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After seven seasons, "The Good Wife" ended on Sunday with a literal slap in the face. Alicia Florrick, the titular Julianna Margulies character, had betrayed Diane Lockhart, her longtime associate and chum played by Christine Baranski. In the show's final moments, Diane marched up to Alicia in a florescent corridor, smacked her across the face and walked away. Tears rushed to Alicia's eyes, and she heaved with surprise. But she quickly stood upright, straightened her peplum and moved forward with confidence. Then the screen faded to black.
For a character who began the series as the scorned spouse of an unfaithful politician, Alicia's resilience marks a full-circle moment. We've watched her wear a stoic mask for several years, often knowing she is collapsing inside. Anyone feigning a brave face as their home life imploded would be. But this slap was something else. Diane and Alicia have had their tussles in the past, but the show was arguably at its most entertaining when the two lawyers were on the same side. In other words, we feel most at peace when they are friends.
It appears that, in the fictional universe "The Good Wife" inhabits, Diane and Alicia's friendship is kaput. That's a low blow for longtime fans of the show, especially after watching them plot to form an all-female firm. Does the series owe it to loyalists not to rip apart its strongest duo?
In actuality, no. Television owes us nothing but strong narratives. Still, what do we do when our fictional friends are no longer friends themselves? We wallow in the nostalgia of simpler times, just as we do the departed chapters of our own lives. That's partly because so much of television is about individuals growing toward one another. There's a reason the relentlessly jolly "Friends" still draws 16 million viewers in syndication each week. Even shows like "Seinfeld," "All in the Family," "Mad Men" and "Roseanne" bookend their characters' mutual animosity with vital moments of affection. Tony Soprano was a murdering mafioso, but a conflicted one who really did love his family. With the exception of a few shows whose characters' disdain is the signature punchline (say, "Arrested Development"), we are conditioned to favor amicability.
But even if you hoped "The Good Wife" would end with Alicia and Diane tossing middle fingers to the patriarchy, there's no need to mourn their friendship's demise. (This is assuming you don't believe they'll patch things up in the future. And they probably won't.) Variety critic Maureen Ryan, a former HuffPost colleague, argued the final season's meandering plots did not earn such a dramatic final gesture. I can't say I disagree. But it seems some viewers are disappointed the conclusion wasn't less nihilistic, and I don't think that's fair. Saint Alicia has always been somewhat hardened, and the later seasons showed that she has adopted some of her husband's noxious traits. ("The victim becomes the victimizer," co-showrunner Michelle King said in a postmortem interview.)
"Breaking Bad" closed with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman nodding in solidarity before parting ways. After all the shit they'd done to each other, it was powerful -- necessary, even -- to see our (anti)heroes find a shred of peace. The show was, after all, at its most fun when they functioned as a team. So it stings that Diane and Alicia, who could have carried on a bright professional and personal partnership, aren't able to reach the same finality.
But television has become surprisingly bold in the way it deconstructs the platonic ideal. The ladies on "Girls" frequent coffee shops, but none are as honeyed as Central Perk. Thank goodness. The show hasn't always managed the most interesting renderings of its ever-bickering characters, but it does speak to the malleability of friendship and the restlessness that can arise even in good company. Its female-centric predecessors -- "The Golden Girls," "Designing Women," "Sex and the City" -- always ended feuds with hugs and muffin baskets and cheesecake. "Girls" lets its characters spar, and it lets them move forward sans conciliatory curtsies. There's comfort in that. Sometimes life carries on without tidy bows.
On "Scandal," Olivia Pope has never prioritized friendship over professional gain, but now she is locked in a political war with former ally Abby Whelan. "Scandal" is soapy enough for their battle to feel like emotional theater, but it's also an authentic contest between two ambitious individuals. Why should they kowtow to each other in the middle of a presidential election that boxed them into dueling corners? Not all healthy relationships are gilded with apologies and handshakes.
One of the most surprising uses of the device was on "Will & Grace." In the show's 2006 finale, the duo's plan to raise a baby together was intercepted, and their relationship faltered as a result. We see them reconcile years later via flash-forward, but given their history, it was a convoluted way for the show to treat these platonic soulmates. Still, it hit on an important truth: Life sends people in disparate directions, and when it does, not everything stays intact. Will Truman and Grace Adler -- along with these other characters -- may reach a semblance of normalcy again, but the specter of their tainted past will always loom. It's important to see our fictional friends experience the same ebbs and flows that we do.
Moreover, we should enjoy these series for the journeys they take us on, not the happy endings they never actually promised. We all desire "Mary Tyler Moore"-style closure, where the main character turns off the lights and shuts the door behind her one last time. But the only demand we should have for a show like "The Good Wife" is that it remain faithful to its conceit, and it did. We've all had messy relationships, and the shows we admire should too. Alicia pieced herself together in dutiful closeup, and Margulies -- always a master of silent expressions -- ensured that Alicia's journey complemented her origin story. The ending is ambiguous, and yet it's not: Life is a vicious circle full of contradictions, but our (anti)hero will be OK. Viewers will too. The show was not a slap in the face.
Follow Matthew Jacobs on Twitter: @tarantallegra