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Essay: “The Good Wife” Finale, Shriver-Schwarzenegger and Real Political Spouses

Essay: “The Good Wife” Finale, Shriver-Schwarzenegger and Real Political Spouses

The Good Wife heads into tonight’s season finale in the shadow of a real-life story that reveals how savvy about politics and marriage this drama has always been. As reporters began sniffing around for the reasons behind Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s recent split, Schwarzenegger admitted that he’d had a child with another woman 10 years ago, and that the woman, as the news reports so carefully put it, was “a member of the household staff” for ten years before and ten years after the child’s birth. What?!

He added that Shriver only learned about this recently, which answers one question that, maybe unfairly, came to mind after a glance at the headlines: What did Maria know and when did she know it? And the entire situation affirms a truth that The Good Wife spins into sophisticated drama: marriage is messy, and political marriages even messier, with betrayals under the surface than even media-age scrutiny doesn’t easily uncover.

In the annals of irredeemably unfaithful politicians, this news puts Schwarzenegger in John Edwards territory, but then Arnold was already heading back to movies. And Shriver has been playing a Good Wife since her husband ran for governor and she defended him against charges of groping women. (Why the story about the extra child didn’t surface then is one of those questions still unanswered, though probably not for long; the tell-all tabloid and book offers must be floating around already.)

The Good Wife, of course, was modeled on the Eliot Spitzer scandal, when his wife stood by his side as the resigning governor admitted he had a history with prostitutes. Silda Spitzer looked pained but she stood there, an odd mix of loyalty, hurt and confusion. A lot of that confusion was ours, and The Good Wife took off from that question: what made her stay?

In the series, Alicia Florick (Julianna Margulies) went back to work as an attorney while her husband, Peter (Chris Noth) was in prison, but when he was released she reluctantly took him back. In this second season, as he has run for office again, we have seen twists and betrayals that anticipate the Shriver-Schwarzenegger mess – not because the series’ creators, Robert and Michelle King, are psychic, but because they’re savvy about where fraught political marriages are likely to go.

When Alicia discovered that her good friend at the law firm, Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), had a one-night stand with Peter before the women knew each other, it was a double-whammy betrayal: Alicia questioned Kalinda’s motives for becoming her friend, and learned that Peter cheated even more than she knew. This pales next to Shriver’s situation – the woman was in her house for ten years after giving birth to her husband’s child!

Alicia, like Shriver during the governor’s campaign, is also a political realist. After trying to stay in the background, she listened to Peter’s wily consultant Eli Gold (so wonderfully played by Alan Cumming) and publicly supported him in his reelection campaign. There was no question that Alicia’s defense, like Shriver’s and Hillary Clinton’s, saved her husband’s candidacy. In her prescient New York Times article last Sunday, Sheryl Gay Stolberg quotes columnist Connie Shultz, married to a Senator, about a wife’s decision to discuss her private life. “I don’t think it’s any consultant’s decision,” Schultz said. Of course what she meant is that it shouldn’t be any consultant’s decision. Another element The Good Wife gets satisfyingly right is the tussle between ideals and political necessity, and the compromises a political marriage demands.

Now, of course, both Maria Shriver and Alicia Florick have left their husbands, playing out the principle that enough is enough, and this betrayal was way too much. In tonight’s season finale it looks like Alicia will finally have her moment with long-simmering old love Will. The Alicia and Will plot is a way to show her asserting her independence, finding her own life.

Shriver, who was forced to give up her career as a journalist when her husband entered politics because the conflicts of interest would have been impossible to manage, is free to pick up her own life and career again. But the series, which will return next season, is still called The Good Wife, the Schwarzeneggers are not divorced, and with a presidential campaign looming the political intrigue of marriage is hardly over.

Here’s a glimpse at tonight’s season finale. (And an UPDATE: Here’s my review of the show.)

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