The March 23 episode of The Good Wife (“Dramatics, Your Honor”) pushed the critically acclaimed legal drama into new directions, courtesy of an unexpected plot twist that somehow stayed under wraps until it unfolded on air.
(If you haven’t yet seen Sunday’s episode, stop reading right now. I mean it. STOP. Just stop. There are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead and if you’ve somehow managed to avoid finding out what happened, this is your last chance to do so.)
On this week’s episode, Will Gardner (Josh Charles) was shot and killed by his client — college student Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish), who had been accused of murdering a woman he claimed was a stranger — during an eruption of gunfire in the courtroom after Jeffrey was seized with panic for his life and reached for a deputy’s gun. What followed was traumatic to watch: Will bleeding out on the floor of the courtroom, and then his body being discovered by Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) and Diane (Christine Baranski) on a gurney in the hospital.
For some, it was the perfect way for Josh Charles’ Will to leave the show, one that closed the door on any reconciliation between him and Julianna Margulies’ Alicia. For others, it felt like a cheap twist. We debate just how well the show handled Will’s death and what it means for The Good Wife.
Jace Lacob: I was genuinely shocked by the twist. Jaw-on-the-floor, didn’t-see-that-coming shocked. And for a split-second, I didn’t believe that Robert and Michelle King would actually kill off Will, who is nominally the male lead. But what The Good Wife has proven itself willing to do is to shake the foundations of its narrative in unexpected ways. And that’s what Will’s death has done. And in the Age of Spoilers, that they managed to keep it a secret is another miraculous feat. While I’ll miss Will, I love that the show was able to surprise its viewers in such a kick-to-the-gut sort of way.
Louis Peitzman: I was surprised too, though perhaps not as surprised as you were, thanks in part to the fact that CBS was heralding this as, “the episode of The Good Wife that you can’t miss.” I hate that. If you warn me that a big twist is coming, I will spend the entire episode waiting for a major character to die, and that ruins a lot of the suspense. But I digress. I will say that, yes, The Good Wife is willing and able to pull the rug out from under its viewers — and I think that’s why I was a little let down by Will’s abrupt death. It felt cheap, the kind of twist another lesser show would use. The Good Wife doesn’t need a random shootout to shock us.
Jace: Wait a minute: It needs to be said that Josh Charles had decided to leave the show a la Dan Stevens and Downton Abbey and was meant to leave at the end of Season 4 and came back under a short-term deal for the fifth season. To me, there’s no way to write Will out of the show that wouldn’t feel cheap except for him dying, likely in some chance way. To me, the fact that it happened under such unexpected and illogical circumstances compounded the tragedy. This wasn’t a protracted cancer storyline where Will learns he’s dying and has to say good-bye to Alicia. There is no good-bye, no closure, no catharsis about the time they lost fighting. His life ended, sadly and without reason.
Louis: Oh god, a drawn-out death storyline would have been the worst. Now that you’ve thrown that out there, I’m starting to warm to the shootout. But no, I have to believe there were other ways to handle Charles’ exit. I have a lot of faith in the writers of The Good Wife, and I think there were other directions they could have taken the story that would have felt more organic and true to the tone of the show. I do, however, like the lack of closure, and I think it was important for Will and Alicia to end their relationship on such tenuous footing. But while on one level I appreciate the meaninglessness of his death — insofar as that feels true to life — I have trouble getting behind the randomness when it could have carried more thematic weight.
Jace: That’s just it — it’s senseless and brutal and truly shocking in that respect. There is an element of randomness to it: What if that cop had had the clasp on his holster secured? What if Jeffrey hadn’t been accused of a crime that he seemingly didn’t commit? What if he wasn’t terrified for his life within Cook County holding? Will’s death is inorganic to the show and that’s why it matters, really. It wasn’t the climax to a season-long arc; it wasn’t about the rivalry between the two firms, or even about his doomed romance with Alicia. It came out of nowhere. He was shot to death by his client. In a courtroom. With Diane a room away. And he died somewhere between that room and the hospital. The reveal isn’t operatic, but gut-wretching as Kalinda and Diane peel back that sheet. It’s horrifying in its very simplicity.
