‘The Good Wife’ exposes the myth of the carefree life

The March 23 episode of "The Good Wife" set off the chattering classes. You know, the episode where Will Gardner, on-again, off-again lover of Alicia Florrick, is gunned down in a shocking courtroom climax.

Not surprisingly, the producers have been criticized for extinguishing the characters’ sexual heat, which has kept viewers coming back season after season. I get that. But what I don’t understand are those who are outraged by the “OMG!” shock of his murder. One critic, Vulture’s Margaret Lyons, condemned the plot twist because it was “totally abrupt and unconnected to the rest of the story.” Then, she added more fire to her ire: “No one's complicit in it, no one's responsible for it … .”  In other words: She didn’t see it coming.

Exactly! Life (or death) is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

Viewers rushed online to side against Lyons, most notably this post: ‘[T]his type of death of a character reminds us of the pointless, unfair, completely random situations in life when things just don't make any sense, like a cancer-stricken innocent child. So many occurrences in life are inexplicable and harsh.”

For those of us who think our lives are all neatly wrapped, random acts of illness or terror, depravity or death are especially disconcerting because they reveal the fundamental delusion of how we experience the world. Sometimes TV can actually help. To reinforce this point, the show’s producers wrote in an open letter: “We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives. It’s terrifying how a perfectly normal and sunny day can suddenly explode with tragedy.”

Usually, however, we learn this lesson the hard way. First hand. That was the case one foggy San Francisco day 30 years ago when I was 26 and a grad student at Berkeley -- and I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I’d never even heard of the malady (this was way before Lance Armstrong came on the scene) and wasn’t that worried when an “infection” didn’t respond to three rounds of antibiotics. My referral to a urologist ended all that: After a cursory exam and an ultrasound, he said: “You have cancer.”

Two days later, I had emergency surgery. After the procedure, still spacey from the anesthesia, I looked up to see my boyfriend Joshua with a spray of lilacs. I was so glad to see his handsome face, but all I could think was: How the hell did this happen to me?

In the days that followed, I suddenly understood Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which I had read earlier that year in an English literature class. As Hammett wrote:

“The life [Flitcraft] knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.”

Like the character Flitcraft, I, too, had exalted my orderly approach to life: I was the good son-student-boyfriend. My (slightly uptight) routine gave me comfort—the way a straightjacket might feel to someone who is not struggling to get out. Three days a week, I walked the exact same route from my brown-shingled apartment on Berkeley's Southside to the university's outdoor pool, spent the rest of the morning at Doe Library, afternoons teaching undergrads and most nights asleep in Joshua's arms. I was a seasoned swimmer, a faithful boyfriend and an industrious student.

Then one night, six months before my diagnosis, a mugger accosted me, sticking a pistol into my ribs, demanding my wallet and my watch. I refused and bolted, screaming “HELP” into the night. He shouted, “Stop! Or I’ll shoot” and then fled.

For a few days, this bungled assault sat with me as nothing more than another example of urban crime. With a lucky outcome. But that wasn’t the end of it. I didn’t know it at the time, but my well-ordered life, so appealing for its promise of comfort and safety, was in jeopardy.

Cut to that post-surgery hospital bed, where I lay quite in a fog—with a three-inch scar and, hello, a fake testicle. Out of the blue. “Totally abrupt and unconnected to the rest of the story.”

My mind worked feverishly to make some connection between the condition of my body, the mugging and that crime novel. And I saw a new truth: Life is random -- with very little of the future actually under my control.

Learning that lesson at a relatively young age has served me well in the lifetime that followed, especially when faced with shocking and unforeseen life events, such as my best friend’s suicide, a beloved relative’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, even the events of 9/11. In short, last week’s shocking plot twist in The Good Wife mirrored life as I’ve come to experience it. It never hurts to be reminded of “the irredeemability of death” (as the producers wrote) and that each time with a loved one might just be the last. I hope Alicia realized that when she said goodbye to Will for the last time during that episode.

Steven Petrow writes for The Washington Post and the New York Times. He’s also the author of "Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners." Follow him at www.twitter.com/stevenpetrow and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/stevenpetrow.

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
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