E: No, it’s still not a recap. I’m sorry about that, truly I am. But given that I’m not going to be writing a recap this week, I feel like I owe it to myself and to you guys to do more than (to borrow a phrase from Veronica Mars once more) flail my tiny effectual fists at the universe. It won’t be what you’re used to, but I hope you’ll be willing to bear with me to share some observations and anecdotes in a more conventional format.
So instead of going through every word in painstaking detail, I’d like to say a few things about my reaction to the episode.
Let me tell you a story – for once, a story of my own. It’s a common enough story, really; you probably have one like it in essence if not in the particulars. In the fall of 2004, I had just quit my job. I was pregnant with my second child, and pretty much scared out of my mind about it because my first child was born two months early due to a condition called pre-eclampsia; statistically I had a strong likelihood of developing it again. (You might recognize that as the malady which killed Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey, and Bradley Whitford’s wife on the infamous “Love’s Labor Lost” episode of er.) And my grandmother, one of the dearest people to me in all my life, was fighting inoperable pancreatic cancer.
Her doctors had told us that there was no reason that she couldn’t do chemo, despite the cancer being inoperable and despite her being 90. Grammy came from a large family of long lived women; her oldest sister died at 99, and several sisters were then in their 90s as well. So despite that desperate word, inoperable, we had high hopes. She’d had a tough month in September, but October had been very good, and her beloved Red Sox were up three games to none in the World Series. We were a single day away from something Grammy, a passionate fan who knew at least 70 years worth of Red Sox squads, had spent her entire life waiting to see.
An hour or so after Game Three ended, she started having trouble breathing – enough trouble that we ended up calling for an ambulance. The EMTs didn’t seem to take the situation very seriously; it took them a half an hour to get her loaded up and sent over to our local hospital, and the police officer who came with them (the guy who did the DARE talks when I was a kid) calmly assured us he’d seen this before and it would all be fine. Still, I had a terrible gut feeling as they pulled the gurney into the ambulance, remembering a harrowing story Grammy’d told of her own mother being sent to the hospital when she was only five, never to be seen again. (“Don’t let them take me,” her mother had begged, “I’ll die there!”) Though my parents told us not to, my sister and husband and I followed them perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later.
When we arrived at the hospital, I saw my father on his cell phone outside the Emergency Room entrance, and in an overwhelming rush I knew that Grammy had died. It seemed suddenly, blindingly clear – in a way that doesn’t really make sense in retrospect – that my Dad wouldn’t be outside for any other reason.
And though there were a million other reasons he could have gone outside to make that phone call, he hadn’t. She was gone.
What I remember next is meeting my mother outside a curtained exam room in the ER. I remember my grandmother’s feet, the first thing I saw through the curtain, in socks to guard against the fall chill; I was the one who had found the socks and pulled them on while the EMTs talked to her. I remember her bare legs, her nightgown unsettled from the doctors’ vain attempts to save her. Her skin that was still warm.
And I remember the impotence of that moment – all that medicine and science could do, all our hopes and our love and our plans, our need for her presence, silenced by a blood clot caused by the chemo drugs that were meant to save (or at least prolong) her life. There would be no do-over, no sense in pleading, no help, no hope but heaven, no way to call her back. Gone. Here, and then suddenly, irrevocably gone.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned what a great influence my grandmother has been on my life. This is generally true, but particularly so in my entertainment preferences (hence its relevance here). In addition to baseball, variety shows and science fiction, Grammy loved romances and mysteries. She adored lawyer shows, Perry Mason in particular, though Judging Amy was a more recent favorite. So humble, so modest and unassuming that people who didn’t know her well thought of her as nice rather than smart, Grammy always knew who the killer was. And so when The Good Wife premiered, and I became intoxicated with its blend of politics, the law, cleverly solved cases and a tortured romantic triangle, I felt an added level of connection because of my grandmother. Had she been alive, I’ve always been sure she would have watched the show, and we would have talked about it every week. Though there is no substitute for her presence, I fancy that I know how she would have reacted to a lot of it. She would have loved Will, but she would have been adamantly Team Peter; I can see her shrugging, tossing up her hands, saying “I’m for marriage.” In a small, strange way, talking about The Good Wife is talking to her, and even that tenuous link is inexpressibly precious to me.
So it’s no one’s fault, but I cannot spend three or four or five days mulling over this episode as I usually would. I can’t point out the little valentines to Will that should have tipped me off that something bad was coming, but didn’t. It’s too much to smile over Kalinda, finally getting back to solving cases. I cannot think of Will’s foot sticking out of that ER curtain, Diane’s hand pressed over her mouth, Kalinda’s sobs, Will looking like and not like himself in that way that a dead body can never be mistaken for a sleeping human being. I can barely type this much without my hands shaking. It took five months and the birth of my daughter (no more fear, no more pregnancy hormones) to stop the terrible crying jags that followed my grandmother’s death (in the car, in the shower, where ever I was alone), and I think of the still foot behind the curtain and I can’t go back.
