Being a great network drama in 2016 is like being New York Yankee Roger Maris in 1961: It takes you just a little too long to get there. Sure, network shows pull in the biggest ratings, but when it’s time for the industry to honor its best, those lumbering beasts seem just a little too unwieldy: The last time a season longer than 13 episodes won the Emmy for Best Dramatic Series was 2006; the last time one was even nominated was 2011.
The Good Wife was that final nominee — to date, and possibly forever. In an interview leading up to last night’s series finale, co-creator Robert King suggested that the CBS drama “might also be thought of as a gravestone on the 22-episodes-a-year paradigm.” But though they titled their final episode “End,” the Kings chose to leave the story of Juliana Margulies’ Alicia Florrick where they began it: in a hotel corridor after a press conference, with one character’s face still stinging from a richly deserved slap.
The difference was that this time Alicia Florrick was on the receiving end. In the series’ endgame, her husband, Peter, once again faced trial on corruption charges. But after seven seasons of legal maneuvering, Alicia was no dutiful political spouse/photo-op accessory, standing by her man to fill out the tableau of a happy family: She was his lawyer, every bit as cutthroat and calculating as he was. She freed herself from Peter, only to risk becoming him. If keeping him out of jail meant impeaching Diane’s ballistics-expert husband on the stand by suggesting that he’d slept with one of the prosecution’s experts, well … that was just the price that had to be paid.
In The Good Wife‘s home stretch, firm bigwig Diane Lockhart (viva Christine Baranski!) had gotten Alicia on board with a plan to convert their law firm into a female-fronted partnership, but the smack she laid across our heroine’s face left the future of that enterprise in doubt — and much more as well. Would Alicia find happiness with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s hunky investigator, the first serious romantic interest she’d had since her former lover, Will Gardner, was gunned down in court? Would she follow Peter into politics, with the support of his former backers? Would she stay true to herself? And who was she, anyway? Those questions were left hanging, although the Kings hedged their bets by posting a video explaining their intentions the instant the end credits finished rolling. (Note to the writers of TV shows: Please stop doing this.)
From the beginning, the show took an uncommonly nuanced approach to the relationship between who was right and who prevailed in court. “Sometimes I think justice would be better served with a coin flip,” Josh Charles’ Will said in the first-season episode “Doubt,” and if the show was never as cynical as he was, it made no bones about the fact that cases are won or lost by a combination of legal strategy and luck; a just result was simply an occasional fringe benefit. Alicia represented drug kingpins and serial killers, and though it sometimes took a toll, she remained morally sound at her core. (See the show’s title.)
Except, maybe, at the end? Airing Diane’s marital problems in court was no worse than dozens of things Alicia and her supposed allies have done to each other over the course of The Good Wife‘s run; 156 episodes leaves a lot of room for intrigue. But as much as the Kings looked down their nose at cable’s plague of white male antiheroes — and they could be petty about it, too, making Alicia an occasional viewer of a lurid cop drama called Darkness at Noon — their show grew darker over the long run, as if they laid on another coat of lacquer with each successive season. As Alicia dithered over her options in the finale, she had a vision of Will in his old office on a now-abandoned floor. “You wouldn’t like it here now,” she told him. “Things have gotten sad.”
It’s hard not to read that line as the Kings’ commentary on the turn the show took after Will’s death, even an admission that it never recovered from the loss of Charles’ live-wire energy. The primetime legal drama had one of the best casts in in television, and it was supplemented with an awe-inspiring array of guest stars — one way for the Kings to flaunt the advantages of a network budget. Half the cast of The Wire passed through its halls, as did more Broadway stars than there are in heaven. The last few episodes crammed Sutton Foster and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom, Jr. into throwaway roles, as if the show were eager to complete the set. But Charles’ departure, and the much-rumored whatever-it-was that made it impossible for Margulies and Archie Panjabi to appear in the same frame, threw off the show’s ensemble balance. The sixth season plotline designed to write Panjabi’s leather-clad investigator off the show was distended and divorced from its central action, and in the seventh season, it all but abandoned its long-running characters in favor of Morgan and Cush Jumbo’s attorney-slash-bestie.
At its best, The Good Wife was a showcase for the advantages of longer seasons, and the mixture of ongoing drama and procedural bedrock that makes many network shows tick. There was room to experiment with the form — something it never got as much credit for as Breaking Bad or True Detective — and to let conflicts play out at a pace approximating real life. The weight of nearly a hundred episodes gave the fifth season’s “Hitting the Fan,” in which the tensions inside Alicia’s law firm finally explode, an accumulated power that cable’s more concentrated seasons can’t muster. But it’s also a study in sprawl, with dozens of stranded characters and dead-end storylines: Alicia spent the show’s sixth season running for political office only to end up right back where she started. The show regained some sense of purpose once it was clear that this season would be its last and the Kings could start writing in earnest towards their planned ending, but the finale was still a mess, with far too much screen time devoted to plot details that distracted from Alicia’s story rather than furthering it. The Kings knew for years that they wanted to put Alicia back in that hotel hallway, but it felt like she was shoved there rather than traveling under her own steam.
“End” suggested that, in finally divorcing herself from Peter, Alicia ran the risk of becoming him, but it also left her free. Had Peter been jailed, Alicia would have found it harder to leave him, and, worse, her daughter, Grace, would have followed her lead, delaying her first year at college to stay near her father. She betrayed Diane for Peter, but also for Grace, and for herself. Soon to be divorced, with two children at college — and quite possibly in search of a new job — Alicia stands, at last, on her own, free, or forced, to consider who she is and what she wants. She may not like the answers to those questions, but they’ll be hers.