How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kalinda: On the Season Finale of ‘The Good Wife’

Jeffrey Neira/CBS

At some point during the production of Sunday’s Season 6 finale, actress Archie Panjabi raided her character Kalinda’s closet in wardrobe for one last leather jacket, pencil skirt, and pair of knee-high stilettos, put on her oversize sunglasses, and Peggy-walked off The Good Wife.

Had the same sequence of events unfolded at an earlier stage of the series, this might have been a triumphant moment. Kalinda had just completed her takedown of Lemond Bishop, the GQ cover kingpin who’d eluded law enforcement since season one. She’d broken Bishop’s strong-arming lawyer twice — first by out-intimidating him, and then by rejecting his offer to team up. Now she was walking away — the capable, unencumbered Kalinda of old.

There are worse ways to complete a character arc than by wrapping with a win and a callback to a classic scene — in Kalinda’s case, the time in Season 2 when she applied Pablo Sandoval’s plate approach to rival investigator Blake Calamar’s car.

Kalinda’s last act was an attempt at buzzer-beating character rehabilitation. But in light of how few meaningful minutes she’d logged in the episodes leading up the finale, Kalinda’s coda seemed rushed and transparent, like a flunking student showing up at office hours after skipping half his classes. The more emblematic image in the finale came from her first scene, when she resurfaced in the frozen-foods aisle. This felt more fitting, a visual reminder that The Good Wife had kept Kalinda in the cold since the show’s fourth season.

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To some degree, Kalinda’s decline was inevitable. Early Kalinda captured our attention because she kept us in the dark: We didn’t know who she was, but we wanted to. There was a dissonance to her backstory that was present even in the pilot.

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Panjabi was 37 when that episode aired, only six years younger than Julianna Margulies (whom the script described as “late-30s”). Kalinda’s appearance and professionalism were far-fetched for a twentysomething, just as Panjabi’s accent was a stretch as anything but barely disguised British. But that was OK, because “Kalinda Sharma” (as we learned in the second season) wasn’t even her name. If her look, skills, and sound didn’t quite suit her story, it only made us more certain that her actual origin would be worth the wait.

As Lockhart Gardner’s do-it-all investigator, Kalinda bound the cast together, serving as a sounding board for bigwigs and first-year associates alike. She was protective of her privacy but loyal to her friends; rarely a confider but often a confidante. Her style stood out in a sea of standard business attire, and she was an exception on a show whose minority characters seemed to skew toward criminals and smarmy corporate climbers. She was female and fearless; bisexual, but not ostentatiously so. Her Supporting Actress Emmy — for which Christine Baranski, Elisabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks were also nominated — was the show’s only win for its first season. Margulies would later win two Emmys of her own, but in the beginning, Panjabi gave The Good Wife a hook. TV had lots of lawyers, but Kalinda was one of a kind.

In retrospect, peak Kalinda had a short shelf life. It’s hard to play a cipher for 20-plus-episode seasons, and what might work for a season or a miniseries doesn’t fly on an hour-long network drama. Even with the commercials cut out, The Good Wife would take four full days to binge-watch. That sort of screen time doesn’t leave much room for mystery. Showrunners Robert and Michelle King had to keep dropping crumbs about Kalinda to convince us to follow, but whenever the show let something slip, it made her more mundane. Calamar tried to pry into Kalinda’s past, and he came away with broken ribs and a shattered windshield. The Kings tried to mine the same material, and they came away with a less compelling character.

Kalinda’s second-season confession that she’d slept with Alicia’s husband, Peter Florrick, during his days as a state’s attorney severed her bond with Alicia, which had been the heart of the show. Season 4 revealed the source of her secrecy: a volatile estranged husband, who she had escaped by faking her own death. The love-hate tussle between Kalinda and Nick (played by Marc Warren) became The Good Wife’s equivalent of Friday Night Lights’s Landry-Tyra plot — so tonally incongruous and so poorly received that the Kings tried to fast-forward to quiet the complaints.

In the same season, the show introduced Robyn, a second investigator with some of the same persuasive powers. And although Kalinda and Alicia had reconciled, rumored real-life tension between Panjabi and Margulies led to a second, more serious separation that kept the two from physically sharing a scene for the next two seasons. Once Kalinda had surrendered her secrets, the show couldn’t sustain her appeal.

Gradually, Kalinda became a crutch who could access any restricted crime scene, obtain any sealed document, and resolve any conflict. She led the dysfunctional firm in cases closed, delivering victory after victory in a way that defused suspense. She was less like the alluring enigma from the first season and more like one of the broadly drawn badasses from Darkness at Noon, the cable-drama-within-a-network-drama through which the Kings parody the prestige shows that steal all of their Emmys. The marginalization of Kalinda was complete.

In Season 5, Kalinda sat on the sideline with no story to herself. In Season 6, she became a bodyguard/babysitter for puppy-eyed Dylan, Lemond Bishop’s son. Her scenes were mostly unsatisfying setup, no matter how much practice time Dylan devoted to the violin. Although Panjabi claimed, diplomatically, that she decided to walk away when she noticed Kalinda starting to seep into her other roles, no one would have blamed her for leaving because the life had seeped out of Kalinda.

Unlike Will Gardner’s surprise exit last season, we’d known Kalinda’s last episode was approaching for several months, ever since Panjabi and the Kings confirmed that she’d leave to take a development deal with Fox after acting out her contract.

In an effort to bring closure to the drawn-out departure, the finale reunited Alicia and Kalinda — either in the flesh or via semi-convincing CGI — for some belated barstool fan-service. Their exchange, between shots, doubled as an affirmation of their friendship and an apologetic meta-message from the writers. “My time with you, as your friend, was the best I ever had,” Kalinda tells Alicia (or someone wearing her wig). “And I’m sorry — I’m really sorry — that things got messed up.” Alicia, addressing Kalinda’s (or a stand-in’s) indistinct head, responds, “I wish we had the chance to do it over again.”

Season 5 was one of the series’ strongest, even without much of a contribution from Kalinda. Season 6, while still often amusing and adventurous, had other issues: the lack of a payoff to Cary’s imprisonment and Alicia’s political run; the narrowed spotlight on the vast cast beyond the core characters; the never-ending game of law-firm musical chairs. Sunday’s finale committed a common sin The Good Wife has always gone to great lengths to avoid: repetition. The conclusion of “Wanna Partner?” wasn’t the first time Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning has proposed an alliance, or the first time a former adversary has knocked to propose a partnership in the final seconds of a season. Nor was it new territory for the show to explore the familial fallout of Peter running for office, or Alicia flirting with Finn. But the episode accomplished one painful task that was long overdue, both for next season’s sake and for Panjabi’s: giving what remained of Kalinda the kiss-off.

Filed Under: TV, The Good Wife, Ben Lindbergh, Archie Panjabi, Julianna Margulies

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh