With the finalé of The Good Wife recently aired, what I’ll miss most after seven seasons of this CBS show is its portrait of profound ambivalence. Hidden in the trappings of a legal procedural (trappings it quickly shed over the course of its first two seasons) is a nuanced portrait of a complex woman, something all too rare on television and even rarer on network television.
Julianna Margulies plays the role of Alicia Florrick, the titular “good wife” and the fictional avatar for a cultural fascination with the wives silently standing behind their husbands and weathering their political scandals. If the series’ initial premise was a cathartic promise to ask why a woman might stand by her scandal-plagued husband, it quickly taught its audience to ask why not? with equal sincerity. Margulies masterful performance rests in her ability to convey both Alicia’s depth of private feeling and the masks she inevitably wears in public. Settling is never just settling — it doesn’t erase hurt, humiliation, and love, it just makes what we see on the outside a whole lot more orderly.
Yet, in the midst of the standout fifth season, the show changes the question. Jill Hennessy’s Rayna Hecht asks, “What do you want?” Alicia answers evasively and earnestly: “I want a happy life. And to control my own fate.”
The Good Wife has always centered on the domains of human life women most frequently desire to control, the very domains that remain most out of our individual control: our identities as wives, mothers, professionals, and public figures. Alicia is Saint Alicia to some, poison to others; the show always reminds us that she is both victim and offender.
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