The education of Alicia Florrick began seven years ago with a slap. As she collected her breath, adjusted her skirt, stifled her tears, and steeled herself to march toward her future, it ended the same way.
It’s the slap that jarred The Good Wife fans into a collective gasp, ending the final moments of CBS’s crown jewel drama series with a full-circle moment certainly more violent than anyone expected. And, as reflected in the conveyor belt of emotions that sped through Julianna Margulies’s eyes in her last seconds as Alicia Florrick, it’s one that reverberates with the pain of the past as much as the current sting of reality.
When Alicia Florrick slapped Peter (Chris Noth) backstage after the press conference in which she stood by him—the Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, the Hillary to his Bill, poster woman for Stand By Your Man—as he humiliated her by publicly admitting to a prostitution scandal, it was an act that set her forth on her journey.
She was a victim, and she was disgusted—disgusted by her husband’s behavior, disgusted by his guile and manipulation and how that reflected on her, and disgusted by her lot in life: a wife and mother who gave up her career and now was left disgraced and without a sense of worth.
The next seven years saw Alicia find her confidence, rediscover her professional ambition, become a top lawyer, find control as an assertive woman capable of divorcing herself from her emotions (when she needs to, as exemplified by two separate “What do you want me to do, break down and cry?” speeches in recent episodes), and even fall in love.
It also saw her absorb some of those very traits that disgusted her.
It was perhaps evident during her many moves in and out of the original Lockhart Gardner firm, each time (and arguably rightfully) putting career advancement ahead of those who assisted her on the way. Maybe there were glimpses of it in her merry-go-round of scheming and scoffing with Eli (Alan Cumming). But it was crystal clear in her decision to undermine Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), her mentor, friend, and adversary—depending on the day—and have her own husband’s affair exposed in order to help Peter’s case.
That guile. That manipulation. Those things about Peter that had disgusted her had, in the course of her own rise and grappling with power, become traits that she also embodied. Diane slapping Alicia represented that. Alicia is not the victim anymore. If not overtly the victimizer, she’s certainly become capable of being one.
And judging by her breathless, traumatized reaction—mirroring the audience’s—neither she nor us had realized it until now.
So many of us thought the education of Alicia Florrick was going to end with a series finale that doubled as a diploma in the studies of happily ever afters. Divorce the husband. Give in to love with Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Relish the rise of the all-female firm with Diane, celebrate the return of friendship in your life with Lucca (Cush Jumbo), and balance it all—the job, the love, the motherhood—with the grace, power, and poise of the woman who has manifested “having it all.”
What we’re left with instead is a woman, at the end of her seven-year journey to discover and inhabit her true and best self, who represents some of the same ugliness she had set out to leave behind.
She’s not good and pure, but on a precarious spectrum of moral ambiguity and opportunism. That man, the love she was finally allowing for herself, might not want to accept her—and if he does, his disappearance in the final moments of the finale means we don’t get the satisfaction of knowing.
Reeling from being slapped by one of the most dignified and successful women she knows, Alicia’s hair is disheveled, her suit jacket twisted, and her tears resisting the gasped attempts to block them from streaming down her face. It’s hardly the image of strength and resilience we thought we were getting, and certainly not the tidy happily ever after.
But as Alicia steadies herself and walks forward, resigned to who she has become, it’s a more realistic and, in a way, more poignant image; a more human one. Alicia Florrick’s education and journey didn't lead to a happily ever after. It’s almost, even, a tragedy.
And as the last moment in a seven-season series, it’s one final bold statement from a network drama that will carry the torch for bold network dramas to the grave.
As the flood of cable and streaming “prestige” dramas threaten to drown us all with dark, moody, high-pedigree content—freed from the shackles of broadcast standards and floating from the lack of burden that network TV’s 22-episodes-a-year mandate—The Good Wife was the last, hallowed example of a network drama that wasn’t written off as “too soapy” or “too procedural.”
It earned the respect of critics and awards groups: Margulies took home two Emmys for her work and, as a sign of the state of the industry, it was the very last broadcast drama series to be nominated for the Best Drama Series Emmy. Balancing the zippiness of a broadcast procedural with the engrossing “binge-worthiness” of serialized storylines, it was the best of both worlds: the hour-by-hour satisfaction of a case of the week blended with a nuanced, progressive character study.
Still, 20-something episodes a year for seven seasons is a tall order. I’d argue we were given five, maybe five-and-a-half seasons of true excellence, which is an all-star worthy batting average for a broadcast show.
The highs were epic. The anxiety and energy of “Hitting the Fan” was an audience rush, as rousing as the similar but less emotionally resonant “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” episode of Mad Men. (Much of that same stressful, rousing intensity powered Sunday’s finale, too.)
The surprise death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) injected the series with emotional adrenaline, setting off a string of the best episodes the show produced. That the ghost of Will Gardner (and the return of Charles) played such a large and resonant part of the finale speaks to the power of the creative decision to kill him off.
Then there are the lows, which, because of the obsessive nature of The Good Wife fans, often played as deep betrayals.
The character assassination leading up to the departure of Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) comes to mind, with the tabloid speculation over the reasons—not to mention the Twitter tsk-tsk-ing over the split screen goodbye—providing a shining example of the challenges of producing a scripted drama in the age of real-time audience input, and the age of audiences that demand the respect of their show’s creators.
Likely the biggest legacy of The Good Wife will be Alicia. And Diane. And, for a time, Kalinda. And Lucca. And the rich, complex, infuriating, and inspiring depictions of women on a broadcast TV series.
The way these characters owned their unattractive traits as fiercely and unapologetically as their winning ones. How they were selfish and selfless and sexual and sexually complicated: all of it combined for one of the most female-positive drama series’ of the past decade, and its success a vital tool in convincing studios and networks to produce more just like it.
That’s also why this ending is likely going to be so polarizing. Here we have spent seven years rooting for Alicia, the woman scorned, and we come to the realization that she’s not entirely the kind of person we’d always want to root for. It’s, as said before, a bold way to end a series. And, for an audience that might crave or expect a redemptive ending to this arc, it’s a crushing blow. Quite literally.
There’s power in being in the same place. It’s a way to really evaluate the way a person has grown or changed. We expected to look through the lens when Alicia, once again and for the last time, stood by her man, Peter, for a press conference similar to the one the whole series began with: he was resigning from political office and she had to stand and support him.
The camera fixes on Margulies’s Alicia as we search for those hints of change. They were subtle and beautifully defiant. She was distracted looking for Jason in the audience. She almost couldn’t care less about being there, which isn’t a sign of cruelty towards Peter or any wicked human spirit. She had moved on, which was so effectively demonstrated when Peter reaches for her hand at the end and she was already out the door.
But we did not expect for the full-circle, bookend moment to be the backstage event right after. For that slap. Here we were looking at the press conference scene to see how this woman, “The Good Wife,” has changed. What the slap showed us was how Alicia had changed, detached from that title and all its meaning.
Now that we’ve learned, I’d say we’re all a bit bruised.