Anatomy Of A Finale: The Good Wife

With finale season and season finales beginning to emerge from a long deliberation – erotic, legal twists and turns knotting themselves in their trial-addled brains – I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how disparate shows are handling what can at times make or break a season. Hence, Anatomy Of A Finale.

And of course, as ever, SPOILERS AHEAD.

There is a lot to be said for plotting. In fact, there is a lot to be said about plotting.

Over the past week I’ve watched the final two episodes of this season of Spartacus (which will very much be getting an Anatomy Of A Finale of its own), not long after giving up the game on the whole Mad Men enterprise. As I was discussing it with my friends, I realised that what I simply could not accept from the perfectly  imperfect world of Mad Men was its almost wilful lack of plot direction or continuity. It is, as more esteemed critics than me are wont to say, like real life – directionless, unexpected, and unfulfilled. For the first four seasons of Mad Men, as I scraped my way through trying to like it, I felt guilty that I couldn’t admire this vagueness. Was it wrong that I felt bored by a gritty mirror that reflected the flaws and boredom of life? But the truth was, I was bored. I like plot. I like direction. I like being told a story, rather than watching my dull life pointed back at me.

Spartacus occupies the other end of the scale – a show so riddled with plot (and tits, cock and gore) that it is thrilling, if sometimes vacant. So much is going on that it’s hard to cling to something real. Good fiction, in my opinion, occupies the space between these two – allowing character, emotion and nuance to unfold against the backdrop of a real story.

And then, every once in a while, there are shows like The Good Wife. Shows like rich melted chocolate, an instant indulgence that somehow imparts pleasure without feeling cheap.

Part of the influence of heavily serialised shows like Mad Men has been to render any show that engages in procedural elements “dumbed down”: lumping everything in with the CSI mould of case-of-the-week and glacial, false character development when an episode deems it necessary. But to discard every piece of procedural drama as being such is to do a dis-service to shows like ER, Homicide: Life On The Street and even Buffy (though that was more monster-of-the-week). Hell, you might as well discard The Twilight Zone if you believe that a new story in each episode represents a betrayal of the medium of television.

For me, the ideal show is one that successfully mixes elements of procedural and serialised drama. Shows that are solely plot feel heartless, but shows that eschew any sort of week-on-week drama render themselves dull as we are forced to watch the glacial pace at which human beings evolve.

The Good Wife strikes the balance perfectly. The life of Alicia Florrick, a woman whose District Attorney husband’s public affairs drive her back into the legal profession, has been handled delicately over three seasons. Everyone in the show, from the philandering Peter Florrick to Alicia’s on-again off-again boss Will Gardner, to the firm’s shady but effective investigator Kalinda Sharma, are fully realised.

There is no such thing as a throwaway character, and even the most simplistic of personalities are rendered three-dimensional by the passage of time – think of Peter’s campaign manager Eli Gold (brilliantly played by Alan Cumming), a man solely driven by a desire to win but necessarily balancing this with a teenage daughter and a similarly ambitious ex-wife. Characters are often dropped for weeks, months, or in some cases years at a time before resurfacing as important players in an increasingly fractured and fulsome Chicagoan legal-political community.

There are stunning guest stars throughout, from Michael J. Fox’s conniving Louis Canning (who’s not above using his physical disabilities to win judges’ favour) to Mamie Gummer’s cotton-candy-crushed-glass-combo Nancy Crozier. But the real weight of these characters comes in the respect the writers have for them – not as ploys or twists, but as people. You can omit a character for six months and have their return be instantaneous and important when they’re real people. No fanfare, just real relationships.

And because the characters are written real, the relationships and fractures between them are delivered with the gravitas, humour and unpredictability of real life.

There was a wonderful moment in the finale when Alicia, her ex-husband Peter, her new (and now ex, and boss) Will, her ex-rival (and now colleague) Cary, and several others have an encounter in the lobby of the law firm. Barely anything is said, but the tension is palpable, awkward and entirely ludicrous – and only broken by the arrival of another lawyer’s child, loudly bouncing through in a walker. The scene says everything and nothing about these people’s relationships, but is just another reminder of how nice it is to see these people interact.

