‘I want to control my fate’: The Good Wife is network TV’s best drama

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in 'The Good Wife'. CBS Broadcasting, In.c

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in ‘The Good Wife’. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

By Jake Pitre

Elevators. It has always been elevators with Will and Alicia. Missed connections, conversations had and conversations abruptly silenced, and of course, passions ignited. Opening and closing doors are a pretty perfect metaphor for their relationship, since their timing was never quite right. It wasn’t ever going to work. Was it?

With the possible exception of NBC’s Hannibal, The Good Wife is the best drama series currently on network television. I give the edge to TGW, though, because it is in its fifth season and how many shows are not only still strong this far into their lifespans, but are also in the midst of their best season yet? The show has always been rather fantastic, but this season has propelled it to new heights and it has been thrilling to watch. And then, The Thing happened on Sunday night. Spoilers follow, obviously, up to and including this Sunday’s episode. Go watch all of TGW, first. I’ll wait.

Done? Great. I have been awestruck in the last couple of days at the amount of digital ink spent on The Good Wife. Maybe I just follow too many TV critics on Twitter, but the amount of conversation this legal procedural in its fifth season has generated is impressive to say the least. This is a show that has been quietly brilliant for years, and is now blowing up as more people begin to realize what an enigma it is. It is often, perhaps understandably, dismissed because on the surface it does look like just another law procedural, dealing with a case per week and never really taking any risks. The difference, quite simply, is that The Good Wife takes plenty of risks.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. Photo: David M. Russell. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Actually, that’s only one difference. There are many things that make this show stand out. Some background, then. Its showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, are not only extremely talented writers, but they also care deeply about their show and their characters. Its actors, from Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, our good wife, to Alan Cumming as Eli Gold or Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, are all superb and at the top of their game. The massive roster of rotating guest stars is staggering and particularly rich, including Michael J. Fox as a rival attorney, Carrie Preston as oddball lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni and plenty of unique and charismatic judges, such as Jeffrey Tambor. The topical, ripped-from-the-headlines cases are always handled with nuance and insight (especially when it comes to technology – this is your first reminder that this show is on CBS). The pace is crazily quick, and the dialogue is witty and often sassy. The typical 22-episode network season is excruciating and creatively draining for any show, but almost every episode of The Good Wife manages to be wildly entertaining and fulfilling, which is something that cannot be said about any other 22-episodes per season series.

That is all very impressive, no doubt. Then, in the fourth season finale, an unbelievably exciting thing happened: Alicia and Cary Agos (played by Matt Czuchry) decided to leave their somewhat struggling law firm, Lockhart/Gardner, and start their own. The show’s central premise was effectively upended (in a move rather ingeniously deployed this season by Archer, as well), and the fifth season began with excitement far higher than what came with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or The Michael Scott Paper Company. The shit hit the fan, as it were, in the season’s fifth episode, “Hitting The Fan”, which aired in October. Will Gardner (played gracefully with smarminess and charm in equal measure by Josh Charles) bursts into Alicia’s office once he discovers that his former lover had betrayed him and is leaving (not to mention stealing clients), sweeping her desk clean with aggressive power in a scene filmed with kinetic energy unusual for the show. It was a horrifying and impossibly satisfying moment, because this was the peak of more than four seasons of building tension.

The Good Wife is the unparalleled master of the slow burn. For four seasons, we had watched Alicia struggle with her relationships with her disgraced politician husband, Peter (Chris Noth), and her boss, Will. We had also watched Alicia (and Cary) rise in power, and her ambition followed suit. This development was the tipping point for everyone involved. The rest of the season, until this past Sunday, has been about the fallout (the next three episodes were called “The Next Day”, “Week” and “Month”, respectively). The catharsis of that episode (as heart-wrenching as it was), made all the more powerful because of all we’ve come to know about these people in the past few years, kicked the show into a gear unlike anything it had been in previously. In short, this procedural legal drama on CBS took a gigantic risk and it has paid off with a truly phenomenal run of episodes.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

The Kings weren’t done, though. On Sunday, in a move that rocked viewers, they killed off Will Gardner, Alicia’s will-they, won’t-they love interest and the primary male star of the series. What seems to have angered many viewers is the way it was handled: a completely sudden, unforeseen random act of violence. Will is killed by his client in a courtroom by a stray bullet. Everything slows down. We’re at the hospital. One shoe is missing. Someone needs to call Alicia.

On a purely formal level, the scene is directed with great skill by Brooke Kennedy, who has been with the show since the second season. It is a scene more suited to an action-centred crime procedural, and it is directed in a way that builds a massive amount of suspense in a short period of time by choosing its angles carefully and using sound design and clever camerawork to its advantage. Many initial reviews of the episode failed to notice or mention this, which is just the latest example of the show being dismissed as little more than a procedural (the comparisons made to latter-day Grey’s Anatomy for this episode feel especially offensive).

