Much in the same way that I don't think a bad season (or series) finale ruins the run of episodes that preceded it, I don't think it's impossible for good finale to salvage a lackluster season. Either type can influence how you end up anticipating a show's return, but it cannot erase all the highs and/or lows that came before.
"What's in the Box?" puts us (or at least me) in such a position. It was a damn fine finale, and it was probably one of the most entertaining, invigorating, and surprising episodes of The Good Wife's run thus far. But it capped off an uneven fourth season full of of ill-conceived and half-baked plots. The episode didn't make me forget any of it—in fact, it reminded me of one of the season's worst annoyances—but it did leave me brimming with anticipation about the show's future in Season 5.
Since we don't cover the show regularly on TV.com, you'll have to excuse the following rundown of Season 4's highlights and lowlights...
First and foremost was the Kalinda and Nick debacle. I'll admit that at first I thought the show was setting up an interesting parallel with Kalinda's inability to escape Nick mirroring Alicia standing alongside Peter, and choosing to do so time and again. That just never materialized. Instead we got sexually charged violence and defiled ice cream cones, with nary an insight into why Kalinda would tolerate this schmuck sticking around. At least it was nipped in the bud fairly quickly; while it did leave Kalinda a tad rudderless until the introduction of Robyn, a rudderless Kalinda is better than an anchored-to-Nick Kalinda.
Oddly for The Good Wife, the political campaign was sort of wishy-washy, but for that I place at least some of the "blame" on NBC and its decision to pick up Go On. I suspect the plan was for Peter to cruise through his primary and just keep campaigning against Matthew Perry's wonderfully smarmy and horrible Mike Kresteva. Since Perry was busy with Go On, we got Maddie Hayward (Maura Tierney) as a feminist challenger in the primary. It was a neat idea to pit Hayward's feminist politics against Peter's moral failures and past history, but it never really came together, and long gaps in Hayward's appearances sort of undercut her threat. Toss in the rushed "We're friends, and now we're not" plot with Alicia, and Maddie was a bit of a mess.
More egregious for me, though, were Eli's various plots, which also felt like the result of Perry's unavailability. T.R. Knight's Jordan Karahalios never actually seemed to do, well, anything even remotely impressive, despite being called a wunderkind by other characters. There was no evidence of him as a threat to Eli beyond his very presence on the campaign, and then the show even dismantled the idea the he was this brilliant campaign manager in the debate episode. His arrival as the campaign manager for the third party candidate in tonight's finale only locked in this idea that Jordan was nothing but an empty suit.
So while Jordan was lurking about, Eli dealt with that bizarre campaign finance corruption case. It was more of an entertaining bit of filler than a real conflict, between Elsbeth's quirky presence and Kyle MacLachlan's even quirkier Josh Perotti. I did appreciate that the show sort of acknowledged this with the musical chairs witnesses to prove the case—it very much said, "Yes, even we know this is kind of silly." At least it was a fun silly.
But while these elements had varying degrees of success (or none at all), at least Season 4 did a decent job with the ups and downs of Lockhart/Gardner. Nathan Lane as Clarke Hayden was an inspired bit of casting against type, and it paid off handsomely for the show. Lane hit all the right notes of pragmatism, loneliness, and zealousness, and all with a restraint that you don't typically associate with the actor. He was never a bad guy, or even an antagonist. He was delightfully more subtle than that, and it helped to give the first half of the season a solid dramatic core.
After recovering from bankruptcy, the show managed to pivot nicely to a new arc about labor issues within the firm. It highlighted the clashes between equity partners and the fourth-year associates led by Alicia and Cary... until the partners promoted Alicia in an effort to break the spine of the rebellious associates, and (again) Kalinda's place in the firm, and her value to them. Unlike past threats to the firm, be it Derrick Bond in Season 2 or the corruption charges against Will last season, this one pitted the show's characters against each other in ways we hadn't seen before, even when Cary was in the state's attorney's office.
All of which brings us to the finale.
"What's in the Box?" was timely (voter fraud and election rigging!), funny (Judge Abernathy! Judge Lessner! Patti Nyholm! Colin Sweeney?!), and surprisingly suspenseful in its final few moments. It also managed to tie up the labor issue surrounding Lockhart/Gardner in a way that promised to really shake up the show in Season 5. It didn't make me forgive any of the bad stuff we saw this season (only lots of drinking will make me ever forget about Nick), but it left me so completely excited for the next one that I cannot wait for the fall season to begin.
The big bombshell, of course, was that Alicia had decided to cast her lot in with Cary and the other fourth-year associates and leave Lockhart/Gardner. Alicia's fielded offers from other lawyers and firms before, the most notable and persistent being Louis Canning, but this time the offer coincided with a couple of factors that I think motivated her to finally accept. The first one is something I think we can all probably agree on, and the second is me perhaps reading too much into Alicia, though it's hard not to do that since she's so damn stoic.
