Last week’s episode of “The Good Wife” has 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 that has kept television viewers coming back season after season. I get that. But what I don’t understand are those who are outraged by the “OMG!” shock moment of his murder. One critic condemned the plot twist because it was “totally abrupt and unconnected to the rest of the story.” In other words: She didn’t see it coming.
Exactly! Life (or death) is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
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.
Usually, however, we learn this lesson the hard way. Firsthand. 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 had 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 an urologist ended all that: After a cursory exam and an ultrasound, he said, “You have cancer.”
Two days later, I had emergency surgery. Some body parts were excised and others replaced. 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 “got” Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” which I had read 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 in my orderly approach to life: I was the good son-student-boyfriend. My (slightly uptight) routine gave me comfort — the way a straitjacket 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 by 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 into the night.
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 strange 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 has 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 Sept. 11, 2001.
In short, last week’s shocking plot twist on “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 time.
I hope Alicia realized that when she said goodbye to Will for the last time during that episode.
Petrow is a Washington Post contributor and the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners.”