The Kings and Josh Charles were immediately upfront online about how this shocking twist came to be: Charles informed them that he wanted to leave the show, Margulies suggested he stick around for half a season to be written out in a strong way, and Charles and the Kings obliged. Contractual obligations can drag a show down or come off as overtly obvious or trite (the Kings, in a letter addressed to Good Wife fans about the episode, made reference to George Clooney’s character on ER being sent “off to Seattle”). For this reason, I understand why some viewers were uncomfortable with the sudden act of senseless violence being their resolution to Will’s story on the show. In many ways, it feels like the obvious way to do it in this age of television where this kind of thing happens so often. I’m not so sure.

This is far different than if a lesser character on the show had asked to leave. This is Will Gardner. For many, the Alicia/Will romance was the foundation of the show (I disagree – more on that in a moment). The Kings had every reason to appease their audience and give Will his own kind of off-into-the-sunset/Seattle farewell. This would allow for potential future guest spots, and would keep the will-they, won’t-they on the back of viewers’ minds in Alicia’s decisions. The possibility (even, say, in the series finale) of a rekindled relationship would be ever-present. The Kings decided to answer once and for all: they won’t. Will is gone. Will is dead. Will is not coming back. There were other choices, and they boldly shut those doors.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

That said, there is a little of having their cake and eating it going on here. The Kings have this strong justification, while also giving the audience something shocking and the network something to heavily promote. Only, beyond telling us something BIG was going to go down, this was held under wraps. No foreshadowing. No promos promising a “SHOCKING DEATH”. This was one of the most legitimately shocking episodes of TV I have ever seen (this was on CBS, by the way), even though I saw some comments on Twitter beforehand warning of something crazy happening. Plus, it was absolutely sudden. It is settled very quickly that, yes, he’s dead. No deathbed final words. It’s over. Alicia’s phone rings.

Setting aside the fact that such a major plot twist was kept secret in this day and age, without even a hint of a major death, I also welcome this for its clear-eyedness. For me, the Will/Alicia romance long ago lost its inherent power, and I think the same happened for the Kings. They split them up, then made great entertainment from their rivalry between law firms. And finally, in choosing to definitively kill him off when they could’ve sent him into the sunset, it reminds us what this show has always been about: Alicia. Or, as the Kings wrote in their letter, “the Education of Alicia Florrick”. How will Alicia (and the other characters – this death affects them all, not least of which Peter with his election-stealing investigation that Will was key to) react? What are the consequences? The Kings could still screw that all up, and this gut-punch could be the beginning of the end, but I am intensely interested in finding out – and I have faith in them.

Mark Harris, a writer for Entertainment Weekly and Grantland, summed it up nicely on Twitter: “Thrilled that a year-5 twist on a network drama has sparked real debate over what the whole series has been about.” I think its clear that the show has always been about Alicia, and Will’s death only cements that. For a long time, this choice – between Will and Peter – has been crucial to Alicia’s character. She has never wanted to come firmly down on one side or the other, preferring to keep both options relatively open, but this choice has partly defined the show (and, to some, completely defined it). What this episode seems to be saying, in a way that rings true, is that sometimes in life, you don’t get to make that choice. We will not know what Alicia’s choice would have eventually been, because Will is gone, and now the show is faced with what to do without that choice. Luckily, there’s much more to The Good Wife and to Alicia than just Will. If you were watching and thought their relationship was the most important thing about it and that the show will be nothing without it, I think you may have been watching it wrong. I don’t like to tell someone that they are watching something wrong, but if you don’t think that The Good Wife is about much more than Will and Alicia, you should rethink. Which isn’t to say that Will is not wholly significant. Now we will see how Will changed her, how his death will change her, and how she undoubtedly battles through. She wants to control her fate, after all.

However you feel about Will’s death, whether that it happened or how it happened, it was an admirable risk, and one that is only in keeping with the show’s long history of ballsy risks (albeit a little more showy). This season of The Good Wife has been more entertaining than most other things on television, and it’s time for it to stop being ignored by non-TV-critic folk (and old people who fall asleep with the TV on after The Amazing Race). This recent rush of discussion has been invigorating to watch and read through and participate in, and I hope it continues. So often, we waste endless thinkpieces and essays on TV shows that simply don’t deserve it, and the stuff we should be paying attention to passes us by. The Good Wife is doing something different, and succeeds partly by subverting those expectations laid on it. It did something, just this week, totally unlike itself and caused a firestorm of debate and conversation. This is only one part of a fifth season that has been on fire since the beginning, and will hopefully continue to be. Alicia now needs to figure out how to define herself without that relationship. How much does she let the loss, and the man, define her? How does it change those around her? How much will she be able to control her fate, when the world tells her you can’t? I don’t know, but I’ll be watching.

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