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The Good Wife series finale: the one moment that explains this entire show

The Good Wife.
The Good Wife.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This article deals with the plot of The Good Wife and contains spoilers about what happened during the show's series finale.

The Good Wife ended its seven-season, 156-episode run in the same way it started: with a speech, a slap, and Alicia Florrick once again all by herself.

Fan reaction to the series finale has been mixed. That's understandable. Vox's Todd VanDerWerff argued that the show never quite recovered from a major twist in its fifth season, unable to regain its momentum.

But there was one fantastic moment in the finale that exemplified the story this show wanted to tell and reminded viewers how when the show was firing on all cylinders, it was one of the most rewarding pieces of television in recent memory.

That moment is a shot-by-shot recreation of the series' pilot episode.

The Good Wife started with a walk of shame and a slap

The one thing to understand about The Good Wife is that it's a story about one woman's evolution. The show premiered in 2009, a little over a year after federal agents determined that former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had patronized a high-priced prostitution ring, leading Spitzer to resign.

The Good Wife's premise was similar to the scandal — State's Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) has admitted that he slept with prostitutes, and his wife, Alicia (Julianna Margulies), has to pick up the pieces. She must figure out if her marriage is worth saving, find a job to support her family, take care of said family, adapt to her husband's incarceration, and deal with all of this with little to no help.

The challenge for the show was to figure out a sweet spot between drawing upon the familiar (the Spitzer scandal) and being distinct enough to stand apart from the headlines.

The show's pilot gets at that in its first few minutes. There's an establishing scene that looks like it could be a Spitzer dramatization — Peter and Alicia enter a press conference holding hands and, under the hot glare of the spotlight and prodding journalists, try to put up a strong, mutual front:

The Good Wife's first episode. (CBS)

At this point, we don't know the Florricks. We have no idea what's going on in their personal lives. We haven't a clue about how much Alicia knows or doesn't know about her husband's indiscretions. And the characters are presented to us as strangers — the above close-up of their hands (shot from behind) builds a wall between them and us but keeps us intrigued, looking for any kind of clues as to who these people might be.

But something fascinating happens. The show slowly begins to peel back the curtain on Alicia's mindset. She gets distracted. She gets fidgety. You get the feeling that she doesn't have a handle on things. And at the end of the press conference, she reveals her vulnerability and rage.

She slaps Peter:

The Good Wife. (CBS)

That slap — its violence — tells you everything. It's anger, but also frustration. Alicia wants to hurt Peter for hurting her, but there's a sense that he betrayed her not just by sleeping with other women but also by leaving her with a mess to deal with. Right before she slaps him, Alicia pauses briefly, and it's obvious how overwhelmed she is.

The moment following the slap is also important. She adjusts her suit. She straightens herself out. Even if her world is crumbling and she's struggling to breathe, she will not let anyone know it.

You're on this woman's side. The slap is the least that Peter deserves. You want to see how Alicia will adjust to her new life. And just like that, The Good Wife and Alicia have you.

The Good Wife ended with a walk of shame and a slap

The Good Wife ends where it all began. Peter and Alicia hold hands. They enter a press conference where he will resign his governorship because of an allegation that he helped one of his donors' sons get off for murder.

Again, these moments are shot from behind, and we focus on the couple's hands. We once again get a hint of Alicia's mental state. She's wearing a black suit. And instead of playing for the cameras, she gets distracted by a man she believes is Jason (her private investigator and kinda-sorta boyfriend) looking at her from the wings.

This is a different Alicia.

She runs to find Jason — abruptly leaving Peter's press conference. She finds herself in a similar hallway (keep an eye on the red bars!), by herself and overwhelmed.

But this time, instead of doling out the slap, Alicia receives a faceful of open hand, courtesy of her former boss and mentor Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski):

The Good Wife. (CBS)

Unlike her husband, Alicia is not getting slapped for sleeping with prostitutes. Rather, Diane slaps her because Alicia (during cross-examination at Peter's trial) undermined Diane's husband, making him look unreliable and not credible, in hopes of saving Peter from going to jail. It was a cutthroat move, considering how close Alicia and Diane are.

But Alicia goes through with it to save Peter. If she can accomplish that, maybe she can save her own independence. Jason first made the point a few episodes ago that if Peter goes to jail, Alicia wouldn't divorce him. Lucca Quinn repeated it again in the series finale.

Make no mistake, Alicia is putting her life and her interests ahead of Diane's.

A tiny moment of realization flits across Alicia's face after she gets hit. But it's unclear whether she's in shock because she got hit, in shock because she knows why she got hit, or in shock because she's flashing back to something similar happening seven years ago in this same exact spot:

The Good Wife. (CBS)

What's fascinating is what Alicia does after she takes the hit. The slap hurt, yes, but she brushes it off. (Margulies is brilliant at conveying this.) Alicia wipes a tear, and her face quickly sharpens to a glare. It's back to business:

The Good Wife. (CBS)

When she straightens her suit — the same exact gesture we see her perform in the first episode — we don't see her face, making us feel like we shouldn't be able to relate to her as much anymore. We're being shut out of her life.

The Good Wife. (CBS)

This is a different creature from the one we saw 155 episodes ago. She's gone from someone who's been wronged to someone doing the wronging. She's learned so much in these seven years. She's seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. And she's figured out how to separate business from the personal.

She knows about power and knows what makes it work.

She's also morally compromised, and we're not bound to be on her side. We never had to sign a pledge of fealty to Saint Alicia to watch the show, but especially in the beginning of the series there was a sense that her side was the "right" side. Now we may still want to see her win, but we also know her best interests aren't always the morally correct ones.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of this ending is that it really isn't an end.

We're back at the beginning — geographically we're in the hallway again — but the Alicia in front of us is far more ready, far more capable, and far different. She's become a cunning, menacing presence — the kind of person her husband was, the kind of person she would have slapped seven years ago, the kind of person who, after the intervening years, can get as ugly as anything thrown at her.

She's ready.

And the show, even if it's lost its way at times, has never wavered from telling that story.

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