Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife" (CBS/Paul Sarkis)

How the "The Good Wife" went bad: Your comprehensive guide to the many recent fails of a previously-great show

“The Good Wife’s" fifth season was its best yet. So why has this season been so disappointing?


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Sonia Saraiya
May 7, 2015 10:58PM (UTC)

Season 5 of “The Good Wife” was a fantastic, thrilling season of television. Yes, “The Good Wife” is primarily about a clutch of well-heeled attorneys in a few Chicago law firms, which doesn’t quite sound like edge-of-your-seat suspense, and yes, it required four years of back story to fully understand, which is a lot of commitment for new viewers. But “The Good Wife” is a prestige drama built on the network model, meaning that its 22-episode seasons offered plenty of entry points to drop into the world of the characters, whether that was through ongoing fourth-year-associate drama or a tech-oriented case of the week. One of the reasons the season was so appealing was because it contained its own arc, too—the long-awaited denouement of Will and Alicia’s smoldering romance, precipitated in large part by actor Josh Charles’ decision to leave the show. The fifth season told the story of Alicia attempting to establish independence, and some of that meant hurting the people closest to her. When Will died suddenly partway through the season, Alicia was forced to deal with how much she’d hurt him—and ultimately found a path to making a mark without either him or her husband, Peter, when she decided to run for Illinois state’s attorney.

This season has not felt nearly as rewarding. Now, the question I get from fellow fans of “The Good Wife,” over and over again, is simply: What happened? The tightest network drama on television fell apart, seemingly overnight. On the eve of the finale, it’s hard to tell what this season has been about: We watched an election, a stint in prison, an investigation of a drug dealer, and the aftereffects of voter fraud, but it has been difficult to assemble the events into a cohesive narrative, and harder still to surmise why any of that narrative matters to us, the viewers. The upcoming seventh season is widely believed to be the show’s last, which somehow makes the missteps more poignant. Is this how it’s going to be from now on? Was it all downhill after Charles left the show? What went wrong? Here are at least some of the things that made Season 6 a strange, unfulfilling disappointment.

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1. Kalinda, part one: The character

It’s kind of impossible to discuss “The Good Wife’s" trajectory so far without acknowledging the increasingly different role of Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), the impossibly badass legal investigator who was very important in the first few seasons and then the center of a rather unsatisfying plot with her estranged husband, Nick, in Season 4. (Indeed, the plot was so unpopular with fans that the drama’s showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, wrote Nick out of the story a whole half-season early.) As revolting as Nick and Kalinda’s adventures with soft serve were, Nick was only a symptom of the bigger problem: The Kings had no idea what to do with Kalinda. The character was a creative darling they couldn’t bring themselves to kill—made harder, I imagine, by Panjabi herself, who is admittedly fantastic in the limited role.

Kalinda’s raison d’être in Seasons 1 and 2 was her friendship with the main character and titular good wife of the show, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). She wasn’t just Alicia’s closest friend in those first few years at the law firm, she was her only friend. Then at the end of Season 2, Alicia discovers that well before they were friends, Kalinda slept with her husband, Peter (Chris Noth). Both are devastated, and their relationship never heals. The show turned its attention to different things, partly because that’s the type of avoidance people pursue on a regular basis in order to get around awkward, intimate conversations.

It was a beautiful, sad breakup, all the more so for being a friend-breakup instead of a romantic one. Alicia threw herself into an affair with Will (Charles), driven, clearly, by a need to one-up both her husband and her best friend. Kalinda carried a torch, of sorts: She saw Alicia as an innocent she’d managed to hurt with her carelessness, so she became fiercely protective of her. It became melodramatic—Alicia’s daughter disappeared, and Kalinda found her; Alicia talked to the wrong criminal, and Kalinda went to the mattresses, with a baseball bat at the ready.

And without Alicia’s friendship to humanize her, Kalinda became a caricature. Her authenticity with Alicia couldn’t really be replicated with anyone else without betraying the essential nature of the character’s closed-off reluctance to connect with other people, so she became a tight-lipped, leather-clad robot, more an embodiment of tortured “cool” than a relatable character. What the character needed was to mend fences with Alicia and resume her role as mysterious but loyal sidekick.

