Christine Baranski never wanted “The Good Fight,” the topical, uncannily prescient legal drama in which she plays high-powered liberal feminist attorney Diane Lockhart, to end on a pessimistic note.
A spinoff of CBS’ long-running drama “The Good Wife” intended to anchor the company’s then-nascent streaming service (now called Paramount+), the series was set to arrive at the dawn of a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency, with Diane brought on as an ironic diversity hire at a majority Black Chicago law firm in a post-Obama world. Of course, things turned out differently, and the show gamely pivoted to the tectonic cultural shift of the last six years, leaning into storylines that audaciously skewered the state of U.S. politics — and life — in Donald Trump’s America.
For Diane, it’s been exhausting. But for Baranski, it’s been thrilling.
“I’ve never enjoyed the work more,” she says. “I can’t believe I’m saying, after 13 years, that it’s still so enjoyable and maybe more enjoyable than ever because I’m so comfortable with the character, and I was delighted with new colors coming out of her [this season] — having a flirtation or taking this hallucinogen that loosens her up or brings out other aspects of her. Usually by year 13, people are just collecting the paycheck, right? That was not the case with me.”
After an acclaimed six-season run, “The Good Fight” concludes Thursday with a series finale titled “The End of Everything.” And if you ask Baranski, she’ll tell you it’s a happy ending. The poised and sophisticated attorney, who spent much of the season trying to alleviate her anxiety as matters in her career and the world at large weighed heavy, is ready to hang it all up and finally retire from the good fight. But you can’t take the liberal feminist out of Diane Lockhart: Presented with a last-minute opportunity to venture to D.C. to head up a firm that focuses on women’s issues, she puts retirement on the back-burner to suit up for battle.
“It’s ‘happy’ in that she’s going to keep doing what she’s always done, which is to stay in character, pick herself up, accept that the world is dark and unjust. It’s called ‘The Good Fight’ and that’s what she’s done for 13 years. Diane was always trying to keep her balance in a crazy world, trying to keep sane, trying to make the right decisions — often not making the right decisions, but then reflecting on them and moving on. Is it happy? It’s happy for me in that it’s forward-moving, it’s active. And we can’t give up on our country and on women’s rights.”
Creators Robert and Michelle King say they considered a version where, in a callback to the pilot, Diane retires and heads to the south of France with her husband Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole).
“The writers room,” says Robert, “was slightly split on what would be the best ending for Diane. Because you might go there and she’s sitting in a beautiful chair, in front of her is a lovely breakfast, looking out to a vineyard, and you realize she’s not happy.” Michelle adds: “I absolutely think that would have been a dissatisfied Diane, who felt that her purpose was being ignored. It’s like ‘The Graduate,’ when everything goes right, but it still doesn’t feel right.”
A few weeks before viewers learn Diane’s fate, Baranski is sitting inside the dimly lighted Cafe Carlyle on New York’s Upper East Side, effortlessly elevating the glamour level of our Zoom call by showing off the space’s Marcel Vertès murals. Just before settling into the conversation, she’d received a text from a friend who had to back out of their dinner plans later that day. But who doesn’t sometimes love when plans get canceled? ”You know, I’m fine eating dinner alone,” she says in that familiar velvet voice. “I’ve done it through my whole career, sitting in restaurants alone. I don’t find it a sad kind of situation. I’m invariably learning lines or I have a book, surrounded by people chattering away.”
She’s about to begin her final week of filming on the second season of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” in which she plays the esteemed old-money socialite Aunt Agnes with steely elegance. Her obligations to the 19th century-set drama, she says, partly delayed her grieving for Diane Lockhart.
“I keep saying this, I haven’t processed it yet,” she says. She even talks about the anguish of watching Diane’s wardrobe get boxed up in terms reminiscent of the ritual that comes with the passing of a loved one: “I got to choose a few pieces. And just watching everybody in the costume department was very sad; they were putting tons of things in boxes — shoes, belts, handbags. They were my clothes, and I am just watching it all get stored away.”
