The Good Wife‘s May finale capped off its critically-adored run, closing the book on what has been, for seven years, cited as a triumph for women on television. Alicia Florrick was iconic – smart, loyal, sexy, and not dragged down by her husband’s political scandals. She was Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards, and every wronged wife of a philandering political figure, stepping into the courtroom and looking fabulous, proving her value as a form of vengeance.
At least, that was the idea.
In reality, the finale reaffirmed – celebrated, even – everything that’s bothered me about the show for the past few years, when it hit me that this wasn’t empowering at all. I didn’t dare say anything – to call out The Good Wife for false feminism is sort of like announcing you don’t like Beyoncé, and as much as I like healthy debate, the reactions of the few people I let in on my theory convinced me that all hell would break loose if I tried to inject my views into the ether of fandom.
Ironically, it was an overt reference to feminism that made me rethink my views on the show. It was in season four, when they’d lined up a fantastic roster of guest stars, among them, Maura Tierney, whose character was billed as “the doyenne of Chicago Democratic politics” and a feminist. I was thrilled, as a fan of Tierney, of politics, and of feminism. It was the trifecta.
To my dismay, it was another trifecta that they managed to achieve, efficiently suggesting within the six-episode arc that the character was a closeted lesbian, flipping her from a friend to Alicia to a conniving political opponent to Peter, and limiting the interests of the character to reproductive rights and Peter’s propensity toward extramarital sex. I might not have reacted so strongly had the character been played by another actor, or not been billed as a feminist, or been a Republican. But they’d sold me a false bill of goods: I was supposed to be seeing the character that I aspired to be, a powerful political figure unabashedly declaring herself a feminist and standing strong in the midst of the political fray. Instead, I got a trope.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the show had never truly lived up to the idea of a revolutionary celebration of women stepping out of the shadows cast by men. A third of the show was a legal procedural. A third was about the repercussions of her husband’s actions on Alicia. And a third was Alicia deciding which man she wanted to be with.
The finale was a spectacular summary of just that, perhaps best illustrated by the recurring theme of “the future.” Alone in her room, Regina Spekter’s “Better” plays on her laptop as Alicia drifts into a daydream in triplicate, each featuring one of three men – new beau Jason, her husband Peter, and the departed Will – as she struggles to decide who it is she wants to come home to at the end of the day. Later, the ghost of Will asks her, as she looks around her home if she really wants to live there alone. “It will drive you crazy,” he tells her (casually avoiding that she’s having a conversation with a dead man, so that ship may already have sailed).
“What do I do?” Alicia later asks Ghost Will, clarifying, “about my future?” Why didn’t she come to him for answers when she had the chance, she asks.
We circle back to the same question when Alicia’s daughter Grace announces that she’s deferring college for a year. “I’m not going to the West Coast when Dad’s in trouble. You wouldn’t do it,” she tells her mother.
“This is about your future,” Alicia replies, to which Grace responds that she gets to decide her own future.
As the episode ends, we get a bookend to the premiere, with Alicia standing by Peter as he apologizes for his latest scandal. He reaches for her hand, and this time, Alicia doesn’t take it. Not because it’s a symbolic assertion of her independence. Rather, it’s to chase after Jason, who she spots in the audience.
The episode saves itself from ending with Alicia chasing down a man by inserting the one true feminist hero into the fray, a seething Diane Lockhart, who stands face-to-face and delivers a deserved slap to Alicia and leaving her to square her shoulders and walk off with her head held high (and her cheek red).
The slap itself juxtaposes the two women: it was Alicia’s decision to undermine Diane’s husband, Kurt, on the stand by suggesting that he had been unfaithful to Diane, all in order to save Peter from serving jail time, that precipitated the slap. And the suggestion itself was perhaps the most ludicrous, hypocritical thing Alicia could do, given her long-standing defense of her philandering husband.
It was also an insulting suggestion of how powerful women behave, deliciously called out by real-life feminist badass Senator Claire McCaskill, who tweeted:
Loved the series,but I work around strong,powerful, professional women & I can’t imagine any of them slapping another colleague.
Over the final scene, a reprise of “Better” plays, perfectly synching Diane’s appearance with the lines, “born like sisters to this world in a town where ties are only blood. If you never say your name out loud to anyone, they can never call you by it.”
It captures the legacy of the final episode perfectly – first, Alicia’s willingness to sell Diane down the river in order to aid Peter, even though it’s been Diane who has guided and supported Alicia while Alicia attempts to clean up after her husband. And second, it’s the title of the show, itself: The Good Wife. Seven years after his first downfall, Alicia is still there to stand by Peter, to put aside everything in order to help ease his fall after fall from grace, and she leaves his side in search of another man. Her identity, her career, her autonomy are all cast aside in favor of the men in her life.
I don’t want to frame this as a fight over how to be a feminist or what makes a woman worthy of being lauded as an icon of female autonomy, but I also don’t want to sit by while television – an industry overwhelmingly produced, directed, written, and overseen by men – sells us a false image of what a feminist and a powerful female character are, one with which they are comfortable and we are to conform.