I had no idea what was coming when I settled in with a little bit of wine and a late-night viewing of The Good Wife yesterday evening — my partner had gone to bed, but I felt like staying up alone a little longer with my TV. I even thought I might just watch some of the episode while I enjoyed my glass of wine, then save the rest for the morning.
No chance of that once I saw Will Gardner bled-out on a hospital gurney. So dead. A major character and the star-crossed lover of our heroine, the one she seemed to be heading toward a reconciliation with, dead. I honestly caught myself trying to come up with ways he could not really be dead. But all I came up with were the worst, most hackneyed fake-outs — nothing becoming of the continuously gutsy showrunners at The Good Wife. They consistently manage to reset the show without feeling cheap, and without disrupting what the show’s true journey is: the transformation of Julianna Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick from a doting political wife to, well, a badass bitch. (When I saw her husband, Peter, calling her a “bitch” in the preview of upcoming scenes, I actually cheered to myself: damn right, she’s a bitch. About time.)
It’s a strange truth about enjoying narrative art in general, and television in particular: Surprises, even when they hurt, provide some element of delight. I think it’s because we like knowing we’re in the hands of storytellers who are going to keep things fresh and real at all costs. I think it’s also because we like feeling that our investment in the story is worth something, that it’s leading to some deeper truths.
It turns out the death resulted in part from actor Josh Charles’ decision to leave the show. (To which I’m tempted to say, “What?!?” But we all have our own creative journeys, and it takes guts to leave a successful show to remain true to yourself.) For me, this had an extra resonance: I would have known this was coming if I still worked at Entertainment Weekly. We always knew (what with it being our job) when an actor was leaving a show, when a major plot twist or death was coming, often because our editors were negotiating to get “exclusives” on such developments — fodder for the popular “spoiler” blogs or first interviews with actors whose characters met surprise demises. I didn’t mind spoilers; I still liked seeing how shows executed their twists.
But man, was it strange, devastating, and, in the end, satisfying, to experience Will’s death the way the characters did: as a horrifying surprise.