By sometime in Season 4, it seemed like it was on the horizon. They’d both made some efforts toward reconciliation (the chair-turning was a big step), and every other character relationship involving Alicia was explored in great detail: She reckoned managers, co-workers, extended family and political rivals. Kalinda brought Alicia some stuff when Alicia was working on a case in Minnesota, and they hung out in a hotel room, kind of just like old times.

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And then it just… never… happened.

2. Kalinda, part two: The off-screen drama
That moment in the hotel was the last time they spoke. In 2014, BuzzFeed reported that Margulies and Panjabi had not been in the same scene for 30 episodes—when they had to speak, it was merely on the phone. Then Panjabi announced she was leaving at the end of the sixth season. But that deadline did not change her on-screen dynamic with Margulies. At this point, the two have not been in the same scene for more than 50 episodes—an insane factoid, considering both actresses won Emmys for playing their roles opposite each other in the first few seasons of the show. As of right now—one episode away from the end of Panjabi’s tenure on the show—the most closure we’ve gotten on this friendship is a flashback and a handwritten note conveyed through a third party.

As a viewer who is invested in the relationship between these two characters, it has not been satisfying in the least—and worse, seems manufactured to manage some off-screen drama. The general consensus is that the two actresses had a falling out, but how that could affect their shared scene-time in a business where ex-romantic partners routinely act opposite each other is anyone’s guess. But the shift left Kalinda at loose ends, arrested partway between a reconciliation with Alicia and increasing narrative irrelevancy. Josh Charles’ off-screen decision ended up being a limitation that worked in the Kings’ favor; for some reason, Panjabi’s situation wasn’t as manageable.

The result is that the sixth season is a slog of missed opportunities and unfulfilled desire—platonic desire, sure, but desire nonetheless. Will’s absence has left a void in the show’s character-driven storytelling that Kalinda simply could not fill. There is no analogue to Season 5's scintillating “A Few Words,” but for Alicia’s friendship with Kalinda; there is not even “Yet Another Ham Sandwich,” to round out the first two stories of grand jury indictments that both centered on Kalinda and Alicia.

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Which leads me to my next point:

3. Anticlimax

Almost every major story line in this season of “The Good Wife” has fizzled out. (The only one that didn’t was the one about Kalinda, and as I just attempted to explain, nothing with Kalinda felt like it was working.) Every story line—every exhaustively plotted story line—took its characters to a place that looked and felt an awful lot like the beginning, but seemingly without the intention of commenting on that strange déjà vu. Like:

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a) Firm musical chairs. So it’s Florrick & Agos, but then Florrick, Agos, & Lockhart, and then Lockhart, Agos, & Lee. Got all that? There’s some reasoning for why all these lawyers keep switching places, but the main reason is that “The Good Wife” didn’t want to write out either Diane (Christine Baranski) or David Lee (Zach Grenier) as regular cast members. But in order to justify that, the story has to undergo a Byzantine rearrangement of names and partnerships—and goes one step further, into the almost unthinkably convenient: It moves the new firms back into the old offices of Lockhart/Gardner, just a few months after Alicia and Cary so dramatically took their leave.

b) Election drama. Alicia runs for SA, wins, but then gets embroiled in an internal Democratic Party scandal and is forced to withdraw. It’s devastating, but it renders most of the season’s storytelling meaningless—what was the point, Alicia seems to be saying to herself, as she furiously sands down a salvaged wooden door in last week’s “Don’t Fail.” At least she has the door. The rest of us have no such comforts. Almost 20 episodes of storytelling, including famous guest stars, charged conversations with Peter, and Alicia having to campaign for something with her complete lack of poker face—and yet the show never truly explained why the hell Alicia wanted to run for office, or what she thinks is “good,” or “right,” or “necessary.” So much of the show leading up to this season has indicated that Alicia is a character driven by ambition and self-interest. It’s only occasionally that the characters have had a moment to pause and ask themselves—am I doing the right thing? Do I care about what I’m accomplishing? Alicia’s campaigning did not bring her closer to at-need populations in a significant way, or reveal to her the rich rewards of power. Instead it just seemed to be a thing she did because she was tired of lawyering, which struck me as phony in the extreme: Anyone who watched Alicia defend a case would know that she lived for her moments in the courtroom.

