‘The Good Wife’ pulls off a shocker on the sly

Sepinwall will probably write more about this in the morning. I'm sure it's his opinion you want to see. And if you care about my opinion, I'm sure we'll have to discuss this on either the podcast or the video show, depending on which we feel is more “spoiler-safe,” whatever the heck that means.

However, in our glorious Internet age, HitFix should have a story up for SEO and I'm sure people have things to say about what happened on Sunday (March 23) night's “The Good Wife,” so let's get the ball rolling.

It's not that I don't have thoughts. They're after the break. Obviously don't read anymore if you have't watched the episode, fittingly titled “Dramatics, Your Honor.”

So, how about Matthew Goode's American accent? That's what we're all talking about, right?

And about that moment where he said that Will Gardener was “Chomping at the bit” and we all yelled, “Champing, you ignoramus!” at the screen?

Yup. That was a pretty exciting colloquial mistake, eh?



Will Gardner.


Rend garments. Gnash teeth. Make moan.

The thing that I confess astounds me is the effective degree of secrecy surrounding the dispatching of a centerpiece character on one of network TV's prestige properties. 

It's admirable to want to keep a secret, but it's hard to do. Even if TVLine doesn't break that an actor is departing a show or if Deadline doesn't break that the actor has signed on for a new role, you still have to contend with a network promotional arm that wants nothing more than to hype every episode to the moon, as well as the narrative desire to make every major plot point into an event spanning across as many episodes as possible. 

So there were countless ways we could have known that Josh Charles was leaving “The Good Wife,” but we didn't. There were countless ways we might have known that not only was this an unmissable “Good Wife” episode, but that if we weren't watching live at exactly the 44-minute mark, the Internet would explode and we'd probably be spoiled, but we didn't. 

“The Good Wife” delivered a rambunctious kick-to-the-nads on Sunday night and at least for viewers on the East Coast, who weren't especially chivalrous with their Tweeting and the notion that people in different time zones like surprises as well, it was out of the blue.

You can hate the word “gamechanger” as much as you want, but what happened on Sunday's “The Good Wife” will most certainly change the game being played by “The Good Wife” and it will equally certainly change the interest that many fans have in that game. It was the sort of twist you normally get in May or February sweeps and were it not for the Olympics, there's a reasonable chance the season's 15th episode would have aired during that twist-friendly month.

Instead, “Dramatics, Your Honor” aired in late March and it aired on a night that CBS knew with absolute certainty that it would have some amount of delay due to the NCAA Tournament. The episode started 41 minutes late for several time zones, meaning that the big shocker took place comfortably into the hour set aside for “The Mentalist,” which also experienced a sea change on Sunday, if buzz is to be believed. The episode aired opposite “The Walking Dead” and the spring's new drama hit “Resurrection,” which will both have drawn much larger audiences when we get ratings tomorrow.

Like a good magic trick, those impediments to pre-hype were all part of the misdirection that made the reveal all the more unexpected.

Will Gardener was shot by accused murder Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish), who opted to have a mental break just as his attorney was laying the foundation for the latest variation on a “Touch DNA” defense that probably would have eventually gotten him out of prison. Jeffrey apparently grabbed a guard's gun and started shooting. The assumption is that he began shooting with the slimy  professor who was the original suspect and then he somehow ended up shooting Will and guest star Goode, who was playing a prosecutor named Finn. 

We don't know any of the specifics, because The Kings and director Brooke Kennedy did a weird, but not ineffective, bit of subtle-unsubtlety. The lead-up to the shooting was about as on-the-nose as you get, with at least two too many cross-cuts between Grant and security guard's not-so-secured gun. That was followed, though, by experiencing the shooting through Diane Lockhart, litigating a less interesting case in a nearby courtroom, and Kalinda, in the hallway preparing for the key piece of evidence. Then, just as I was being impressed with the way “The Good Wife” had avoided anything potentially exploitative in the shooting, we got at least two too many close-ups on Will's shoe and his exposed sock as a stunned Kalinda tried to process what happened. 

The temptation in these moments is to prolong the drama as much as possible. 

I love Shonda Rhimes and her cliffhangers and endlessly drawn out character demises. It's one way to approach TV death. Rhimes managed to have Meredith Grey dead for multiple episodes before bringing her back to life, while she's been known to have characters bleed, cough or waste away for months at a time. Even swifter deaths, like the one on last week's “Scandal,” still managed to bridge between two episodes. 

Will Gardener's death wasn't all that shocking, but the secrecy around the death and the immediacy of it were.

Will was seen bleeding out in one scene, then Diane and Kalinda were at the hospital unsure on his status and then they found him covered with a sheet in an enclosure next to the ER. There were no comas, no false recoveries and no opportunities for death-bed confessions of love for Alicia. There will be time for high emotions next week, but there was no time for sentiment tonight. A horrifying thing happened with horrifying suddenness and a fictional life was horrifyingly truncated.