This season of The Good Wife has been one of change, where seeming inevitabilities and endpoints came to a head, only to take on much more complexity and instability than previously imagined. Alicia and Will finally got together, but they split for the most mundane reason imaginable: Alicia’s desire to not let romantic feelings leave her an unfocused mother during a messy separation. Will’s gambling debts came back to haunt him, but the grand jury investigation fell apart in a series of awkward, bitter runarounds. And Cary’s place at the heart of the District Attorney’s office was ripped out from under him, making his return to Lockhart/Gardner tarnished with failed ambition.

In fact, the only person the series has managed to keep under wraps so far has been Kalinda. An investigator with a mysterious past, the only personal detail we’ve gotten so far is one that drove a railroad spike into one of the series’ most important dynamics. Kalinda had slept with Alicia’s husband long before the two women met, a betrayal-in-hindsight that Alicia could not stomach.

Watching them work from enemies to frosty colleagues to friends again has been a highlight of this season, played with all the frustration and turns of a great romance. The finale saw them finally together, but threw something else into the works: Kalinda’s ex-husband. A man she had never spoken of, in fact a life she had never spoken of. There have been references to Kalinda changing her name, and a fire in her past, but there is still so much to learn about this character that it was shocking to hear her speak so openly. That is the price (or reward) for Alicia’s friendship, though: frank openness.

Kalinda toyed with the idea of running, though she still didn’t explain why. Eventually the season left us with a powerful image – Kalinda in the living room of her apartment, gun in hand, waiting for someone to come knocking on her door. Archi Panjabi probably won’t get an Emmy nomination for this season’s work as Kalinda, as the material has been somewhat light, but her ability to draw infinite interest from someone so closed off never fails to amaze. I only hope that show runners Michelle and Robert King realise that the audience’s interest in Kalinda is based not on knowing her secrets, but on knowing what it’s like to have to hold them.

There were other developments back at Lockhart/Gardner. Louis Canning returned with working-mom-as-legal-ninja Patti Nyholm (a fantastic turn from The Goonies’ Martha Plimpton) to wreak havoc at the firm, attempting to not only appeal a judges’ award to one of Alicia’s clients but imply that Will had bribed the bench to get his way. It was a nifty way of threading several of the show’s stories and guest stars into one case-of-the-week, and ended nicely when Canning and Nyholm revealed this had all been a distraction so they could nab away Lockhart/Gardner’s biggest client, the Zuckerberg-esque Patrick Eddlestein. I hope the firm’s financial woes continues to feed into next season, as it’s a strangely compelling impetus for the firm’s forays into representing darker (and notoriously guilty) clients – as well as more reason to see Christine Baranski kick seven shades of ass as senior partner Diane Lockhart.

The final plot was more fully centred around Alicia. There is another version of The Good Wife that would have had her cheating husband shoved out of the picture some time in the first season, while the on-again/off-again sparks between her and Will became the sole focus of the show. But The Good Wife is smarter than that. Alicia and Peter have children, so there simply is no life without him. More importantly, he is not a bad man. He’s just unfocused in his priorities, and rabidly ambitious.

The last scene of the finale saw Alicia standing on the doorstep of her old house, staring down at the welcome mat. A combination of accident and motivation had dropped the house in Peter’s lap, and as she listened to her children laugh and make pizza with the man she once loved, the choice was clear. The past, or a version of same, versus an uncertain future. The former risks a loss of self (and the moral superiority of leaving Peter), but the latter is something that hasn’t always been kind to Alicia, and has in some ways hardened her.

Neither is easy, and in truth I expect The Good Wife will go for something between the two. There are no extremes here. A client’s guilt and innocence are mere shades of grey, while a win of $25m on one case can come at the cost of your whole business.

That the show managed to give equal weight to financial woes, marital indecision, and genuine physical danger without screwing it up is a testament to the writers and cast involved.

This season has been uneven, and at times felt like a slow return to where we’d once been and a prep session for next year’s race for governor and the Senate. But like all great procedurals, each moment has been intriguing and enticing, even if the whole seems somewhat fractured.

And once Alicia leaves that doorstep and Kalinda opens that door, the delicious table-setting can launch into the main course.

Success As A Finale: 8/10

Success As An Episode: 9/10

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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One Response to Anatomy Of A Finale: The Good Wife

  1. Pingback: Anatomy Of A Finale: Homeland | [ par·al·lel·e·vi·sion ]

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