Brow Beat

No One Has Ever Done a Twist Quite Like Last Night’s Good Wife

Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies)

There was no way to see last night’s episode coming.

Photo by David M. Russell © 2013 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Note: This post discusses a huge spoiler in last night’s The Good Wife.

If you watch almost any scripted television at all, it’s happened to you. Some random week, a show you love and that brings you great pleasure, up and kills a perfectly delightful human being who you know very well while you are sitting there, powerless on the couch.

Despite the number of times this has happened, I rarely take these deaths with much equanimity. When Downton Abbey started offing major characters, I ranted and raged every time. When Grey’s Anatomy went through a multiseason stretch of catastrophic events—bus accident, plane crash, hospital shooting, etc., etc.—I could be heard screeching “but that’s not why I watch this show!” over and over. I knew in advance what happened at Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and I still spent the whole time self-bargaining, hoping, maybe, the show would turn out differently than the books. But I have never quite experienced a character death like Will Gardner’s on last night’s The Good Wife.

The Good Wife is a great show. Compared to it, other procedurals look clunky and lank, like they’re not trying hard enough. Other serial dramas don’t fare much better. The Good Wife’s case-of-the-week format has given it the leisure to develop its characters in extraordinary depth. Every week, The Good Wife has an A-plot that involves a murder, or a tech company, or a rich guy having his day in court—plot candy that has given the interpersonal dynamics and psyches of its characters the freedom to enact real, meaty, slow-burning drama. The Good Wife is a show about adults for adults, who don’t need skin and sex and histrionic developments to hold their attention.

And so Will Gardner’s death came as a really, really big surprise. This is an impressive accomplishment on a tactical level. It’s hard to keep secrets about your TV show these days, hard to keep hints of a massive surprise out of the “scenes from next week,” and hard to keep stories out of the trades when a character is leaving because the actor wants out of his contract—as Josh Charles, who plays Will, apparently did. But keeping Will’s death a secret is an even more impressive display of self-discipline: The Good Wife, like life, had no foreshadowing. The plot was hurtling along. Will was here, midstory, and then he wasn’t.

On TV there is almost always a tip-off to a big death. TV deaths typically arrive in a frenzy of tells and tears, along with deathbed confessions and last words, near saves, a personal tie to the murderer. But not here. As Michelle and Robert King, The Good Wife’s creators, put it, “Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. Your last time with the loved one will always remain your last time.” Will thought he had all the time in the world and so did everyone else, and they were all wrong.

There is so much story of which Will is still a part. At the end of last season, Alicia Florrick left Lockhart Gardner to start their own law firm, because she was ready to go out on her own, but also because she wanted to get away from Will and their romantic entanglement. The two have spent this season ferociously fighting, engaging in what seemed to be extremely hostile foreplay that will now come to nothing. This season seemed to be about the duel between these two law firms, between Will and Alicia, and suddenly it’s just not. Two-thirds of last night’s episode played like a regular case of the week, with a little more focus on Will. And then, just like that, Will was dead, all his business unfinished. It was brutal and horribly realistic: Sudden death doesn’t come with a spoiler warning.

Everyone who loved Will is sure to torture themselves thinking over details of these last few episodes—should Diane have pushed harder to get Will to settle? Should Alicia have taken the case? Should Alicia have tried harder to work things out with Will while she could have? What was the last thing Will said to Kalinda?—but this is all so much more down-to-earth than the usual questions that surround a character’s sudden death. The Good Wife, like its characters, is all about suppressing the drama just enough to keep it roiling right beneath the surface. It only needed tiny moments to establish the gravity of what had happened; Diane and Kalinda in tears; Diane desperately saying they needed to call Alicia; Eli’s stricken face.

This was one of the best and most gut-punching death-of-a-major character episodes I’ve ever seen (even though, of course, I wish Will were still on the show, or at least off happy somewhere, even if it was with that awful hippie-chick). But I’m still worried about the future of The Good Wife. Will and Alicia’s relationship is the show’s most important. Wherever I thought the show was going before last night, Will and Alicia were at the heart of it. Watching the scenes from next week, of Diane and Alicia embracing each other, sobbing, I teared up. But in a few weeks, when Will’s death is no longer the central subject, when it, like almost everything else on The Good Wife, becomes subtext, will I be as excited to turn it on every week without Will, and his cynicism and loyalty, his hubris and his humor, his chemistry with Alicia? Will I still care as much about The Good Wife? I’m not sure. I guess like everyone on the show itself, I’m having a hard time imagining it without him.