‘The Good Wife’s’ Ambivalence: Saying Goodbye to a Hesitant Heroine

Alicia’s ambivalence often tips her character into anti-hero territory, but it also registers a deep discomfort with the narratives available to and limited by her role as the “good wife”.

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.

Alicia is unsettling because she never settles; she is elusive, even to herself. She moves and works in fields predicated on authenticity — the law on guilt or innocence, politics on character — but fields that are in actuality built around the performance of authenticity. For Alicia, that authenticity might mean deep ambivalence, but that ambivalence often looks like indifference to those around her.

On The Good Wife, ambivalence is more than contradictory feelings, it’s a state of both caring and not caring. Alicia cares deeply, but so much of what she cares about means buying into the black and white terms women are so often presented with: leave or stay, work or home, freedom or stability. So much of Alicia’s ambivalence stems from her discomfort with the terms of these often deeply gendered binaries.

The Good Wife’s ambivalence is neither nostalgic nor progressive. Often, it manifests in Alicia’s refusal to play an agential part in the passing of her own life. But it’s also what makes moments of choice so exhilarating (see the second season finalé and nearly all of season five) and moments of real regret so painful (the highlights of this current season).

The Good Wife reveals that there’s something about the self we can’t quantify. Ambivalence rarely registers as ambivalence — it’s hesitation, indifference, coldness. There’s no voice, no box to check that makes ambivalence a legible or intelligible position, particularly in the law and politics. The sixth season’s election plot failed because it didn’t have the same energy as season five. Alicia was deeply ambivalent about running; she was acquiescing to pressure from the world around her (including Gloria Steinem!) to choose a narrative.

But in Kalinda Sharma, the showrunners gave us a character who was profoundly and persistently ambivalent. She cared deeply, but she stood outside the boundaries of the circumscribed world within the show. Her refusal to play by anyone’s terms made her powerful and alluring, her breakup with Alicia all the more heartbreaking. But the Kings could never figure out how to write strong storylines for a character who moved outside those terms. Unmoored from her central relationship with Alicia, Kalinda’s storylines faltered when the slippage between her public persona and private feeling was no longer the driving force.

The Good Wife has always trafficked in complicated truths. Far from signaling weakness or failure, Carina Chocano writes, “mixed feelings are not only what make us human, they’re what make us truly rational.” (“Je regrette“, Aeon)

In a recent episode, Alicia throws a party for her mother-in-law and Howard Lyman. It’s a wonderful bottle episode featuring the series most indelible regular and guest characters meandering through Alicia’s space and offering their goodbyes to Alicia and to us. Zach returns from college (with a fiancé, no less) to cause a parenting hiccup and throw the Florrick’s divorce into greater relief, but he remarks to his mom: “You seem frazzled … It’s a good thing. It’s more real.”

In its later seasons, The Good Wife has blithely commented on its own medium, gifting us with the fictional True Detective alternative “Darkness at Noon” and dropping in on NSA phone tappers consuming Alicia’s life like a surreptitious soap opera. But Zach’s offhand comment offers a surprising and more intimate metafictional moment.

Alicia’s ambivalence has always had a distancing effect. To those around her, she projects self-confidence, imperviousness, or even iciness. Like Zach, as a culture, we find it a lot easier to deal with “real” women, the kind who perform their gender roles in more familiar and legible ways. The frazzled hostess, the protective mother, the bitchy boss, the good wife, these are all women that are easier to understand because we know them better, we see them everywhere.

Alicia’s ambivalence often tips her character into anti-hero territory, but it also registers a deep discomfort with the narratives available to and limited by her role as the “good wife”. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2014, The Good Wife “might have looked much like an empowerment procedural for the ladies, a “Lean In” fairy tale about a strong woman who would find her way.” (“Shedding Her Skin: The Good Wife’s thrilling transformation.” The New Yorker) To their credit, the Kings gave us a much darker, more complex and morally ambiguous portrait of a woman struggling to navigate the narrative trajectory of her own life.

“I loved that you stood by your husband. A lot of people my age think it’s a throwback to an old kind of domesticity, but I think it’s a harbinger of a new feminism. Like Huma Abedin, you know? Women should do what they want, even if what they want is to stand by their man.”

Hannah (Zach’s surprise fiancé) nervously unloads all the thoughts on Alicia, but the show reminds us how naïve her privileged 23-year-old perspective is. Jason, this season’s hunky new love interest, voices a different kind of privileged naivety: “I don’t like spending more than a year in any one place, I like to be able to drop everything at a moment’s notice and just go… I am trying to explain to you that I can’t be stuck.”

In this final season, the show brings Alicia full circle, giving voice and shape to competing visions of freedom. The final shot leaves us where the show began: Alicia, in a passageway, poised between two directions.

That’s what’s made her such a compelling character to return to year after year. Some part of Alicia always remains unknowable, even to herself. Over the course of the series’ seven-year run I’ve watched seasons on the air and waited and binged them later. Wherever and whenever I found myself watching, I always found something profound in Alicia’s ambivalence.

Katie Dyson is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago where she teaches and writes about modernism, narrative, ethics, violence, in/and pop culture.