This post discusses the major twist in last weekend’s episode of “The Good Wife” in extensive detail.
We are only in the second day of shiva for Will Gardner (Josh Charles), the handsome, ethically-challenged-in-a-rakish-way lawyer who for four-and-a-half seasons has helped anchor “The Good Wife,” one of the best dramas on network or cable television. Since Will’s murder in the courtroom by a client who was faring badly in jail and facing the prospect of a lengthy sentence following a murder conviction, mourners have lamented the loss of everything from the crackling antagonism between Will and his former colleague and lover, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) to the end of a potential, smoking-hot reunion between the pair. Robert and Michelle King, who created and run “The Good Wife,” even felt the need to mount a defense of their decision to kill Will off in the middle of a season in which he was at his most interesting as a character.
But, though it makes me the person who forgets to send a nice whitefish before asking tough questions about the legacy of the dearly departed, I have to set aside how hot the flashbacks to Will and Alicia’s affair were and raise another point. What does Will’s murder do to the lingering political corruption storyline that has gained prominence in recent episodes of “The Good Wife.” “Once Will Gardener testifies, the dominoes will start falling,” Nelson Dubeck (Eric Bogosian), an investigator from the Justice Department’s Office of Public Integrity, had warned before Will was shot. Now that he is dead, will the cascade begin? Or did the Kings opt out of a storyline that would illustrate the cancerous reach of corruption into Chicago politics.
The scandal Will had become entangled in before his death began in the finale of the fourth season of “The Good Wife,” when Alicia’s son Zach (Graham Phillips) noticed a box of ballots with a broken seal being brought into his precinct during early voting rather than being taken out of it. Diving straight for the conclusion that the ballots must be for the Republican candidate, rather than for Alicia’s husband Peter (Chris Noth), Alicia and her colleagues mount a fierce legal fight to have the ballots thrown out, only to reverse their position once the ballots are counted and are found to be heavily in Peter’s favor. Ultimately the ballots are counted, but they turn out not to matter: Peter would have carried the election handily anyway. But we and Will learned, though Alicia did not, that the ballots were faked by someone in Peter’s campaign. Will could have exposed Peter, his rival for Alicia’s affections.
In choosing to keep the secret, Will took a complicated ethical position. As a lover, he took the high road, intending to try to win Alicia on his own merits rather than undermine her husband. But burying the video that proved the ballots were the product of deliberate fraud, Will stuck a detonator not just onto Peter’s candidacy, but on Alicia’s relationship with almost every other character on the show.
Those bombs began to go off this season, when a short version of the video showed up as a tip in a reporter’s inbox. Alicia learned that a short snippet of the video existed, and that Peter refused to review it on election day. But the investigation into Will opened up the possibility of political and emotional cluster bombs for the show. What would it mean for Alicia to be exposed as the attorney who defended corrupt practices for her husband? How would it affect her relationship with her longtime friend Kalinda to know that Kalinda, who uncovered the fraud, kept it from Alicia? How would it affect Alicia’s feelings for Will to know about the choices that her former lover made?
These questions still resonate now that Will is gone. And now that Will lives on only in Alicia’s memory, they might be even more salient. Without Will as a viable romantic alternative to her husband, would Alicia leave Peter even if she became convinced that he is deeply corrupt? Can her fledgling law firm survive if her reputation is tarnished?
And what does it mean for “The Good Wife” to have embroiled herself in the dirtiest business of Illinois politics? Alicia is hardly a nun, but part of what makes the show built around her so wonderful is that “The Good Wife” powerfully illustrates just how hard it is to rebuild a marriage that has been grievously wounded, and how remarkable it is to find love and sexual intimacy again after having been humiliated and betrayed. But part of the way that Alicia punished her husband after he cheated on her and was imprisoned is by maintaining a facade of righteousness. She was good, he was bad, and their relationship was deeply affected by that power imbalance. If Peter, or Eli Gold (Alan Cumming), his campaign manager, have compromised the life and business that Alicia worked so hard to build for herself, even if they did so by accidentally inspiring their fixer to voter fraud, that will be a terrible blow.
I suppose that Will’s death could give “The Good Wife” an excuse to drop an extremely complex political plot line. But if the Kings really believe, as they wrote to fans in the aftermath of Sunday’s episode, that “drama isn’t in the event; it’s in the aftermath of the event,” let’s hope they see this investigation all the way through to its close. Will’s killer may have run out of bullets before he could commit suicide in the courtroom. But all the projectiles launched by Zach’s discovery of the ballot box have yet to find their targets.