Not that there’s time to dwell. “It’s been bookends, I just went from one show to the other,” Baranski says. “Come January, February, which is when we would begin talking about [‘The Good Fight’], I think that’s where I’m going to go, ‘Whoa.’ That’s when I’ll begin to miss Diane. Right now? I’m very much looking forward to a vacation.”
Thirty years ago, if you had told Baranski that she’d find creative enthusiasm playing a TV character for more than a decade, she would have launched into one of her indelible buoyant laughs.
It’s well known by now that Baranski didn’t want to do television. After graduating from Juilliard in 1974, she started her career onstage in her 20s, working her way up in regional productions before hitting Broadway. She won her first Tony Award in 1984 for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” and won again in 1989 for Neil Simon’s “Rumors.” But the lure of Hollywood became more formidable as she grew older. At 42, Baranski was cast as the quick-witted, hard-drinking Maryann Thorpe in “Cybill,” the CBS sitcom headlined by Cybill Shepherd.
“I was in my early 40s and I was looking at what it would cost to educate the kids,” she says. “And then there was this role written by this guy named Chuck Lorre — didn’t know who he was, but I could tell from the lines off the page that this character named Maryann Thorpe was kind of funny. I knew how to do this role. All those wonderful one-liners and the attitude and the sophistication — I had been playing those kind of women onstage. So I reluctantly went to Hollywood and kept my kids in Connecticut and commuted every week. And suddenly, in my early 40s, my career just changed.”
TV audiences welcomed her into their homes with hearty laughter. After 13 episodes, Baranski won an Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy. She’d go on to make the rounds in film too, with memorable turns in “The Birdcage,” “Cruel Intentions,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Mamma Mia!” to name a few. Whatever the forum, her characters have most often been women who stand in their power, one way or another; they make no apologies for being sexual, for being feisty, for being sharp. But there’s something particularly striking about the trajectory of her career on the small screen: how, in her 60s, a longtime supporting player turned an ensemble character into a stealth TV heroine.
That Diane Lockhart has come to define this chapter of her career is, for Baranski, “sort of a miracle.” She had just completed nine months of a Broadway show with Mark Rylance, the French farce “Boeing-Boeing.” Feeling like she’d done enough comedy, she told her managers that she was interested in pursuing a dramatic role on television. “I wanted to play a woman of authority with some sophistication, who’s in powerful situations, dignified. And along comes this pilot, ‘The Good Wife.’ And there she was.”
“We needed an actor who was wonderful with language and you recognize their intelligence right off the bat,” says Michelle King. “They didn’t have to sell that they had the authority or the smarts to be the top lawyer in a firm.”
“And there’s really only two words: her laugh,” adds Robert King. “She has the sort of laugh that can make your heart lighten, even in the darkest scene. Partly, it’s an uproarious laugh, the kind you have with your best friend at a bar, three drinks in.”
When “The Good Wife” ended, the Kings saw spinoff potential in Diane, and Baranski leapt at the chance to become “The Good Fight’s” center of gravity.
“It was rather touching for me, because there were crew members who would say to me, ‘It’s your time, you’re now No. 1 [on the call sheet].’” she says. “It was wonderful because it was a long wait. I mean to be No. 2, the supporting actress, for most of your career, and then by your mid-60s, suddenly you’re No. 1 on the call sheets, you go, ‘Wow, OK, I can deal with this.’”
“It’s no surprise to me whatsoever,” says Lorre. “It was brilliant that the Kings carried her forward past ‘The Good Wife’ into a show of her own. … Part of her brilliance is training, but part of it is that she has an intuitive understanding of how to make a moment work and make a character come alive. I’m always overjoyed to watch her success from afar.”
Baranski’s respect for and love of the craft probably has something to do with her childhood.
She comes from a family of performers: Her paternal grandparents were stage actors in their native Poland, and her parents filled their spare time singing in choruses. As she tells it, as a child living in a blue-collar Polish American neighborhood in the Buffalo suburbs, she was quite shy. So the time her family lived with her paternal grandmother, she says, was a transformative experience: “She was a vivacious, very loving, very effusive woman with a theatrical personality. She was a huge influence on my life.”