The thread of Season 4 that I opted not to mention above was the Peter-Alicia-Will triangle. Part of the reason is that it's the aspect of the show that I find least interesting, but it's also a part of the show that it'll never give up, so I've generally decided to just take a wait-and-see approach with it.
This season as a whole ramped up the Alicia/Peter stuff, and continued to show Alicia's dedication to Peter, and his to her. The second half, though, brought that absurdly unmotivated kiss between Alicia and Will. While I wasn't a fan of how that played out, the ramifications of it—Alicia dreaming and daydreaming about her time with Will—brought me around on these emotions resurfacing for her enough so that the conflict didn't feel completely tired.
It's this conflict within Alicia, this concern about slipping further with Will—a man she doesn't see much of a future with—that I think led her to accept Cary's offer. The temptation will ease, the frustration will perhaps lessen if she doesn't have to see him every day. Out of sight, out of mind. It's an emotional decision for a woman who has tried to avoid making too many emotional decisions in recent years, but it speaks volumes about just how serious she is about making things work with Peter.
The other reason is a more business-oriented one and again this is just me spitballing. One of the reasons Lockhart/Gardner have kept Alicia on, and eventually offered her a partnership, and what attracts clients to her as well, was her connection with Peter. I think all this talk of being "management" sank in a bit, and now that she's the First Lady of Illinois, her standing has increased that much more. Why shouldn't she step into a firm where she can control and benefit from the influence much more directly? I do still think that, ultimately, the decision was one of emotion, but I given how much emphasis this season has placed on business and managing resources, I couldn't help but think about it.
I just hope it all sticks. One of my quibbles with the show has been its treatment of Cary, and how he was sort of a pinball, bouncing back and forth between L/G, unemployment, and the State's Attorney's office, and I really hope this big narrative shift isn't undone by Episode 2 next season. I want this plot to play out, I want to see the tensions we saw in "Red Team/Blue Team" occur over the course of a season, and I want to know where it all ends up for these characters.
Even before that final scene, "What's In The Box?" was firing on all cylinders. The issue of a tampered ballot box provided a way for the case-of-the-week to intersect with a larger story in the show, and that was refreshing. Normally the cases rely on twists and legal maneuverings to maintain interest, but with this one's connection to the election, it had a real sense of urgency. In typical Good Wife fashion, the legal proceedings ended up being undercut by something else, in this case the votes not mattering in the final count. That the show does this a lot (see last week's episode about the unionizing software coders) is supposed to be one last twist in the case to surprise you, but it also serves to exemplify the occasional futility of the legal system. This time, it was just a much happier ending than they normally have.
While that ballot box issue would be interesting enough, the reversals, the witnesses (poor Nana Jo, poor Buckley), the careful and restrained uses of the quirks of Patti, Abernathy, and Lessner, and the running back and forth also served to elevate the episode beyond a standard Good Wife-quality case.
There are still some stories lingering for us as we go into Season 5 beyond the law firm one. There's the video of Jim with the stuffed ballot box that does not look good for Peter or Eli (and possibly Alicia, since she was in court over the issue); there's the matter of Kalinda and Robyn and which of them ends up where (Kalinda's employment issues have never been the strongest element of the show, and it also only strengthens my conviction that the show never developed a strong baseline for Kalinda, which is why the character struggles with stories that don't involve Alicia); and finally there's Jackie and Cristian and whatever the hell is going on there.
We'll just have to wait for Season 5 to see where it all ends up.
– Alicia's smirk as Abernathy was not going to be swayed by Patti's babies ("Is this a new one?") was priceless.
– Totally forgot about Amanda Peet as Laura Hellinger. I thought she was very good on the show, but sort of like Maddie, her friendship with Alicia just sort of faded in and out so that it never really went anywhere for me.
– "This kind of stunt went out with Perry Mason." "And yet I enjoy it every time."
– "I have dedicated my life to not predicting what Jackie knows."
– "I just want to go home!" "Can you remember your address?" Will is such a bastard.
– Dylan Baker was in full-on scenery-chewing mode. The way he was drawling out Alicia's name was killing me.
– "I love horror movies. You know why I love horror movies?" "Why?" "Because they’re awesome."
– "Can I ask you a hypothetical?" "Nope."
– "She's my wife." "Then punch me."
– "Okay, so, I was thinking over my earlier determination, I thought of a story. Uh, it's about a very young boy, um, an old man, and a donkey. Uh... what the hell, I'm too tired. Judgement in favor of the defense." I like how this indicates a degree of performance in Abernathy's slightly kooky demeanor.
– The appearance from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was a nice nod to the show being shot in New York while being set in Chicago.
– Alicia leaving Lockhart/Gardner did make me think of one other thing: She's never getting that equity stake back from L/G, is she?
– The emphasis on the door in the final scene kept reminding me of the Season 1 episode "Hi." And I thought for sure when Alicia called from the campaign suite that were revisiting the Season 1 finale with the cellphones and the voicemail.
What'd you think of "What’s in the Box?" and the season as a whole?