I watched the last episode of The Good Wife last night, and echoes of it stayed with me as I dreamed and woke to thoughts of Alicia Florrick’s life beyond the frame of the story her creators have told. As a fan of the show, I’ve written about particular episodes in previous seasons (here and here), and then I lapsed into silence, waiting to see what the writers were up to. I enjoyed the way they played with the feminist voices raised in praise or blame of their choices: they were clearly writing a feminist show, but they were also telling a story about a woman, Alicia, and her choices, bound by the confines of living within a patriarchy here, now. In this life, with this husband and these children, this job, this lover, this mother and brother, these friends and colleagues and enemies. Who is Alicia? This became the central question of the show—for those in her life, for those of us watching her, and for Alicia herself. It is that question—and the ways Alicia approached or avoided its answer—that The Good Wife asks again and again. It is that question that was the feminist heartbeat of the show.
When Will died, Alicia was absolutely bereft. The power of her grief shocked her: she had become adept at freezing out her own emotions. Will’s death made it impossible for her to ignore herself any longer—her own needs, her own thoughts. And yet. She was still frozen, unsure what to do or where to go. She realized—too late—that she had been in love, and unwilling to take the steps to own that love, and to own her life beyond her roles as wife and mother and lawyer.
As I watched Alicia grieve—and began to understand the paralysis at the core of her character—I experienced, not for the first time, frustration at not knowing Alicia before. I wanted glimpses of her life as a stay-at-home mother with young children, the wife of an up-and-coming lawyer. I wanted to see her make the choice not to use her law degree, the pain of that sacrifice and why she made it. Were there dinners that she choked down, wearing pearls and shooting daggers at the woman across the table from Peter? Were there bedraggled days at the park, a screaming two-year-old in tow? What were her joys? Why had she fallen in love with Peter? Had she ever truly been in love with him, or was she simply attracted to the idea of him, to his height and his power and his dark magnetism? I wanted these questions answered, but slowly I realized I would never really know Alicia. I saw her nostalgia about her old house, but I didn’t know what her nostalgia was made of—Cheerios and Good Night Moon? Bread and roses? Did Alicia even know what it was she missed?
I began to suspect she didn’t. And by the end of the show—by last night’s episode—I understood why.
The good wife stands by her man, you know. In fact, she is subsumed by him. She forgets her own name, and is happy to do so. And Alicia, throughout the seven seasons of the show, was trying to be the good wife—she didn’t know what else to be.
Oh, of course she broke some rules. She took a lover. When he died, she took another. She didn’t live with her husband, and no made no attempts outside of scheduled photo ops to hide her contempt for him. She was outspoken about her atheism. She wryly acknowledged the irony in playing a traditional wife for Peter’s campaign, mocking her role even as she fulfilled it. But never—in all the years we watched Alicia continue to be Peter’s wife after he subjected her to the shame of utter public humiliation—did she leave, just to be herself. The closest she came to leaving Peter was caring for another man.
This is the point The Good Wife makes, and asks us to understand in its final episode: the good wife stands by her man because she doesn’t know who she is without him.
When Alicia took Jason as a lover, she did so with eyes wide open, or so she told herself. She was using him, and he was using her. She got off on the power of it. There was just one problem: she fell in love. Or did she? She never seems quite sure. She can’t even speak to herself in her own voice, or use her own judgements or conscience as a guide.
Instead, she speaks to herself through Will, daydreaming in this final episode. She asks him for legal advice in representing Peter zealously, and gets the permission she needs to subject Diane to a small-scale version of the public sexual humiliation she herself has survived. (The irony here takes some time to fully absorb: Alicia allows the sexual shaming of Diane, a woman who has supported and mentored her, in order to exonerate Peter, the man who sexually shamed her. And she relies on the advice of a dead man, who she has idealized in fantasy, to do it.) After giving her legal advice, this fantasy Will gives her insight into herself: he tells Alicia that she has little self-awareness.
Alicia also garners information about herself from Jason, who tells her she needs to feel needed because it keeps her from tipping over. Alicia’s identity crisis is becoming clear: Peter, Will, and now Jason are all props, smokescreens to keep Alicia from having to know herself, and thus deal with herself.
And so we come to the end: Alicia does leave Peter, her hand slipping from his as she chases a mirage of Jason, who is not there. She stands alone in a lighted hallway, and then Diane appears to slap her hard across the face: sexual shame has stung them both, and is now a weapon between them. This is one of the deepest veins of truth running through the show: the betrayals women visit upon one another in the name of getting or keeping a man.
Finally, Alicia is alone. In a lighted hallway. She squares herself and heads toward an open door.
Is she still chasing Jason? Will Peter catch up to her and convince her he needs more from her? Will Eli catch her and remake her in her own image: the good wife become political dynamo?
We don’t know, because Alicia doesn’t know. These questions—some unconscious, some not, some unasked, some not—are the ones Alicia has spent her life avoiding. As Alicia walks toward that open, lighted door, our hope is that she is walking, for the first time, toward herself.