‘The Good Wife’ Exit Interview: Creators Robert and Michelle King Say Goodbye
With days to go before the show’s finale, Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King on what to expect, the show’s female empowerment, and the education of Alicia Florrick.
There was a poignant line in Sunday night’s penultimate episode of The Good Wife, the groundbreaking CBS drama that will end its seven-season run this weekend.
Juliana Margulies’s Alicia Florrick is in a room alone with her husband Peter (Chris Noth), whom she is in the process of divorcing after seven years of standing—sometimes superficially—by him following a high-profile cheating scandal. “Do you remember the last time we were happy?” she asks him.
In a narrative bookend to the very first episode of the series, Peter is facing jail time once again—this time on charges for which his true innocence or guilt, up to this point, has been left tantalizingly ambiguous.
Seven years ago when Alicia stood beside her husband, she was a humiliated woman scorned, a housewife who had given up her career to raise the children of a rising politician who repaid her by being sent to jail amidst a corruption and sex scandal.
The image of Alicia at Peter’s side during the embarrassing press conference recalled the wives of Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, Dick Morris, and too many more. The show’s inception was a riff on our nationwide inner monologue: “What was she thinking? Why would she stay?”
Across seven seasons, Alicia has reentered the work force, asserted herself as one of Chicago’s top lawyers, become partner of (eventually) multiple firms, played the role of political wife to her own gain, raised her kids to college age, fell in love, lost her lover in a shooting, and now, soon to be by Peter’s side again at a traumatic press conference, she is possibly facing happiness: professional success, actual friendship, and a new romance, too.
Back where she and Peter started again, but lightyears away from where she was at that start, how will this time be different? How has Alicia changed?
To chart that journey, we called The Good Wife’s prodigious creators, spouses Robert and Michelle King.
We talked about what kind of happiness might be in store when the series wraps on Sunday night, the empowering and game-changing way the series portrayed female characters on TV, saying goodbye to the show after seven seasons, and, how the idea of standing behind your man most of all has changed since the show began.
Mostly, though, we talked about our beloved Good Wife: the education of Alicia Florrick.
Let’s start with last night’s episode. The insinuation that Geneva Pine (Renee Elise Goldberry) had an affair with Peter! Why was it important to bring to the forefront one more “did Peter cheat or didn’t he?” storyline before signing off?
Robert: You know what? Strangely enough from the very beginning, Renee Elise Goldberry, we had suggested the first year to her that this was the backstory. That she had slept with Peter. If you look back to the first season—her performance—she turns to Alicia at one point and says, “How’s Peter doing, Alicia?” Like she’s trying to intimidate her. That was coming from that. We also wanted to see the change in Alicia in her attitude towards it all: whether he had an affair or not, whether she trusts her husband or not, and whether that was irrelevant towards where they stood now as a so-called couple.
Michelle: It couldn’t be more different from Alicia Season One and how she reacted to the infidelity and Alicia Season Seven and the way she lets it roll off of her.
The “What do you want me to do, cry Mr. Canning?” line. What are we supposed to read into the robotic reaction to it?
Robert: I think we were seeing that she knows that a lot of people who are supposedly offering her information out of good will are actually trying to get a rise out of her and trying to get emotion from her. So I think what was fun for her was to throw it back in Canning’s face, “Boo-hoo. Boo-hoo.” And then acknowledge what it really was about with Canning, which is that Canning was in love with her.
Oh, really? Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) is in love with Alicia?
Robert: Yeah. He said “I love you,” which is both as a hyperbole but he also really means it. He’s always had a crush on her.
It was interesting to see in the scene where Alicia was prepping Peter to testify and dredging up their romantic indiscretions. It was him, this time, who was jealous and emotional about Alicia’s love life and “affairs.” That was a really interesting turning of the tables.
Robert: A lot of cheaters—and Peter, obviously, is always a cheater—actually start feeling nostalgia and genuine love, not only guilt for the person who they screwed over. Especially in the later years, Peter was the one who couldn’t let go of his love for Alicia. So it was supposed to come in rabid jealousy here.
