemble it. Its elegance, intelligence, and maturity cannot be replicated.
Having a reputation such as that does not come easy. The Good Wife began as a half-serialized, half-procedural political, legal drama. Back in 2009, it looked like much of other television that was broadcasted by the big networks at the time, but the show still towered over others because of the smart, nuanced writing. As television changed, The Good Wife had to change along with it as well as the expectations of audiences and critics. It had to become darker, take more risks, and play with the formal and social aspects of the show. The result is something more profound and original than the cable shows The Good Wife had to compete against for the past seven years.
The Good Wife is an extremely clever show, presenting discussions of moral ambiguity, feminism, politics, social issues, betrayal, consequences from decisions, and the clear yet pliable uses of the law. It has never been a series to ply the audience with simple answers to any of the topics it presented, and in fact, it rarely took the lead to tell the viewers which characters were right or wrong. Couple these areas of narrative focus with character development that was concise and sharp enough to kill, The Good Wife’s writing, largely conducted by the Kings, was formidable, unpredictable, and intricate. The show bent genres and mastered tone, structure, and communication like few others before it. Every time The Good Wife accomplished a goal, it established new challenges for itself, one of which was subjectivity as a storytelling technique and it became a valued trademark of the series.
The ending of The Good Wife, as expected by many of fans who know the Kings’ love for symmetrical story arcs, conveyed the evolution of Alicia Florrick over the past seven years. There were details swirling around about Peter’s trial, some melodrama with Alicia’s love interest this season, but The Good Wife remained close to its heroine (or anti-heroine, some would argue), which is where the show has always been no matter what other kind of dramatic plots were going on. The Good Wife is the story of Alicia Florrick and how she’s developing and changing into what she wants to be. Rather than being a show about earth-shattering, adrenaline-inducing events, it’s a show about the transition period in life and how characters react to seismic events. The manner in which the Kings wrote The Good Wife is in the same vein as many of Virginia Woolf’s novels where the journey is more important than the destination and the story is about the time that passes during the hours of the day.
***The following paragraphs will contain spoilers from The Good Wife’s final episode.***
The finale, entitled “End,” continues this strategy. As they have in the past, the Kings disregarded all of the hanging questions audiences have been making predictions about for months about the conclusion of the show. Will Alicia and Peter divorce? Will Alicia end up with Jason? Will Alicia and Diane’s all-female name-partner firm materialize? Is Peter guilty of political corruption? The Good Wife gave no clear answers to any of these questions, which has frustrated some viewers and critics. I see it as a strength of the show and something that it has always executed well. It’s never worried about the romanticized, Hollywood endings…it’s too smart for that. “End” allows those questions about Alicia’s fate fall into place wherever the viewers see her after her the final scene. The Kings leave The Good Wife open to interpretation, yet there is a definitive ending put forth about who Alicia has become, for better and worse, that makes this show complete.
What’s represented in the brilliant finale is the cynical, harsh, reality with which the show has always defined itself. There are no happy endings. Will Gardner, The Good Wife royalty who was killed in the fifth season, returned for the finale last night to guide Alicia on decisions about her life. He tells her two things that are especially poignant and revealing about the show’s nature. “Nothing is ever over.” “Things were never simple.” Apply these two concepts to “End” and the series at large, and the messages should begin to crystalize, especially in the final sequence, which is possibly one of the most viscerally emotional, perfectly realized scenes in the series’ history.
The closing moments of the series – with a humiliated Diane slapping Alicia after Peter resigns from the governorship – are astonishing. They, of course, parallel this scene to the first sequence in the pilot where Alicia slaps Peter after standing beside him at a press conference. Through events that transpire over the duration the episode, Alicia uses Diane, her law partner and previous mentor, as collateral damage in the same way Alicia herself was used in the beginning of the series through the exposing of Peter’s extramarital affairs. Alicia began the series as “the good wife,” being humiliated publicly as a result of a political move. She makes Diane into “the good wife” by embarrassing her with Diane’s husband’s affairs with a young student, all for the sake of winning Peter’s trial. When she asks Lucca to go after Kurt in cross-examination, Alicia is so consumed with her own feelings and motivations that she fails to see she sacrificed Diane’s dignity just as her own dignity was sacrificed with the original scandal.
This is the morally grey tendency, not categorical behavior, Alicia has developed over the seven seasons, even though she’s taken control of her fate in other, more empowering ways. The repercussions of Alicia’s betrayal come in the form of a slap in the final scene of the show after Alicia has not taken Peter’s hand again at the podium (symbolizing her growth out of “the good wife” role) and her failed attempts to find Jason (which would have been a “happy ending” for her). After Alicia regains composure from being slapped by Diane, she straightens her jacket and walks on. Though she does not get a “happy ending,” there is an optimistic conclusion written in there beneath the tragedy. Alicia will continue to go on, grow, and become more in control of her fate and happiness, even if she is somewhat morally flawed.
Alicia in “End” is different than Alicia in the pilot. She still struggles existentially with the reverberations of the past and life’s continual incompleteness, but she has grown into a fierce, independent warrior who is capable of shaping her own fate, while the cunning hunger for power she has acquired has inoculated her from seeing the cold fact that her decisions have ruthless consequences.
When it comes to Emmy consideration, The Good Wife suffers from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s on CBS at a time when shows on HBO and AMC are in style, and politics do matter when it comes to industry acclaim. The Good Wife was arguably the best show on television for a long while. Once it started to change and evolve with the time and grew into a giant, the Emmys recoiled and barely acknowledged its skills outside of the acting categories. It’s in a similar boat as The Americans. For the past two seasons, it has been undeniably impressive, yet the Emmy judges fail to take it seriously in consideration. The realist portion of the fandom might ask, “Why now?” If The Good Wife was not on Emmy’s radar for seasons five and six, there’s no logical explanation for it to recognized this year.
But, if by some move of fate the Emmy judges look at the reputation it has sustained for the past seven years and want to celebrate its farewell, they would most likely look to Julianna Margulies for Lead Actress in a Drama Series (who has won this award twice for the show), Christine Baranski for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (who has been nominated for every season of this show thus far), or Robert and Michelle King for their writing in the finale (who were nominated for writing the pilot, and have been treated kindly by the WGA for the past few years). Certainly a Drama Series nomination would be more than deserved – I would argue the show is owed it after the snubs for The Good Wife’s glory period – but is unlikely considering new voting methods and the Emmy judges’ habit of retaining incumbent nominees.
Margulies and Baranski are two of the most respected veterans in the business and if they appear on the ballot they could certainly be singled out as winners by their peers in the Academy, especially since they a few had career-best episodes this season. The Kings, on the other hand, may be able to squeeze out a nomination if the Television Academy reflects positively on the show’s run. I’m skeptical about making any broad statements since Kings’ have submitted tour de force episodes to Emmy judges for the past two years and were offensively ignored.
The television void left by The Good Wife will be large and desolate. It was the one of the few shows in television’s golden age that were led by women, discussed socially important issues, and employed a poised and polished stature while other shows cashed in for blockbuster moments. To fans, to critics, to Emmy judges, if there is one show to never forget, it’s The Good Wife.
Alan Cumming, Supporting Actor
Christine Baranski, Supporting Actress
Julianna Margulies, Lead Actress
Guest Actor (TBD)