May marked the end of the fifth season of The Good Wife, the CBS legal procedural/political drama/soap opera. Produced by Ridley Scott, The Good Wife is the kind of show that tends to be recommended as “the best show you’re not watching,” because it is, well, good. And while somebody is certainly watching it (me; those article writers; you?), it doesn’t have the inescapable cultural presence that Mad Men or Game of Thrones seem to.
For though The Good Wife is good, it’s in a way that makes for bad proselytizing. In its first season, it could be summed as “politician’s wife discovers affair, struggles to make her way in the work force after years as a stay-at-home mom”—a premise I have yet to repeat to anybody without watching them tune me out. But over its five seasons, The Good Wife hasn’t really stuck to that initial conceit—by season five, in fact, it’s become a different show entirely.
Look at season one. It had a compelling heroine in Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), the betrayed wife trying to succeed at her new job at Chicago law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner, maintain her family’s privacy, and deal with the revelation that her husband Peter (Chris Noth) may have been a corrupt politician as well as an unfaithful spouse. She develops a friend and confidante in Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), the firm’s ultra-cool investigator; and a rival in Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), a recent law school graduate who wants her job. Alicia also knows she doesn’t deserve her job—her new boss, Will Gardner, gave her the position because they were friends in law school, and he not-so-secretly carries a torch for her.
You could get plenty out of those relationships without developing them much. But by season five of The Good Wife, you find Alicia and Cary as allies who found a rival law firm, stealing their old employer’s best clients. Will Gardner, enraged by this betrayal, suddenly becomes one of the best antagonists the show has ever had. Alicia and Kalinda’s friendship, central to the first two seasons, has been wrecked beyond repair. And that sleazy husband? He’s the governor of Illinois, though his marriage with Alicia remains, well, fraught.
Despite constantly moving all its pieces around, The Good Wife manages to feel like the same show as that first season. This is in part thanks to its huge recurring cast. No part, however minor, ever seems to wholly disappear. Nothing remains stable, but nothing ever really goes away either. Small choices and betrayals carry through from one season to the next. The Good Wife takes place in an unstable world, but also a real one: if they blow everything up, they also force everyone to reckon with the rubble.
You can see this at work in Alicia’s marriage to Peter, which is constantly healing and then breaking down again. They remain married, they have children, they are eternally linked by that scandal—even if they divorced, they would still remain in each other’s lives. But they don’t divorce. They stay together, and at times seem to still love each other; but though they keep on moving forward, neither of them can really move on.
Still, the biggest shock this season was not, as it turned out, Alicia and Cary betraying their old firm, or the rise of Will Gardner, Romantic Lead Turned Supervillain. Instead, the shock came in the form of the death of main character, one who had been with the show since the beginning. It was a freak death, a one-in-a-million kind of event. But as sudden as that death was, it wasn’t cheap either. And though it was surprising, it was, upon reflection, inevitable.
The cold truth driving The Good Wife is that nothing ever lasts: not your marriage; not your friendships; not your career; not your life. Its heroine is Alicia Florrick, not because she is good, but because she is the one forced to face this truth most clearly and most often. After the betrayal that kicks off the show, she becomes the show’s most ruthless opportunist, though not all at once and not on purpose. At times she is haunted by this newfound aspect of her character. She’s also not going to stop.
This ruthlessness plays into The Good Wife’s other two obsessions: loyalty and privacy. In this world, interpersonal loyalty is both the only real thing anybody has, but also the first thing to go. The lawyers and the politicians of Chicago survive on backdoor deal-making and useful friendships. Loyalty is both necessary (because promises need to mean something) and impossible (because everyone is on the hunt for a better deal). Every time someone runs for office, they vow to end corruption and cronyism, but that just shows they don’t understand how anything works.
Privacy, too, has been a pre-eminent concern of the show’s since Alicia’s (doomed) quest to keep a grip on her family’s privacy in the face of scandal. This quest is undermined not only by the press, but by the Internet—even, eventually, by the NSA. Like all procedurals, The Good Wife rips from the headlines. But it could have developed an NSA plot of its own long before Snowden, because it has always understood that the biggest shift the Internet has brought with it is widespread ability for even ordinary citizens to spy on one another.
In her 1984 essay collection Ordinary Vices, Judith N. Shklar floats the idea that betrayal becomes more common—and carries less weight—the more relationships become contractual and based in mutual self-interest or monetary gain. We do not consider the person who leaves one employer for another employer a traitor in any weighty sense; yet, despite this, something can be betrayed. In a representative democracy, betrayal might just be a fact of life, particularly in politics, where “the fear of betrayal [is] lurking in just those places where trust is most hoped for.”
The Good Wife runs on a trust no one ethos that would seem deeply paranoid if everyone on the show weren’t so normal. But these are ordinary people; they want what everyone wants: a comfortable life. They are not monsters and are even capable of heroism. But living in this world means betraying other people, no matter how much you’d prefer not to. The ones who find the truth of this statement out the soonest are the ones who refuse to believe it. And if betrayal ever comes with a higher price than loyalty, the characters on this show have yet to pay it.