When did it become the plan to bookend the series with Alicia standing behind Peter again in the middle of his controversy seven years later? What’s the power in that?
Robert: We never planned past the first 13 episodes because we never thought the show would go on past that. (Laughs.) We always thought that at the end of the first 13 episodes Peter would come back from prison, and that offered some bookend. But we never got past that. Once we realized that CBS was liking it and they would keep us on, we started working towards something that is very hard to do in network because you’re doing so many episodes, which is create some shape and structure in the series. And allow that with having Alicia being the woman standing behind her husband in the beginning of the show, and at the end again and seeing how many changes there were in the middle.
Michelle: And not only that, what does it really look like at the end? Is it the same “stand”?
Julianna Margulies gave an interview saying we should pay special attention to how she behaves standing behind Peter at the press conference that’s going to happen on Sunday night’s finale. What should we look for specifically?
Michelle: All I know is that Julianna’s performance over the entire seven seasons has always been so subtle that I think it would be a mistake to take eyes off her at any point.
Robert: I think that in each of the seven years there has been an element of growth in the character. And I thought what Julianna does very delicately is these small shifts in personality that add up to a very large shift. I think if you put the last episode and the first episode together and look at the changes in this woman, you would be surprised.
After years spent showing how Alicia makes a life for herself and avoids being defined as the woman who stood behind her husband—a successful life in its own right—what is the significance of ending the series by calling back to the moment she just spent seven years shedding?
Robert: It’s the power of even something like high school or college reunions. When you go back to the original place where you were one kind of a person but now it’s 10 years on and you’re completely different, what really reminds you of how much you changed is winding up in the same geographic location. So I think the power of having Alicia end up in some of the same places is not to say that she’s in a rut at all. It’s to dramatize how different she is, because the circumstances haven’t changed. There have been many politicians who have screwed over their wives constantly over the course of our seven seasons.
Michelle: Before and after. It’s a perennial.
Robert: It doesn’t seem to be something that goes away. It’s how has culture changed it. It’s amazing with Trump, that the religious right that would not accept something like that earlier kind of just—I think those rules have been broken forever. How you can hold an infidelity against someone. How can you hold multiple affairs, multiple marriages and divorces. I think our culture is going to have trouble going back to one that can shame people. That’s probably more than what our show’s about, though. Our show’s about how one woman has changed over the course of seven years. Even though the circumstances may take her back to the same place, it’s how she handles those circumstances in a different way.
It might be more than what the show is about, but you have to think about the prism the audience is watching this show through. Back in Season One, people couldn’t let go of the parallels to the Spitzer scandal. But the discourse on female empowerment, women’s rights, women’s roles in politics, and politics in general has changed so much since the first episode. And so has the lens through which we watch this show and Alicia’s situation.
Robert: You’re exactly right. And look at who may be our next president. She’s the ultimate Good Wife, someone who stood by her husband and has never not stood by her husband. It is a very changed world. That’s one of the things that TV shows can remind you of, by the way, is how much the world in fact changes. We were doing episodes about DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and then within six months time that debate disappeared. It evaporated, like the rain. It’s very interesting for us to chart demarcations of time based on changes in Alicia’s character.
How else has the national discourse on all of those topics affected the show?
Michelle: We like having those issues come up in the show, but we really made an effort to show both sides as having intelligent arguments and trying to give voice to the best argument on both sides so that it doesn’t seem like the show was taking a point of view. And just to maybe encourage respectful discourse.
Robert: We always said to ourselves that we were entertained by what is of the moment. An interesting episode like that is an argument between gay marriage and what was called religious liberties, and trying to see the other point of view even though we didn’t agree with the other side. That was just very much of the moment. So what we wanted to do was stay up with current events. I think we’ve not always been successful. But I think more often than not it felt like you were watching something that was actually happening in culture.
I loved the ripped-from-the-headlines episodes. You both mentioned the gay marriage and religious liberties episode. The timing of that one was perfect, too.