After all of that—all of that—to have her lose the seat in what is both hurriedly explained and a little too pat (Wouldn’t there be a recount? Red tape? Technicalities?)… well, it’s enough to make even the most loyal of fans a little batty.

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c) That whole plot that was lifted from “The Wire,” or something. When it started, the subplot that dealt with the firm’s dealings with drug kingpin Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter) seemed like one of the rare moments where “The Good Wife” would take note of the almost shocking amorality of its protagonists, these assembled lawyers who use the terminology of truth and justice almost exclusively to get paid a great deal of cash. Bishop has hovered in the series’ periphery from the start; in Season 6, he becomes markedly more dangerous, to the point that he gets Cary in jail and facing six years of prison, forces Kalinda to run errands for him, and uses his lawyers as a fence to avoid prosecution.

All season, this plot seemed like it was poised to blow; all season, it doesn’t. Things happen, yes. But the impact of the story never sinks in. Alicia has to fend off some questions about Bishop during her election, but otherwise, it’s a nearly isolated suspense plot—one that culminates in Kalinda sacrificing her life in Chicago in order to protect the people she cares about and put Bishop behind bars. She’s disappeared before, as we’ve been told. But the audience already knew she was leaving the show, meaning that as soon as Kalinda started tangling with Bishop, it was not hard to guess that he would be responsible for how she was going to get written off the show.

In short, we got a lot of stories that ended approximately nowhere—while taking the most predictable routes to get to the aforesaid nowhere. Not even Sarah Steele as Marissa Gold, mining comedy out of every moment she’s on-screen, can make that better.

4. Where's Eli? 

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Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold—joined this year by his daughter Marissa (Steele)—is one of the show’s real treasures, a Rahm Emanuel type with an irrepressible personality and more heart than he’d like to admit. An election plot seemed to guarantee time with him—I mean, that is what happened in Season 2, when he was brought on full-time—but instead the election plot was dominated by performances by David Hyde Pierce, David Krumholtz, Steven Pasquale and Oliver Platt. That’s a lot of new faces in a show that was already struggling to tell character stories without Will Gardner; Eli would have been, at least, a familiar presence. Instead, part of the reason the election story line felt interminable was that it was really hard to care for all these new characters, though they’re all capable actors. Margulies always makes the most of things, and it was fine, but it just didn’t feel compelling or fantastic, which I’ve come to expect from this show. Plus, there was that whole thing with Alicia hooking up with Pasquale’s Johnny, which was just weird, because:

5. Just kiss already!

The best thing about Season 6 was the introduction of Matthew Goode’s Finn Polmar, the extraordinarily handsome not-so-subtle Will replacement who eventually moved into the old Lockhart/Gardner offices. Any time Alicia needs a lawyer, she doesn’t call Diane or Cary, she calls Finn; midseason, they approach a perilous near-kiss, before Alicia demurely backs off. I get it: The Kings probably want to build up that relationship in the seventh season, both so that they can impose a reasonable amount of time between Will’s death and Alicia’s next relationship and so that they have something to do in the seventh season. But it has been so boring watching them delicately maneuver around each other. I know it’s common practice to do the big romantic twists in the season finale, but this season could have used an injection of good ol’-fashioned banging to keep things interesting. (Lest you call me uncouth: “The Good Wife” has lust baked into its premise, and in Season 3 featured some of the hottest sex ever seen on network. This is a show whose energy feeds on libido.)

***

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Let me be clear: “The Good Wife” has surprised me in the past, and it might manage to again. Last week’s “Don’t Fail” was one of the first great episodes after a stretch of middling ones, and the show has surprised me both in season finales (like the one coming up next week) and in its ability to make a whole season pivot on a dime, from mediocre to brilliant. Everything could change Sunday night, and I would be so happy to see it. But if you want to know what went wrong up till now, unfortunately, the reasons are all too clear.


Sonia Saraiya

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