The question of how hard this hits you probably will relate to how you were most invested in Will Gardener at this point in the “Good Wife” run.

There are fans who were certain that Will and Alicia were destined to be together, romantically, and for some of them, that was their primary reason for watching the show. I think those fans are going to be berserk for the next few days and we'll see if they return.

I'm not one of those fans.

I never liked Will and Alicia together, not when they were leading up to it, nor when they were finally knocking boots, nor in the aftermath when it seemed like they were just one elevator ride away from a resumption of necking. I didn't like the tease at the end of last season that for some viewers insinuated that Will and Alicia might become a thing again. I'm not a huge Alicia/Peter fan either, but I never bought Will/Alicia as a soulmate situation.

For me, the great relief of Will Gardner's death is that the writers now will never again be tempted to couple and uncouple the old flames. 

That won't be a majority opinion. I've just always viewed the show as being about Alicia as a developing individual, rather than Alicia as a ping-pong ball bouncing between two sleazy men. Of the two, you probably would have predicted Peter as the one more likely to get assassinated, but that would have been too predictable. 

But part of why Will's death was interesting was because of the recent reminders that even if Will wasn't putting himself in harm's way, per se, he was a man who got off on putting himself in dangerous positions, or in the vicinity of dangerous people. We were supposed to think that his comeuppance might be coming through legitimate channels via Eric Bogosian's Nelson Dubeck, but instead it came through his inability to step back from a case that he believed in and a life that he loved, whatever its potential traps. 

Kalinda's desire to get out of the same life and then her charge into the courtroom without heed for her own safety were a feint. “The Good Wife” has struggled to know what to do with Kalinda for the better part of two seasons, over-relying on her magical and irresistible sexuality, but ignore her as a useful character. With Jess Weixler's Robyn already in place, I suspected we were heading toward a stray bullet reuniting Kalinda with her missing ex-husband and saving “The Good Wife” writers from ever needing to acknowledge that plotline again. Instead, Kalinda is fine and Will is gone.

Unlike Kalinda, there were still purposes Will had to serve. Last week's episode and the final Will-Alicia courtroom scene tonight represented a detente in the Will/Alicia Cold War that had been ebbing and flowing since October's “Hitting the Fan” episode. I liked Will as an adversary for Alicia because his lack of scruples could be set against her abundance of scruples and then it meant something when she set one or two of those scruples aside. Going against Will made Alicia have to become more Will-like and I suspect his death will have the same impact. But I don't think the arc pitting the characters against each other had exhausted all of its possibilities. I return to my relief at never needing a return to the romantic side of the Will/Alicia relationship, but I liked their chemistry as foes. Again, as much as I don't care about Alicia having sex with either Will or Peter, I liked the way her morality came into relief when set next to the behavior of these two frequently immoral men. The romantic triangle was useless to my enjoyment of the show, but the ethical/moral triangle was very useful and will need to be carefully replaced.

I'm not sure what this does to Dubeck's investigation, whether it's a convenient “out” for Alicia and Peter in that potential scandal or whether it will limp along for a few episodes. It's too bad, because Bogosian is awesome and I could have watched much more head-to-head sparring with the “Talk Radio” star and Josh Charles. 

I'm also not sure if I'm supposed to still care whether or not Jeffrey Grant killed that coed, or whether something something Touch DNA something something. 

In an open letter to fans on CBS.com, Robert and Michelle King explain that Josh Charles was ready to move on and they didn't want to just send Will to jail or to another city. They wanted to take advantage of the specific drama that only death can generate. The extended “Scenes from the next 5 episodes…” preview after the episode showed that nearly everybody will get to have Emmy moments in the weeks to come, so that generated drama is going to spew forth. I'm not enamored of the “open letter” or, in cases like this, the phenomenon of the post-mortem showrunner interview. I mentioned Shonda Rhimes and her vicious love for killing characters earlier, but Rhimes' gift for killing characters has always — to me at least — been less rewarding in the killing and more rewarding in the handling of things post-death. The Kings don't need to apologize or explain themselves to fans. Josh Charles wanted out, Will Gardener needed — in their minds — to be killed off. The justification for the fictional action resides not in an open letter, but in giving Will Gardener's death value in the episodes to come. Fans aren't owed explanation. They're owed quality follow-through.

So, OK. That was shocking. Now what? I saw a lot of Twitter hyperbole about the greatness of Sunday's episode. I don't especially agree. It was a well-orchestrated jolt, a proficient deviation from what felt like a pre-determined path. But “The Good Wife” already shifted its narrative universe once this season. That was only 10 episodes ago. After four seasons of normal, we didn't come close to settling into the new normal, even if there was a line with Alicia reflecting to Cary about how far their firm has come in six months. 

OK. You took me by surprise. Again. Now what? The test of greatness isn't just in doing the thing you didn't expect, it's in making it feel earned and rewarding in the stories to come.

I don't think “The Good Wife” needs Will Gardener, but it needs to make the most of his absence.