E: Much has been written lately about the “Will They Or Won’t They” premise, and how difficult it is to have that dilemma define a long running show. Leave the romance dangling too long, with the writers forced to throw annoyingly improbable barriers between the two leads, and the whole thing collapses under the weight of its absurdity; get them together too soon, and risk becoming the next Moonlighting, the show that so many believe was ruined by bringing its leads together. How long can you sustain romantic tension? Can you really only do it by keeping the couple apart? Will they bore the audience once the sexual tension resolves? How many organic ways can you find to stop a pair that’s truly meant to be from getting together?
The Good Wife, the brilliant legal drama from the 2009/2010 TV season, faces a similar dilemma in a different form. The show has many elements – cases of the week, office intrigue, a political dimension, not to mention a host of amazing supporting characters with their own intrigues and issues – but perhaps the most resonant parallels the “will they or won’t they” model. We can call it “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Should the good wife, Alicia Florrick, stay with penitent philandering husband Peter, or should she flee to understanding old flame (and current boss) Will Gardner? Viewers tune in each week to see the masterfully calibrated three-party dance. But can the brilliance continue? Or have the constraints of the narrative structure already begun to strain our credulity?
During the season first half, former State’s Attorney Peter languishes in prison on corruption charges. His specter hangs over everything Alicia does, each interaction with clients, coworkers, judges, and certainly the prosecutors. Whether they loved him or hated him, they treat Alicia as an extension of him, as his tool rather than a person in her own right. Over and over, Alicia must prove her worth and her probity – to nearly everyone, that is, except Will. (Don’t even say it – she had to win over Kalinda.) The first half of the season, in many ways, invites the viewer to fall in love with Will. The writers give us Will/Alicia scenes more consistently than they give us Alicia/Peter scenes. Even beyond Will working at the firm, and the fact that he’s involved in the Cases of the Week, this makes sense. Because we know Alicia, we know her loyalty to her vows. That’s a given, despite the pain of Peter’s infidelity. Therefore, we’ve got to see her growing attachment to Will to believe it. In that sense, the show has to be on Team Will in order to even set up the conflict at all. Peter’s ties are implicit, but the show has to earn the chemistry between Will and Alicia. When Josh Charles turns his serious brown eyes to the camera, brimming with sympathy and sincerity and respect, the writers are definitely hoping we swoon.
Julianna Margulies plays Alicia as a creature of supreme restraint. So many opponents try to upset her, from her mother-in-law to the new State’s Attorney who jailed Peter to steal his job; no one succeeds. Indeed, her maturity is one of the show’s great pleasures. The only time she really loses her cool is when she visits Peter in prison, filled with pain and anger and confusion. And the only time she really relaxes is when she’s with Will, giggling in his office with her shoes off. It’s a relief and a joy to see her so. Her interactions with Will have an effortless quality; they support each other, but more than that, they see each other in a way that’s truthful and deep, but also tinged with their former youthful idealism. Alicia is Will’s path not taken; he’s found professional success, but no deep personal connection. For Alicia, there’s forgetfulness in his company. She can be her best self, and feel respected for it, and it’s manna in the desert.
Her marriage, surely, is scorched earth. The prison visitation scenes are brutal and searing. Since she’s chosen to remain married, Peter can’t understand why they can’t move forward. Why can’t she just forgive him? Alicia might have chosen intellectually to stay married, but her emotions don’t fall in line so easily. In some ways, her displays of anger are all that’s left of her trust. She can still be vulnerable with him, and show him her pain – something she generally has far too much pride to do. Clearly, it’s an uncertain road, but it’s her anger as much as anything else which tells us Peter still has a chance to win back her heart. In the episode “Home,” we see they had a warm, enviable relationship, one worth fighting for. Peter and Alicia eventually achieve a sort of amicable truce when he forces his former paid mistress to leave Alicia alone. Alicia seems to recommit herself to their marriage – yet doesn’t freeze her growing intimacy with Will. When Peter is released from prison, however, the show moves into shakier water. In some ways the drama becomes more intense; in others, more frustrating. Here, we expect, will be effort. This is the Florrick’s opportunity, after all, to follow the road to reunion. It’s their chance to learn how to be real together again. But that’s not what we get at all. What we get, more chilling than failure, is silence.