I don’t say this because anyone owes me anything – certainly not because my deaths are more devastating than anyone else’s – or because I blame anyone for tapping into my personal demons this way. That’s part of what good art does, after all. It makes us feel. Or, I don’t know, maybe I do blame them. Maybe I’m mad that the Kings went somewhere so unutterably painful when they didn’t have to. After all, this is what they’ve avowed they were aiming for; the randomness of life, the finality of death, the big surprise so jealously guarded. I won’t say that it isn’t moving, but I wonder what ultimate purpose it serves not merely to take Will out of the show’s equation but to suckerpunch us with his death. With NPR’s Linda Holmes, I’d assert that killing off main characters for the shock value has become something of a trope these days. When our big collective weep is over, what will be left?
After all, what was genuinely revolutionary about “Hitting the Fan” was that we got the Red Wedding without the bloodshed. And after all, there aren’t that many Red Weddings in real life, but there are plenty of less bloody betrayals. Instead of gore, we got real nuanced human interactions. Instead of feeling sick, I was invigorated. Instead of crying, I cheered. Why is darkness suddenly the by-word for drama? No, I don’t say that as a Pollyanna – I say that because this show has always lived in shades of gray, which made it infinitely more intriguing to me than a would-be gritty overwrought drama like Darkness at Noon. Everyone wants to do the right thing – but the right thing according to what metric? Good according to whom? The complexity of the show’s usual debate feels more like real life than anything else on television.
Perhaps it’s too much to say that Will was the glue that held the show together. Leaving aside questions of the love triangle, and whether he and Alicia were or were not done with each other romantically, the fact is that he provided elements that the show – and the other characters – sorely lacked. First of all, he’s funny. In addition to many moments of brilliant intensity, there was an ease to his banter with Diane, Kalinda and (in the past) Alicia that cannot be replaced within the existing structure of the show. Largely, The Good Wife relies on its recurring characters for its humor. For the funny, we go to David Lee, we go to Howard Lyman, we got to Elsbeth Tascioni, Owen Cavanaugh, Veronica Loy, Patti Nyholm. Of course Eli is often played for laughs, but that’s not the same thing the easy, clever repartee Will shared with so many of his colleagues. Think about it, and you’ll see what I mean; Diane and Alicia and Kalinda, they’re not funny with each other. They’re (almost exclusively) only funny with Will. The audience laughed at Eli; the characters laughed with Will. And they were able to be funny together because of their long and complicated histories of trust and loyalty. No new actor or storyline can replace a history built into the show’s DNA, not merely the five seasons that have aired but the complicated backstories of the characters in the time before it. As with death in real life, there are people you never get over. There are families that drift apart without the one charismatic person that everyone talked to.
As we’ve discussed, The Good Wife has always been about Alicia Florrick looking to control her fate; brutally, “Dramatics, Your Honor” showed us what an illusion that control is, how laughable the notion that we get to decide what happens to us. She has been able to exert a great deal of control in the professional sphere, providing for her family, mastering her work, becoming a partner, starting her own firm. Additionally, she’s stayed with Peter despite being mocked for it on national television, because neither Peter nor any one else was going to make her break her vows, too. Again, control. She’s sought to wrest herself away from all those who would feed on her despair, who would steal her peace from her. And she has learned how not to react to bullies, not merely by showing them a stony face but (as we saw in her deposition) by remaining genuinely unmoved by their machinations. She’s learned to play the game, to hold her head up, to smile in the face of persecution; she’s a lioness now, a lamb no longer. In that way, she’s succeeded immensely – but there will always be things we cannot control, and the first of these things is death.
In “A Few Words” – which seems a million years ago now, a naive, happy past – Alicia told Rayna Hecht that she not only wants control, she wants to live a happy life. In that personal dimension, she hasn’t made as much progress as she has professionally and politically. And like it or not, it’s her ability to relate to the men in her life – and to admit and deal with her complicated feelings for them – where we’ve marked that unsteady progress. More than simply a love triangle in the conventional sense, Alicia’s interactions with both Will and Peter have been a sort of measuring stick of her emotional growth. In all her success, Alicia has also been incredibly isolated. She literally has no friends, not a single one. Though her kids are probably the most important people in her life, they could never occupy that same space. They’re not her equals. There’s only her brother, and he’s never there. Perhaps Will’s death will be just another challenge that forces Alicia to grow past stronger than she believed she was capable of – certainly that’s the intention – but it’s hard to see it as something other than a narrowing of her choices, a burden that makes her life colder and even more isolated, a defeat.
Of course, the cold, inescapable truth is that it doesn’t really matter what I think. What’s gone is gone. Josh Charles had control over his participation in the show, not anyone else. Robert and Michelle King had control over how he left it. Wish as I might that he had never wanted to leave, or that they’d chosen not to take this show into format-shattering territory, Will Gardner is gone, and with him, The Good Wife as we’ve known it. Today it’s hard for me to separate mourning for him and for the show from the emotional muck it’s stirred up inside me, but I know that the show will be fundamentally different, darker, harder. I fear that I won’t be able to look forward to it in the same way. That my trust, my goodwill, is shattered.
And anyone who watches this show knows just how hard it is to rebuild trust.