Jeff Neumann / CBS

Warning: Series finale spoilers abound.

The Good Wife began, seven seasons ago, with a scene of a broken marriage. It ended, on Sunday evening, with a scene of a broken friendship. Diane Lockhart, betrayed by Alicia Florrick, approached her former mentee and former colleague and former friend in the fluorescent-lit service corridor of a hotel ballroom. “Diane?” Alicia asked, inquisitively, as Regina Spektor’s “Better” played, dramatically, in the background. (If I kiss you where it’s sore, will you feel better, better, better—will you feel anything at all?) The two women—Alicia in a matte, black suit; Diane in one of shiny silvery-white—locked eyes. And then: Diane slapped Alicia, hard and loud, across the face. Alicia teared up from the impact. She whimpered, audibly. Diane walked away.

The scene made a striking (in every sense) conclusion to a series that has been not just a legal procedural and a political drama and a subtle meditation on marriage, but also a study of female friendship. It was also a fittingly cynical one. While The Good Wife has been, over its seven seasons, generally optimistic about human relationships and their capacity to challenge people and expand them and make them better than they might have been on their own, the show has also been notably ambivalent about the female friendships that its universe has contained. Women, occasionally, have been sources of comfort and humor and even joy to Alicia, as she picked up the pieces of her life after her husband’s very public infidelities; just as often, though, her friendships with women have been sources of frustration. Alicia has been betrayed by her female friends much more than she’s been helped by them.

And here, in the final scene of the show, was the karmic consequence of that: It was Alicia who was doing the betraying. Here was Diane—the woman who idolizes Hillary Clinton, the lawyer whose longtime professional goal has been to found an “all-female law firm”—sold out by her friend. Here was the self-avowed feminist who paid so much lip service to raising women up, brought low by another woman.  

The problem in this case started, as so many things have on The Good Wife, with Peter Florrick: His corruption trial came to hinge on the testimony of Kurt McVeigh, the ballistics expert who also happened, via The Good Wife’s insistent entwining of its characters’ fates, to be Diane’s husband. (Via those same mechanics, the outcome of Peter’s trial would also affect whether Grace, Alicia’s daughter with Peter, would go to college or defer for a year.) Diane refused, however, to put her husband on the stand: That had already backfired. But testify he did—and, to discredit McVeigh, Alicia instructed Lucca Quinn, the second chair of Peter’s defense team, to use his time under oath to ask him about the affair he’d had with a colleague. The questioning was public and cruel, and its result was that Diane became, in the last moments of the show, the one thing The Good Wife had suggested she never could be: humiliated.

Thus, in short order, The Slap.

It was on the one hand a brief instance of violence between characters who, on account of their gender, are traditionally expected to handle their differences in a more “civilized” manner. But it was also a suggestion that The Good Wife—which seemed to dedicate so much of its emotional energy to the romantic love triangle that emerged among Alicia and Peter, and Alicia and Jason, and Alicia and Will—has been just as concerned with the fate of the friendship between Alicia and Diane. The show’s final episode reveled in its own circularity: It repeated the initial, iconic scene from the show’s pilot—Alicia standing by Peter’s side as he gave a press conference resigning his office—nearly frame for frame. It brought Will back, as a specter. And yet the show dedicated its all-important final scene—the stuff of Holsten’s ice cream parlor and Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and spiritually ambiguous Coke ads—to the women who have supported each other and sparred with each other over seven seasons’ worth of television.

“I want you to think of me as a mentor, Alicia,” Diane had told her firm’s newest associate in the pilot episode of The Good Wife. “It’s the closest thing we have to an old boys’ network in this town: women helping women. Okay?”

It was okay, until it wasn’t. Here, in the series’s final episode, was that offer, full-circled in the most cynical way possible—via a slap in the face that was also, to viewers, a slap in the face. It was a distillation of the fact that The Good Wife’s conclusion brought a happy ending to, pretty much, nobody. Alicia, freed of Peter, is now subject to Eli Gold and his plans for her political future. Peter is permanently disgraced. Will remains … dead. Diane has been betrayed first by her husband and then by the combination of Alicia and Lucca, the fellow founders of her all-female firm. The women with whom Diane had, just a couple of episodes earlier, clinked champagne glasses and made plans to expand their office teamed up to sell her out. “Diane, you have a client: my husband,” Alicia informed Peter’s attorney, icily, as she and Diane debated whether to put Kurt on the stand. “You have a duty to zealously represent that client.” (Later, the spectral Will would ask Alicia: “What is the point? What is the point of all this?” and she would answer, instantly: “To zealously represent your client.”)