Robert: That it was so timely was very odd. It was suddenly in the national press that week. And I think there’s some of those kinds of episodes that I think may have been overlooked more. I loved our episodes about abortion, because I don’t think there’s any more fight. People are so stuck in their ways. I thought what the show tried to do is turn the prisms a little bit so you can look at the issues in a different light.
Back to last night’s episode, though. There was something very pointed about the showdown between Diane (Christine Baranski) and David Lee (Zach Grenier) when he threatened to go to the E.E.O.C. over the female-driven firm. It was certainly a joy to see Diane scoff at the silliness of that, but why was it important to take Lockhart Lee Florr…oh god, I can’t remember what the current iteration of the firm is now.
Robert: (Laughs.) I can’t either! Isn’t that terrible?
Clearly the firm has gone through several iterations. But now that the show is ending, why is it important to A) have the last iteration be this female-driven one and B) show the resistance there is to something like that?
Robert: For us, it seemed like our characters were so often fighting against externals, whether a glass ceiling or a battle between Cary and Alicia. There was always some issue being imposed from above or sideways. What we really wanted to do at the end was show that they have won. There’s no more winning here. They have succeeded. If there was any battle between Alicia and Cary, Cary’s out. Alicia’s on top, a partner at one of the top firms. Many times, the show has always been thought of in a female empowerment way, but we’ve always hoped it was more about how females have as many problems as the males. And now how do those problems show themselves now that they don’t have any more struggles?
Michelle: The great irony of David Lee’s remark, in my mind, is that if it were reversed, that would have been business as usual. No one would have been talking about filing a complaint if the majority of the partners were men. It’s comic.
Robert: The other comic thing is David Lee talking about being an imposed upon minority and then Luca looks over to him like, “You gotta fuckin’ be kidding me.”
I love the way Diane reacts to David Lee in that moment. Diane has a very different lens to look at that “female empowerment” conversation through than Alicia, who we usually talk about when we talk about that and this show. Can you talk about the difference in looking at this show’s female empowerment through Diane and through Alicia?
Michelle: We actually talked about that a lot from the very beginning conception of this show. Alicia got the benefit of Diane’s hard work. She has not had to think about a lot of the issues that Diane did. Diane fought battles that Alicia has not had to fight herself.
Robert: We always wanted to talk about feminism generationally. Jackie (Mary Beth Peil) has one attitude. Diane another. Alicia another. And then Grace (Makenzie Vega) was supposed to be even another, but I actually think we went a different with that and that was more actually Zach (Graham Phillips). Where he said it’s not about gender definitions two episodes ago, and he was willing to be a househusband to his fiancé in Paris and write his memoirs. It was obviously all comic, but there is this feeling that things are not defined anymore.
So it was about showing how these women of different generations view the idea of female empowerment.
Robert: So that was for Alicia, we wanted to show generational attitudes towards feminism. For Diane, Diane is someone who in the very first year was struggling with Will Gardner (Josh Charles) for control of the firm and has always found men battling her. She was often underestimated and often viewed as the ballbuster. Which, by the way, was our original definition of her starring in the series. But we saw there was something more interesting and complex with what Christine does. In the end, I don’t think she even takes David Lee that seriously. He’s a mosquito buzzing around her. She is, for the first time, relieved of any assault from any man who could take over or control the firm or get in the way. She’s there. She won.
It’s so nice to see Diane on top at the firm and sweetly married to Gary Cole’s character. Did you stress over how to give meaningful ends to characters like Diane, or Cary, or Eli, or David Lee—these characters that fans really cherish? Is there a challenge in giving them a satisfying ending when the greater mission is Alicia’s journey?
