The bomb dropped right around 10:25 or so, later than usual, but at the same time not really later than usual for The Good Wife, the perennially postponed legal procedural on CBS (usually the NFL is to blame; this week we have college basketball to thank for the delays). Shots ringing out in a courtroom. Josh Charles’ Will Gardner, shot in the neck, bleeding out on the floor. Cut to black, an agonizing commercial break. A part of you believes it was some elaborate prank or dream sequence. But no. Just as they indicate Will might be in emergency surgery to save his life, Kalinda and Diane find him in an adjacent room, a sheet covering his body and face, dead and alone.
You could make the argument that the events that take place during the final fifteen minutes of “Dramatics, your Honor” as one of the most shocking TV deaths we’ve seen in a long, long time, perhaps even coming close to Rosalind Shays’ infamous long walk off a short elevator shaft in LA Law (which happened 23 years ago this week). Sure, we’ve seen characters die, often in shocking circumstances, but in many if not most of those situations, the events didn’t necessarily seem out of place for the show on which they happened. Game of Thrones certainly showed their hand early from a “no one is safe” perspective, and while the events of its third season were a surprise, the idea that such an event could happen in Game of Thrones dulled the surprise just a tad. The same could be said about Breaking Bad or The Wire or Battlestar Galactica, who at least had some sense of violence in their shows that could presuppose even an inkling of their various and sundry shocking ends. But not The Good Wife. It was about murderers sometimes, but those murderers were sitting in a courtroom wearing suits and ties, their dirty deeds occurring off screen and in the past. This sort of shocking outburst of violence that not only claimed a series regular, but its de facto male lead, seemed beyond the scope.
And yet, here we are. Will Gardner is dead and Josh Charles is free to move on with his life outside of his plush law offices and austere suits. There’s a part of me that’s torn. Charles is, in essence, the reason I finally sat down and watched the first four seasons of The Good Wife this past September before the fifth season began its run. It’s part of the deal I made with myself to watch every show starring the principals of Sports Night, my favorite show in the history of television. Charles did a great job on The Good Wife, never entirely letting his on-again-off-again love affair with Julianna Margulies subsume him, expertly unfurling those bemused looks at the various kooks he comes across (almost always inhabited by an immaculate piece of stunt casting, easily the show’s greatest strength), or exploding in anger when things didn’t go his way. He was arguably more center to the show than usual this season, all spitting fire after the Florrick/Agos defection and right tad in the middle of the next bit of drama regarding Governor Peter Florrick and some stuffed ballot boxes. Everything seemed to be coming to a head, with a special investigator ready to blow up Alicia’s home life again with Will the only one in the way. And then he was dead at the hands of Silas Botwin (Hunter Parrish, a returning defendant from an earlier episode).
As someone who came into the show late in the game, I think I might have been in the best position to be so thoroughly blindsided by this episode. I didn’t know that Charles wasn’t planning to renew his contract after the end of the fourth season, only to be convinced otherwise to stay on for at least one more year. The concept of Will just up and dying didn’t seem even remotely plausible. This wasn’t a situation like Chevy Chase and Community, where there was bad blood all around and the writing was on the wall. From all accounts, Charles just wanted to move on, and signed on for the next season to allow for Alicia’s exodus from the firm to really hit home, as well as give him the sort of send-off his character deserved.
That send-off is a microcosm of what I love about The Good Wife. It’s a procedural that obstinately refuses to bow to its formula. Sure, it’s a case a week at its core, but it has so much fun with the form, and never simply hits the notes you would expect it to. Will’s death was the perfect example of that. He’s shot off screen and dies off screen. There is no teary farewell, no hospital scene, no last words, no Alicia. Just cold, random death. Will died because of a courtroom cop’s negligence and the psychosis of a man he believed he was innocent and spent hours and hours of his life to keep out of a jail cell. Whether accurate or not, it felt more true to life than your average television death (the lack of zombies certainly helps that side of things). Combine that with the staff’s thoroughly successful campaign of keeping this completely in the dark, and the result is a truly shocking television moment that punches the air from your lungs. The show will go on. We have Matthew Goode (he was in the credits as a series regular) and the return of Michael J Fox to look forward to. This was always Alicia’s show at its core. That hasn’t changed, and won’t change. The loss of Josh Charles is a tough one to swallow, but at least he went out in a way no one will ever forget.
This was not A Very Special Episode Of The Good Wife that CBS had been marketing for weeks. They already did that this year for episode five (itself a wonderful, paradigm-shifting hour of television). This was just a regular episode, one that maybe seemed a little heavier on the Will scenes than usual, perhaps, but simply business as usual until the hammer dropped.
Cold, unfeeling and brutal.
Shock and awe.