I’ve begun to fear that the writers have advanced the storyline so quickly that they’ve put themselves in a bit of a pickle. In many ways, Alicia isn’t merely torn between two lovers. The conflict is between duty and attraction, between faithfulness and indulgence. Fans may arrange themselves into Team Peter versus Team Will, but the true fight is between Team Duty versus Team Temptation – in a sense, Team Alicia versus Team Will. The show is about Alicia, and so her choice is about who she wants to be as much as who she wants to be with. Peter necessarily becomes less of an agent in his own fate. Many devoted viewers long to see more of the Florrick marriage, more of Peter and Alicia trying – even if unsuccessfully – to work things out. This seems a natural extension of putting Peter back in the Florrick home, and yet, the show doesn’t go there. He plots his political resurgence instead of doing the dishes. Instead of helping Alicia pay the bills, he creates new strategies with his consigliere. Why? It’s clear Peter loves Alicia and wants their marriage back as it was. So why isn’t he working for it? Why is he wasting this tremendous opportunity?
So here’s my most sensible answer, trying to see things from the writers point of view. Peter, it seems to me, wins by default. Peter is the incumbent, with all the campaign challenges implicit therein. Peter is married to the good wife; Alicia resists Will, and stays married to Peter, not simply because she loves Peter but because she wants to provide an example to their children of faithfulness. She needs to give children Zach and Grace stability, to show them integrity through adversity, and to show them that they can remain good through the most trying of circumstances. And she wants to be that better person for herself as well. If Peter were to try to rebuild their marriage, with Alicia so predisposed in his favor, how could he fail? So in order to make it a race and preserve the romantic stalemate, Peter can’t actually compete. The writers decided to take larger-than-life Chris Noth out of the game so that he didn’t automatically tip the scales. And yet he can’t actually fail, either; if Peter were to stray again, he would lose audience sympathy and humiliate Alicia beyond repair. Just failing to participate in his family’s life is doing damage enough.
Don’t get me wrong; there have been some brilliant shifts in their power dynamic. The writing staff hasn’t been sitting still. There are explosions a plenty. Lothario Will doesn’t throw out his little black book because he’d rather be with someone he can’t have. The Florricks fight, ugly conflicts over mysterious condoms, Alicia’s hours at the firm, Peter’s jealousy and his rough-and-tumble political tactics. Alicia even kisses Will in a moment of despondent sympathy, then spends the night with Peter instead. This episode, “Heart”, is perhaps the season’s most exquisitely tense portrayal of the central love triangle. Furtive emotional intimacy with one man leads to physical intimacy with another. Everyone and no one advances.
The writers hit on their most clever distraction in the former of Peter’s spiritual adviser, Pastor Isaiah. Though neither of the Florricks has true interest in religion, Isaiah is deeply concerned with the authenticity of their marriage. Even though she mistrusts his presence, Alicia buys the idea that Peter keeps Isaiah around to be a better man for her. Everyone’s left with the impression that Peter’s working on their marriage, from a hazy distance. Of course when a visit to Isaiah’s church turns to be a cover for the a political shakedown, that fragile illusion breaks, and Alicia nearly runs to Will for comfort. Peter responds with his only truly effective gambit of the second half of the season; he’s flattered her, and networked for her, but it’s only when he sabotages his house arrest by following her out of their apartment that he truly convinces her he cares. She finds the flattery and networking profoundly uncomfortable, but when he’s willing to throw everything away, she can’t help protecting him.
Peter’s gamble stops Alicia from leaving him, but it doesn’t rehabilitate their marriage. And there’s the rub. The season ends with Peter resuming his political life. With both partners working late nights and weekend, when will they even see each other to try and reconnect? The chance to prove himself has been lost. In fact, this development implies that Peter’s not really interested in doing the hard daily work; he wants the glamor of the big gesture, wants the poetry, not the prose. He cares about Alica, but he’s easily influenced, susceptible to the steely persuasion of his mother, seduced by visions of greatness, drawn by the thrill of political gamesmanship. And certainly even the toughest political mess proves more intelligible to him than reconnecting with the woman he married. There’s no way to know if Will can partner Alicia (their history is one of missed opportunities), but in the season finale “Running” he passionately declares his desire to try. Alicia challenges Will to help her create a real life, because that’s just what Peter hasn’t done. Peter wants to pretend everything is fine, in the hopes that the pretense will make it so. Alicia’s just hoping to get through the day. I have to admit it, though. I’ve been hoping for something braver. I don’t want Alicia to end up with Will because she has no emotional life with Peter. If the writers want (as has been reported) to distract us with politics and stunt casting next season, I think the audience will refuse to be dazzled. We like the poetry, sure. But we want to see the prose, too.
