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The Good Wife Watch: Compromising Positions

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Spoilers for the season finale of The Good Wife:

The Good Wife‘s first season ended–well, almost ended–with Alicia and Peter Florrick standing in a backstage corridor, very much like the one where she hauled off and slapped him across the face for betraying her in the show’s pilot. The pilot was a very good one, but the contrast between the two hallway scenes shows how much better and more nuanced a series The Good Wife has become since then.

Maybe in an understandable effort to draw viewers in, that pilot drew stark lines of right and wrong, and positioned us solidly on Alicia’s side. And we’re still there—but with every episode since, the show has a done an excellent job of showing that no one has a monopoly on either right or wrong.

As much as I liked the pilot last fall, it seemed solidly in the tradition of well-executed network legal drama: there might be twisty cases, dark themes and ethical questions, but not much moral gray area. The characters were much more starkly delineated. Peter was a louse. Alicia was our heroine. Diane was a woman who sabotaged other women. Will was the good guy who would balance her out.

Since then, though, The Good Wife has developed into a show with moral shadings comparable to a good cable drama. (People focus a lot on the content differences between broadcast and cable—skin, blood and language—but as important or more are the differences in character ambiguity.) We’ve seen, over time, that the seeming bad guys of the pilot were not necessarily so bad (and/or, as in Peter’s case, bad in different ways than we suspected).

And we’ve seen that the good guys are not entirely good. Instead, the show’s repeated theme has been that nearly everyone, in one way or another, will compromise themselves sometimes to get what they want, sometimes for idealistic ends and sometimes for selfish ones. And fittingly, the season finale, “Running,” gave us one example after another of that.

Diane, having been humanized since the pilot, is still no saint; she’s still capable of selling out McVeigh to undermine his testimony for the states’ attorney. Kalinda, who has often been the fixer whose questionable methods have gotten results, is suspected of getting a cop killed through one of her deals; after she’s vindicated, she goes behind her firm’s back to turn in the woman actually responsible for the killing. That woman herself (Amy Acker) turns out to have an understandable motivation—he was a battered wife—but resorted to setting up a murder to free herself. And Will, who initially seemed like a relative straight arrow but has shown a cynical streak, doesn’t flinch when the firm lucks into getting the widow a half-mil settlement anyway. (And let’s not even get started on Alan Cumming’s deliciously amoral Eli Gold.)

Alicia, meanwhile, has survived her try-out period to get a permanent position at the firm, but has cut her own deals, used influence and taken ethical shortcuts on the way to getting there. (And Julianna Margulies has unreservedly been willing to show her character’s ruthless side.) Which leaves her as an enemy Cary—who, we’ve since learned, is not quite the entitled snot he was first implied to be. It’s made for a fascinating, and refreshingly nonsanctimonious, look at legal and personal ethics over the course of this season. Peter’s reverend, in this season-ender, may have expressed a key tenet of this show to Peter’s mother (who has also emerged more complex over the year): “[Peter] is a bad man. I’m a bad man. Even you, Mrs. Florrick.”

Which is not to say any of them are wholly bad, either. They’re engagingly in-between. That’s why, although I don’t mind the Alicia-Peter-Will cliffhanger the episode ended on—will she stand by her man again?—as a device to get viewers back next year, I’d be there, cliffhanger or no.