Film

The Good Wife’s Lame-Duck Years: Alicia Florrick Lost Us as She Found Herself

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According to her emails, Hillary Clinton has had an eye on Alicia Florrick since season one. As her pop-culture portraits go, The Good Wife has been a flattering one. Its protagonist first followed in the footsteps of many a political spouse by standing by her man, then relaunched her career, all while raising two children and never repeating an outfit. And it’s been a good, long run. But during what should have been a victory lap, and just when its most famous inspiration might need it the most, The Good Wife seems to have lost its way. After barely wringing out her win in Iowa, it’s hard to imagine that the Democratic frontrunner warmed to the sight of season-seven Alicia in the back of the Florrick campaign bus, earbuds in and shades on, sulking like a hungover teen.

Though it’s often drawn energy from the news cycle, the show has chosen to sit out this political and cultural moment just as others have dug in. While Frank Underwood sleazes his way through the primaries — and House of Cards had its fun airing promos during the actual debates — Julianna Margulies’ Alicia rests on the tattooed chest of her new flame, Jason (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as he pages through the David Foster Wallace Reader. While Shondaland’s leading ladies pledge #ImWithHer, and Scandal transforms into crossover fanfic of the 2008 and 2016 elections, Alicia stares down her daughter’s high-school guidance counselor. The Good Wife is having a lame-duck season.

This rudderless phase is surprising, coming in the wake of an especially energetic stretch in which the show steered — sometimes unsteadily — into new territory. By 2013, the legal procedural–slash–domestic drama had established itself as a witty, slow-burning alternative to Sunday night’s cable bombast: chamber music, not operatic bloodshed. Then The Good Wife dramatically reinvented itself. Key characters died or quit town. In quick succession, Alicia left the safety of Lockhart & Gardner to strike out on her own, then became a political player herself by running for state’s attorney.

Previously, the dilemma that drove the narrative was simple: The affair with Will (Josh Charles) and “arrangement” with husband Peter (Chris Noth) each offered a different cocktail of ardor and ambition, but between office romance or power-couple marriage, which choice was “good” — or, at least, less corrupt? (Beneath this was another question: Could this woman have it all? Yes, said The Good Wife — but it wouldn’t be clean.) Once the martyred St. Alicia metamorphosed into Candidate Alicia, her goodness had to withstand a new battery of tests. Each week presented a fresh dilemma, either about her superficial image or some deeper morality: Would she go on a cooking show with her mother? Be openly atheist? Accept dark money? Run mudslinging ads against her opponent?

The Good Wife had always been interested in how its heroine negotiated her competing needs and desires, and this intensified the pressure of living in the public eye — to say nothing of the judgment of NSA wiretappers and plainclothes FBI agents. That the election focused less on issues than on personal integrity was understandable: This was a position in law enforcement, after all. And The Good Wife’s strongest, most lively commentary always took place on an interpersonal, not systemic, level. It’s most interested in — and interesting about — the privileged, not the wider public.

The Good Wife’s one attempt that season to deal with an actual political issue was mistimed and tone-deaf. Prefaced by title cards explaining that the episode was written and filmed before the grand-jury decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, “The Debate” followed the fallout of a police killing caught on tape. As protesters gathered in Chicago, Peter and his right-hand man, Eli (Alan Cumming), saw not an injustice but merely another crisis to contain — and with it, an opportunity to display strength by managing the crowd’s anger.

Inside his limo, Peter broke off a reputation-wrecking affair, then stepped out to talk to the mother of the shooting victim. The sight of him lit in red and blue, taking the stage and co-opting her grief, was chilling. But these unflinching scenes played strangely against the Sorkinesque subplot in which Alicia and her adversary host an impromptu debate in front of a hotel’s black and Latino kitchen staff, a cardboard Greek chorus whose apparent function was to applaud their white saviors.

Cocooned in privilege, the Florricks would naturally be too busy demonstrating their enlightened liberalism to seriously engage with other perspectives — but in this moment, the show made the same mistake. This plot competed for airtime with others, about a client’s divorce and the firm’s power plays, further undermining any sense that the creators had properly weighed their subject matter. As Will once seethed at Alicia, “You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are.”

The Good Wife got smarter about Alicia’s limitations in the broader world when the beginning of season seven stuck her in bond court. Her good conscience alone can’t make her into an effective representative of her working-class, majority-minority clients. And the show’s perceptions sharpen once it escapes to the familiar, lusher turf of private practice. There, the partners treat their new black hires, Monica and Lucca, with unthinking, casual condescension — a softer kind of bigotry that, however ugly, doesn’t lead anywhere dire.

This marks a sympathetic shift from the show’s old habit, clever and cynical, of creating side characters who game the system’s biases in their favor, leveraging liberal guilt: Peter’s political adversary from season two, played by a silky Anika Noni Rose, was accused of “playing the race card”; in the courtroom, the sharklike Louis Canning used his disability to win sympathy while another, a new mother, brought her baby as a prop. The show found dark humor in how the powerful can weaponize identity politics. But only with gender did the creators feel comfortable enough to be genuinely playful. Take the cameo by Gloria Steinem, almost literally haloed, as she inspires Alicia to run. Or when, during a quickie with her husband, Alicia breathes in his ear: “You want me to lean in? How’s … that?”

With a vision that was gauzy and jaundiced by turns, the show at its best peered into back corridors of wealth and influence: the deals cut behind closed doors, the settlements decided out of court, the squabbles in the judge’s chambers. That these small rooms were also sexy — romantic tensions rising in elevators; glass-walled offices enabling wistful stares — fit a drama whose most inspired turns emerged from the constraints of network and genre.

More recently, the creators have made those close confines a bleak joke. Eli, demoted to a space that barely fits a desk, is reduced to camping out in the courthouse’s handicapped restrooms and eavesdropping through vents. Alicia gets in trouble for running her business out of her home until her kid defends her in the world’s lowest-stakes court: the condo association. It’s a visual symptom of the show’s shrinking scope: The Good Wife has gone private sector, keeping its concerns close to home.

Rounding the bend toward the final five episodes, the fight seems to have left everyone. At first startled to see Jason kiss another woman, Alicia decides that noncommitment turns her on: “I want to use you and I want you to use me,” she purrs. “I’m seeing you tonight at my apartment. After that, you can do whatever you want.” Walking in on Jason one morning, Peter reflexively threatens to kick his ass — but concedes, almost immediately, to Alicia’s crisp demand for a divorce. The forever-scheming head of family law, David Lee, steps aside to let Diane take over the firm. Alicia’s onetime rival, Cary, announces he’s quitting just because “I don’t like it anymore.”

Ultimately, The Good Wife’s instincts are conservative, its aesthetic classical: The show’s end has been set up to neatly answer its beginning. Alicia has learned about the confessional voicemail that Will left her at the end of season one and reconciled with her regrets; now, she’ll respond to Peter’s final, renewed call for her support, resolved in her desires: “I wasted the last 20 years. I’m not going to waste the next 20.” The show is enjoying a luxury that Hillary herself can’t afford. It doesn’t ask, anymore, what it means to be “good” — just what it is to be satisfied.