Baranski’s father, who edited a Polish-language newspaper, died when she was 8; after his death, her mother took a job ordering parts for air-conditioning factories. When I ask how grappling with her father’s death at such a young age shaped her, she grows contemplative.
“It’s only looking back that I realize just how hard that was,” she says. “I don’t remember my mother ever embracing me or talking about the death of my father. Later in life, we were sitting at the kitchen table, and she said to one of my close friends, ‘Chris didn’t really have any feelings about her father’s death. She was too young. She didn’t have any feelings.’ That was my mother’s point of view. But I had lots of feelings. They just weren’t addressed by my mother. I went through a lot of anxiety. It’s very possible that being a performer, making that transition, was how I was able to liberate myself. I don’t know how to say it, but that so many people who do choose to be performers are somewhat wounded, young creatures — you’re working on stuff.”
She pauses before adding: “My mother actually said to me, ‘You know, your father would never have let you be an actress, he would have not approved of that,’ because he was very conservative. But my memory of my father is he was a very big, loving, gentle giant of a man. He’s the one who took me to see the ballet when I was very young. I had a date with my father — this was maybe the year of his death, because everybody was worried about his health and his blood pressure — and we went to see this Polish singing and dancing troupe at Kleinhans Music Hall, which is like Buffalo’s Carnegie Hall. I saw my father at the curtain call. He had tears running down his face, and he was shouting ‘Bravo!’ And I was so embarrassed. I’d never seen my father cry, but he was so moved by the performers. It made such an impression on me. … I remember my first dance recital where I performed, and I remember running into the audience and into his arms. I think there’s something about pleasing my father at the heart of it. I don’t know. I wonder if my father’s death propelled me into a life as a performer or whether maybe it was just inherited.”
The familial resonances in her work reveal themselves in other ways too. Like when she considers her role in “The Gilded Age” as Agnes van Rhijn, a rigid and demanding socialite clinging to the old ways of New York’s high society. “I think I’m playing my mother,” she says. “My mother didn’t suffer fools. She was raised in the Depression and then she was a widow — she was very much of the mind that life is tough and you do what you need to do. She’s a pragmatist. I don’t remember ever playing a victim or the long-suffering mother; I will never play the sweet grandmother or the benevolent whatever. I’m my mother’s daughter. I just I wouldn’t suffer well, onstage or onscreen. I prefer action to reaction.”
Baranski’s friends and colleagues paint a picture of a far gentler, more fun-loving person than her newest alter ego: “I remember she brought me a bunch of chicken stock,” says Audra McDonald, who stars alongside her in “The Good Fight,” “because she heard that I was looking to maybe start doing more bone broth and whatnot.” Her “The Gilded Age” co-star and longtime friend Cynthia Nixon says: “She’s always felt like a role model for me — how she’s never stinted on her career, and she’s never stinted on her marriage or her family life. To me, that’s like, one of the amazing things about her. She was such an involved mother — she’s still an involved mother — and a very involved grandmother. She’s super sophisticated but knows how to have fun and likes to watch the Buffalo Bills play football or have her martini and dance.”
As she prepares to wrap up filming of the “The Gilded Age’s” second season, though, Baranski is relishing playing with Agnes’ likability.
“I enjoy her certitude. I love her certitude,” she says. “I love the fact that she is so seemingly rigid. When you see a crack in Aunt Agnes, or a moment when she admits she’s wrong or a moment when you see that she has great love or empathy, which you will see a lot of in Season 2, it has more impact. I’m loving Season 2; it’s very family-trauma oriented with the Brook family. And I love Agnes and her curmudgeonliness.”
In the meantime, Baranski says she has no fear functioning without Diane Lockhart, and then, after a pause, adds: “God knows, she kept me sharp, because Diane was way smarter than me; she had a first-rate legal mind. I’m not sure I could talk my way out of a parking ticket. Diane was high-minded and sophisticated and had a great sense of humor. And I hope I take the best of Diane with me.”
‘The Good Fight’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)