Louis: Absolutely agree with you there. What I loved about that moment is that they teased the dramatic scene of doctors struggling to save Will’s life on the table, when in fact he was DOA. That added to the brutality, and Kalinda’s and Diane’s reactions completely floored me. That we didn’t get to see Alicia’s immediate reaction was great, too. I thought all of this was handled well — the best it could be, really, given the circumstances — but I still don’t think the circumstances themselves were necessary. It’s the best a cheap twist can be, because The Good Wife is a great show, but it never needed the cheap twist. At least we can agree on the execution.
Jace: I think that you’re right about that juxtaposition between the chaos of that one room and the stillness of the one where Will’s body is. But that’s where the show thrives where others would have failed. Killing off a character could be inherently thought of, on any show, as potentially cheap. But I refuse to agree that this is a cheap twist. To me, in an era where character deaths are essentially played out, this one had meaning and consequences for the characters in a palpable, major way. There is no escaping the fact that Alicia and Diane and everyone will have to confront Will’s death head-on. But his death also means ending the love triangle that Alicia was trapped within.
Louis: And how happy are we that the love triangle is over? Always one of the least interesting aspects of the show. I am more interested in Kalinda and Cary than I was in Alicia and Will, and I am not interested in Kalinda and Cary. And I’m excited to see where the show goes from here, in terms of Alicia and Diane’s relationship. Obviously they now share this common loss, but can that erase everything else that happened between them? Honestly, though, I still think there were more stories to be told with Alicia and Will — and I get that the writers’ hands were tied because of Charles’ decision to leave — but I want more there. That was a major part of what made this season so exciting.
Jace: Ultimately, it comes down to the writers turning what they had at their disposal into something workable and meaningful. Josh Charles leaving The Good Wife ensured that there won’t be any more Will-Alicia storylines, and that’s fine because at least we’re not forced to suffer awkward plots that we don’t want to see: like, “Josh Charles guest stars on a new episode of The Good Wife, when Will visits Chicago after living as a monk in Nepal for two years!” I think he had to die in order to make this departure stick, as it were. As for moving forward, it seems clear to me that a merger could be in the cards (a re-merger?) and that Alicia and Diane will perhaps make peace. However, I disagree that Kalinda and Cary aren’t interesting, though I am far more invested in the Alicia-Kalinda dynamic, even though we haven’t seen a hint of their friendship in several years now. Maybe Will dying will mean that the two will actually appear in a scene together.
Louis: Please! There is so much more to be done with the relationship between Alicia and Kalinda, and we’ve been deprived for far too long. As I said, I’m still excited to see what happens next, even if I’m not thrilled about what led to it. The Good Wife has had a few missteps along the way, and it’s always been adept at correcting itself, so despite being somewhat disappointed by the way Will’s exit played out, I’m cautiously optimistic. Bringing back Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) in any capacity is a good thing. I’m also curious to see how Jeffrey’s storyline will play out, if at all, because I’m still convinced he didn’t do it! And I want Will’s death to have some tangible effect besides what it means for the characters — prison reform, perhaps?
Jace: Michael J. Fox returning as Louis is really a good thing! And I agree: Jeffrey didn’t kill Dani, which we’ll likely learn next week when Hunter Parrish returns. I think that Finn (the new Matthew Goode character) will likely have to bear that cross when that fact comes out, as his prosecution led an innocent man to open fire on a courtroom. You don’t come back from that without scars, both physical and psychological ones. On the other front, I don’t see a need for course-correcting here, however. This was a meaningful way to add a patina of loss and tragedy onto the Will-Alicia dynamic and Will’s death will have lasting consequences for everyone, at both firms. If the show is, as the Kings have long held, about the education of Alicia Florrick, there are tough lessons to be had here. The March 16 episode (“A Few Words”) showed us an Alicia who was getting back into the law and facing numerous obstacles; Will offered her a lifeline and transformed her life when no one else would. With Will gone, those elevator doors have closed for the last time. And Alicia may have to force them open herself. That’s progress for the character and for the show. And I defy anyone who sees his death as manipulative or cheap. It mattered to the audience and to the characters. Will won’t be soon forgotten, and that’s the best that any of us — fictional or real — can hope for.