If you could ask Alicia whether or not she still loves Peter, I don’t think she could answer. Infidelity is a poison that works backwards, reaching its tendrils into your memories, choking the life you thought you had, replacing it with something sordid, making you doubt all you thought you knew. She hasn’t begun to get over that – and not least because she’s too proud and too contained and too strong to ask Peter to work with her, to demand the things that might help their marriage (like counseling or time off from politics). She wants to be the person who stays, but she’s still too mad at him to let him back into her heart. Now, maybe she doesn’t think it’s fair to ask him not to choose politics. Maybe she thinks it’s no good if he doesn’t make the choice for himself. But by giving him this space, she’s devaluing her own importance in his life.
But see, here’s the thing. Just as Peter automatically wins if he really throws his hat in the ring, Peter automatically loses if Alicia breaks down her reserve – if she tries not just to live with him but to have an authentic relationship – and he doesn’t similarly step up. If Alicia had asked Peter not to run, if she had really put it on the line, and he did it anyway because his mother told him to, how could she stay with him? If Alicia didn’t leave Peter then, I think a lot of his fans would.
So that’s my theory; the withholding serves an essential dramatic purpose. Building the love triangle into the fabric of a show seems just as dangerous (and compelling) a concept as the whole “will they/won’t they” formula. In order for it to work, there must be balance. You shouldn’t feel like one character has it in the bag. The upper hand can shift, of course, but there has to be tension, there has to be the chance. You have to feel like something is at stake. Which makes things particularly difficult, because the husband of the good wife always has an advantage. It’s been very astutely noted that Alicia acts like a bystander in her own life. But that, in a sense, is because all the power in the show rests with her. When she chooses, where will the drama come from? The writers need her to walk that line. If she makes demands neither man can rise to, then the show becomes unbalanced. If she chooses, the stalemate ends.
But there are risks to this stalemate strategy. It was necessary to show Alicia drowning under the financial obligations of Peter’s mess; otherwise, we can never believe that she’ll got to Eli for help. And yet, how much absence on Peter’s part can the audience excuse? The more time he spent locked in their apartment, the more lack of meaningful interactions between Peter and Alicia began to seem unnatural. How many times can we hear him say “I can’t do this without you” before we start screaming “you most certainly can, because you do it all the time!” at the tv? How long before Alicia feels like a fool – or worse, before we start thinking of her as one? This strategy – this zero sum game – can work, but for how long? The writers need to explore ways to push and twist this format, to make the situation more realistic, without resolving the stalemate. It’s clear that a large focus of next season will be politics. And that could be fantastic. But a part of me is like Alicia – screaming inside. Wait, wait, you’re going too fast! Is there any way to keep Peter engaged in Alicia’s life? His primary method of support – his relentless networking on behalf of Lockhart Gardner – only makes her queasy. What else can he do that could have a positive impact on his family life?
Though amazing drama has grown from it, I do wonder at the writer’s decision to bring Peter home from prison without making Chris Noth a full time cast member. I think they need to work harder finding creative ways to make sure Peter acts naturally while still serving the confines of the love triangle plotline. I can understand how the structure calls for his absence, and I can see why parts of his character help to justify some of those choices. He’s a demonstrative guy, but he forgets that there’s more to relationships and romance than grand gestures. So sure, I can understand his behavior to a degree. But unfortunately, we need more. I think they may have stretched the limits of how emotionally absent Peter can be. I have little doubt that Alicia’s going to step on the stage with Peter at his press conference rather than take Will’s phone call. Whatever she does, however, if Will makes the plan that Alicia has asked for, Peter needs to give her a compelling reason to stay with him instead. How much will the audience enjoy it if neither man rises to the challenge? We need to like them both, and believe they both could be worthy of her. Even if Peter has an unfair advantage, and is required by the nature of the show not win Alicia easily, we need to see him fight for Alicia, and not just shunt her into the background of his life. Otherwise, all we’re seeing is the slow, inevitable death of the Florrick marriage (whether it officially ends or not). These three characters are too smart, too fully realized and too beautifully acted for that. They deserve better, and the audience does too. I hope the writers are mindful of this creeping threat to the stability of their love triangle as they move through the second season. I want to be torn between Alicia’s two lovers, too! I don’t want to lose respect for Will, or feel like Peter’s a lost cause. I can’t wait for the new season to start, and I hope the ride continues to be as clever, honest and absorbing as the one already given us.