The Good Wife’s action, for the most part, operated within the hermetic moral universe of the law firm—one whose ethical upshot is not guilt or innocence, but rather winning the case or losing it. To zealously represent your client. The show’s plots revolved around the dynamics of incremental compromises: betrayals that revealed themselves right away, and also over time.

Friendship, with its demands of loyalty and occasionally of selflessness, has long made an awkward fit within that universe. And while Alicia maintained rewarding (if typically volatile) friendships with the men on the show—among them Cary and Eli and Louis Canning and even Will—her friendships with her fellow women proved much harder to maintain. Alicia briefly befriended the Marissa Mayer-esque businesswoman Maddie Hayward; the friendship ended when Maddie declared her intention to challenge Peter’s run for Illinois’s governor. Alicia became friends with Kalinda—close friends, real friends; that friendship ended when Alicia discovered that Kalinda was one of the women who slept with Peter during his period of infidelity. The Good Wife’s very early episodes suggested that the friends Alicia had in Highland Park—her fellow wives, whom she knew from years of playgroup-ing and book-clubbing and carpooling—deserted her after the Florrick family’s loss of its fortune, figuratively and otherwise.

Those friendships have had one irksome thing in common: They ended, ultimately, because of the actions of men. The friendship between Alicia and Kalinda fizzled because of Peter’s indiscretions. The one between Alicia and Maddie ended because of Peter’s ambitions. And now the one between Alicia and Diane has ended because of Peter’s prosecution. The progression that brought about that betrayal—Diane chose Kurt over Peter, so Alicia chose Peter over Diane—was one that could have been lifted straight from Queen Bees & Wannabes, the 2009 book that suggested that girls can be vicious to each other in large part because they’re fighting over boys. (“Ex-boyfriends are just off-limits to friends,” Gretchen informs Cady in Mean Girls, the movie based on that book. “I mean, that’s just, like, the rules of feminism.”) Diane violated the norms of the group by choosing her marriage over her case; Alicia and Lucca saw to it that she paid for that violation. It was yet one more instance of The Good Wife allowing a mister to come between Alicia and her sister.

So while The Good Wife is “remarkable because it is a show where all of the real adults are women,” as The Hairpin’s Jennifer Schaffer had it, what is also remarkable is how little faith the show has had in the ability of those adult women to support each other, as colleagues who double as friends. “Respectfully, Alicia, our interests have not been aligned since you used our office as a staging ground for your political career,” Diane informed her fellow attorney earlier in The Good Wife’s run. But a friendship that demands, always, an alignment of interests is not much of a friendship at all.

Lucca, who helped to fill the void left by Kalinda—the actors Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi, the revealing rumor went, hated each other in real life—may be the exception who proves the rule. The woman who began her arc as Alicia’s competitor and ended it as her confidante finished the show as pretty much Alicia’s only remaining female friend. Lucca was also, tellingly, one of the few principal women on the show who never challenged Alicia’s relationships with its principal men. On the contrary: Lucca’s role, toward the end of The Good Wife, was often to be the primary cheerleader for Alicia’s romance with Jason. Lucca’s scenes in Sunday’s finale—scenes with Alicia, which were also scenes between two high-powered lady-lawyers—pretty much uniformly failed the Bechdel test.

Losing Kalinda as a confidante, Margulies has said, “opened up a world to Alicia where she’s going to realize she needs female friendship.” But needing something, the show’s finale made clear, isn’t the same thing as getting it. Instead, the show found Alicia, in the end, falling victim to the zero-sum aspects of The Good Wife’s moral universe. She was forced to choose between her husband and her friend. She chose her husband. She chose, by extension, her own interests. Michelle and Robert King, The Good Wife’s writers and showrunners, attributed Alicia’s choice to maternal protections: “Her decision in this last episode—the one that resulted in Diane being hurt—came out of her parental need to keep Grace from following in her path,” they wrote. “She didn’t want Grace to put her future on hold in order to stand by Peter.”

The showrunners also explained the decision, however, in terms of The Good Wife’s circularities of violence and vengeance. They decided, they wrote, that Alicia “would slap someone who victimized her at the beginning of the series, and she would be slapped by someone she ‘victimized’ at the end.”

It’s fitting that the victim in all this was not just Diane, but the friendship Alicia had shared with her. The show, all along, has suggested that female friendship, rather than being the most natural thing in the world, is a little bit strange, a little bit fragile. Alicia’s brief relationship with Maddie Hayward began when the businesswoman asked Alicia whether she’d like to go for a drink. Alicia, taken aback, told Maddie that she was married. “Oh,” Maddie replied, “I wasn’t hitting on you.” She continued: “I just … well, the thing is, I don’t have many friends, Alicia. There, I said it.” The two women laughed. And Maddie made a joke that, like so many things in The Good Wife, would resonate later on in the show. “Now it’s really awkward,” Maddie said.

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