David M. Russell/CBS
May 06, 2016 02:35 PM

Sex and politics are both immensely complicated topics. Combine the two into sexual politics, and you have something approaching psychological string theory.

For seven solid seasons, The Good Wife, CBS’s now-concluding dramatic series starring Julianna Margulies, 49, was the best series ever to tackle this tangled, inflammatory, of-the-moment topic.

When the series premiered in 2009, its premise – the wife of a philandering Chicago politician decides to rebuild her life while negotiating with all the fallout – drew comparisons both to the sex scandal that had forced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer out of office and, of course, to the endless triumphs and travails of Hill and Bill.

Seven seasons later, the show is set to end with Alicia becoming one of the name partners in an all-women, blue-chip firm, even as Hillary Clinton is considered a solid bet to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.

And yet here, in the next-to-penultimate episode, we found Alicia being condescendingly congratulated by her future daughter-in-law for – as the future daughter-in-law said – standing by her ethically challenged husband, much as Huma Abedin had Anthony Weiner.

Alicia responded with a slight, incredulous tensing of her brow. This was a typical Alicia response: She was sometimes not so much Alicia as Alice, puzzling out her Wonderland.

The show’s grand narrative arc, arguably, was to follow Alicia’s dawning realization that she could play tough and even risk losing that adjective “good,” as well as that title “wife.” (Or perhaps, ultimately, she’d rather not sacrifice either of those things…) But the drama was less about what Alicia would do than about 1) how she arrived at a decision and 2) how well she would finesse putting that decision into action. This was also the key to Margulies’ alluring performance, despite the occasional scene that allowed Alicia to put down her rather full goblet of red wine and show some Big Emotion: What mattered was the thoughtfulness, the reckoning.

And what will her reckoning be at the conclusion of the show?

Heading into the finale, Alicia’s new lover, Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), reasoned that, with husband Peter Florrick facing yet another prison sentence, Alicia would do one of two things, both paradoxical: If Peter were convicted – by a jury that possibly felt he was a louse and didn’t deserve Alicia–she would stand by his side and visit him every week in prison. If he were acquitted, on the other hand, Alicia would divorce him.

This is the sort of thing a heroine might do in Henry James novels. But not generally a heroine on CBS on a Sunday night.

But is Jason even right? Is everyone misreading everyone? This being The Good Wife, that’s not out of the question.

Wife may never have been a ratings smash, but it was glimmeringly smart. (Moreso than AMC’s Mad Men? Yes, by quite a lot.) The intricacies of both the law and politics played out like an exquisitely choreographed mating ritual among influential people with money, intellect, ambition and superior grooming. (That extended even to the margins: There was never a sexier drug lord than Lemond Bishop, played by Mike Colter – even the name is sexy.) You wanted in.

Once in, you were likely to stay, if only to hear Christine Baranski’s laugh, which somehow struck notes both of indulgent, friendly informality and cold, superior contempt.

In recent seasons Wife did lose some of the quick, almost dizzying, overlapping volleys of dialogue, performances and intricate subplots. The season 5 death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) was a dramatic shock that came out of nowhere, a genuine story-telling coup, but it left Alicia in a state of dank, dark drift, like a pea-soup fog. (Do they have those in Chicago?) And the departure of Archie Panjabi, who played investigator Kalinda Sharma, deprived the show of its most original character and its most original performance. Panjabi was the rare supporting player who owned the camera without doing anything so obvious or vulgar as stealing a scene.

Now they’re all going. They’ll all be gone. And they were so good. Excellent, really.

The Good Wife finale airs Sunday, May 8 (9 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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