This post contains spoilers for Season 5 of The Good Wife.
How to sum up the brilliance that was Season 5 of The Good Wife? The accomplishment, put simply, is staggering. From beginning to end, Michelle and Robert King crafted a season of television so propulsive, so packed with incident, so emotionally resonant, so creatively written and directed, and so true to its characters that it will surely go down as one of the best seasons of television ever produced. It’s the kind of television deserving of study by all interested in the medium.
It began on the course set up by the tail end of the previous season. Alicia Florrick, the “Good Wife” herself, and her fellow fourth-year associate Cary Agos had been mistreated by Lockhart/Gardner and were set to jump ship and start their own firm. Even this simple setup was an incredible source of drama in the earliest episodes of Season 5. Of course, shit really hit the fan when Will Gardner, Alicia’s sometimes lover, discovered her intention to split off from the firm. That episode, appropriately titled “Hitting the Fan,” was the kind of hour of TV most shows dream of having even once in their lifetime. It recalled the energy of Mad Men’s Season 3 finale, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” and the shock and awe of Game of Thrones’ “The Rains of Castamere.” The amazing thing about The Good Wife is that they managed to have several other episodes this season alone that matched “Hitting the Fan” for quality and sometimes even intensity.
The best quality of The Good Wife has long been its consistency. Episode after episode, even in the less “good” ones, the show has consistently managed to deliver something of interest. The cases of the week are often surprisingly delightful and engaging. The more serialized arcs are often just as good. The show also does guest stars better than anyone else on television, bar none. This season took that consistency to a whole other level, though.
The series always had a bit of an experimental streak, willing to break itself or its format to see what would happen. The fourth season amped the experimentation up a bit, but Season 5 turned the dial to 11 and didn’t look back. Never mind the various game changer episodes the season had, the season played with filmmaking form in ways unexpected for most TV, let alone a network drama on CBS. There was the score, built around classical music, keeping every scene waltzing to climax after climax. Then the similarly elaborate visual movement, often swaying from one character and story to another with the speed and efficiency of a Sorkin production, but so much more graceful.
Most impressively, the series fully embraced subjective perspective. Many episodes dealt with the memories, fantasies and immediate perceptions of its characters, showing them to the audience in all their messy, flawed beauty. In one episode we saw Alicia and Will recalling memories of a night they spent together, and watched as they used those memories against each other. In another episode, the show playfully explored racial insensitivity by repeating a memory in which Alicia mistakes one black man for another.
Then, of course, there was the biggie. The most shocking episode in the series’ history: Will Gardner was shot and killed almost randomly. The mental effect on Alicia was profound. In the first episode after the shooting, Alicia discovers a message Will had left on her voicemail. It’s a totally ambiguous, interrupted message and ultimately meaningless, but also the last vestige of her former lover’s feelings towards her at the end of his life. Throughout the episode she imagines and re-imagines what Will might have intended when he left the message. This method of exploring her psyche in the aftermath of such trauma was so tragically real and heartbreaking.
And through all this experimentation and willingness to change the game, The Good Wife remained on solid footing. That’s not to say the season was perfect. It wasn’t by any means. But one of the series’ great strengths is that its writers will often recognize when they’re on the wrong track and correct course as soon as possible. Several plot lines throughout the season were either bad from the start or became problematic as they went on, and in each case they were wisely cut. In a couple cases — Jackie seeing bugs, anyone? — the show essentially left them without ever looking back, almost like they never happened. Not many show runners are brave enough to do something like that, but more should.
Yet, as willing as the show runners are to drop story elements that aren’t working, maybe their best instinct is nurturing the stories that do work, and letting them play out in great ways, and often reverberate across seasons. The NSA subplot this season was a silly bit of satire at first, but it worked, and with each episode that they included it, the storyline only got better and more involved until it reached a brilliant conclusion. On a grander scale, none of Season 5 would have worked if the show runners hadn’t so carefully minded the character and story development they’d been conducting over four previous seasons. That’s true of every core relationship in the series, from Alicia and Will, to Will and Diane, to Diane and Alicia, to Cary and Alicia, to Kalinda and Cary and so on and so forth. So many characters, each with complicated relationships with every other character, but always consistently developed, and paid off with such intelligence.
That’s what The Good Wife is most of all: an intelligent show. It’s fun, and a bit trashy, and silly, and melodramatic, but it’s also extremely intelligent. And better still, it’s intelligent both intellectually and emotionally, and often weaves the two sides together to create something truly special. Last night’s season finale, “A Weird Year,” spun together plots and character dynamics from a twenty-two episodes worth of television and more into a gripping hour in which everything seemed to be falling apart and pieced back together at amazing speed. There was inevitability to what occurred, partly within the TV tropes The Good Wife has never shied from, but also in deeply understanding the characters and the kinds of decisions they would make. And even with that inevitability, the final scene served up a twist that is sure to make for a very different and equally compelling Season 6. It’ll be hard to top the accomplishment of Season 5, but at this point I have nothing but the utmost faith in the Michelle and Robert King and extraordinary their team of writers, directors and actors. Fall can’t come soon enough.