Robert: We love these characters, too, so what we did ourselves is let the last four or five episodes be a goodbye to them. I always like the NSA guys, so the fourth episode to the end was the goodbye to them. And then we had that party episode particularly so that people who we don’t really have time in the last two episodes to say goodbye, we can take our time there. Sarah Steele has been amazing for us. Mary Beth Peil. Jerry Adler, who is Howard Lyman. And then our own little favorite little shtick is that fake Darkness at Noon show. So that party episode was our indulgence episode. “OK. Let’s just say goodbye to these guys.” We couldn’t just shove them all in, otherwise it would be this Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World thing. So that was the party episode. Then we wanted to focus in again on what is the show and what drives it, and that is the education of Alicia Florrick. That’s obviously where we head in these last two episodes.
She says to Peter in this last episode, “Do you remember the last time we were happy?” How important is happiness in the ending of this series?
Michelle: I think that’s an impossible question to answer before it airs.
The question is phrased in a way that asks Peter to look back at their journey together and think about whether they’ve ever been happy. Do you think happiness has ever been a concern of Alicia’s?
Robert: Yes. I actually do. There was one episode, it was actually just before Will Gardner dies. She was asked, “What do you want from life?” She said, “Two things: I want to be happy and I want to control my own fate.” I think that was very telling about Alicia. That was the closest to us understanding what Alicia’s driving ambitions were. It’s about, “How do I find that balance that I had before I was kicked out of Eden? Before this scandal kicked me out of my comfortable life.” She’s been trying to find that balance ever since. I think successfully, at the beginning of the third season she did with her affair with Will, but then her concern for her kids got in the way of that. There are moments, I think, where she did with Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). There’s that lovely episode where they have that lost weekend together and lose track of time. I think she’s had these moments of bliss that she’s trying to make her everyday life.
Michelle: Before the show began, we think that happiness and responsibility were the same for Alicia. But since the scandal there’s always been a tension between the two: her own personal fulfillment and responsibility. I think we’ve just seen one or the other take precedence for seven years.
It’s rare for a broadcast TV show—a legal drama on CBS, especially—to be viewed as progressive the way that The Good Wife has been viewed. Whether it’s the portrayal of the female characters, or Kalinda’s queerness, or even the sex scenes. Did you ever think of the show in terms of its progressiveness or pushing the envelope?
Robert: That is a good question!
Michelle: I’ll just speak for myself. Not in any kind of global sense. There might have been small parts where it felt like “OK let’s try to push it a little further than you might ordinarily see on television.” But it was never a grand ambition of “let’s be progressive.”
Robert: Sometimes I think we’re satiric towards the progressive agenda. For example, the Canadian episode recently was a good example. The Canadian judge goes on about their superior health care and stuff, and it’s like oh my god, will you shut up? Sometimes we’re being satirical, but I don’t think it’s necessarily being interpreted that way. We also try to back away from issues we know we get earnest about. For a while there we explored immigration. I thought sometimes the episodes got so earnest that we pulled back from it. It felt like the worst thing TV can do, which is teach you something that you already believe. We like to hear that, but it wasn’t really our goal.
I read an interview where you said that The Good Wife was always a show about lying, which is both an accurate but terribly depressing indictment about our society. Is there anyway to spin that positively or hopefully?
Robert: Yes! (Laughs.) You get to my Catholic upbringing, which is that the point of the show is that we’re all the same under the skin and that’s a bad thing. The line you can draw between Martha Plimpton’s character and Alicia Florrick and Matthew Perry’s character, there is a level of acknowledgment that human beings by their very nature tend to lie. Even the ones that you think are honest tend to lie. So the question is how can you act ethically together given that. It’s difficult for a defense lawyer to work under the assumption that the innocent or guilt of their client is irrelevant to their job. That’s not, let’s not say “positive,” but that’s what’s fun about the show.
That ties into Peter’s innocence or guilt, too, right?
Robert: These characters live in a world of corruption and lying and then they have to find out, how do they act? And when someone tells them in a bold-faced way “I didn’t do it,” like Peter has been saying, you have to think about whether he’s lying and if that should change your strategy. Should that change who I am, and should that change my pathway to happiness? That’s the positive thing we take from it. Now that we know what the world is, how do we act?