Why That Big Twist on The Good Wife Is a Breakthrough for TV

The show has sent the message that its female lead's story will not be driven by her love interests.
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Eike Schroter / CBS

This post discusses details from the episode that aired on Sunday, March 23. 

Will Gardner's death on "The Good Wife" was arguably the most shocking TV demise in recent memory.   

“OH MY GOD GOOD WIFE WHAT DID YOU DO?!” one fan tweeted after it was revealed that Will, the driven and charismatic lawyer who, until this week, was the show’s male lead, had died from his gunshot wounds. Even for critics who knew the episode would feature an OMG moment, the death came out of left field.

“I had heard scuttlebutt that Josh Charles [who played Will] was planning on leaving the show soon, and had seen ominous tweets that this episode was a game-changer,” wrote Time television critic James Poniewozik. “But the nature in which the game changed was a shock, and certainly a risk for The Good Wife‘s staff–not only killing off a major character but putting a bullet through one of the central relationships on the show.”

Eliminating Will was certainly a risk on the showrunners’ part. But it was one worth taking—because it means the liberation of his on-again, off-again love interest, the main protagonist Alicia Florrick. In killing off the beloved character, showrunners Robert and Michelle King are making a statement: Alicia Florrick is not defined by her love interests, and her story does not end because Will's does. As the Kings said in their letter to fans after Will’s swan song aired, their series is about “the Education of Alicia Florrick,” not “the Wooing of Alicia Florrick.” Alicia is freed from having her love life dictate her storylines and define her character for the foreseeable future. And in an entertainment landscape in which women still vie to be seen as fully realized people, rather than supporting characters in male-driven narrative or as mere objects of desire, it is a bold and welcome move.

It shouldn't be a radical notion that a female lead character can be compelling without being in a relationship or romantic entanglement. And yet, romantic plotlines have been central to the character development of some of television’s most noteworthy female leads—like Olivia Pope, Hannah Horvath, Leslie Knope, and Mindy Lahiri, each of whom is currently the main character in her own series.

The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri has wonderful chemistry with Danny Castellano, but the comedy’s emphasis on their friendship and burgeoning romance means that Mindy has been mostly defined by her connection to one (male) character. Parks and Recreation gave Leslie Knope a worthy partner in Ben Wyatt, but their coupledom took over as the core relationship of the series, replacing Leslie’s bond with her best friend Ann Perkins. Ann was ultimately written off the show. Girls’ Hannah Horvath has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Adam since the show’s inception, and in the Season Three finale, refreshingly, she seemed to be choosing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop over a future with him. But the time devoted to telling Hannah and Adam’s story meant there was less time to develop rich storylines for the show’s other characters, in particular Shoshanna and Jessa. Even though the series is titled Girls, it seems that the show is really about one girl in particular and the question of whether or not she will end up with Adam in the long run.

Until the March 23 episode, “Dramatics, Your Honor,” Alicia Florrick may have also belonged in that category of leading ladies. Alicia’s main conflict on the series had always been presented as being at the center of a love triangle between Will, her colleague and old flame, and Peter, her philandering husband. Early promotional images for the series overtly illustrated how the triangle was an integral part of the show, with Alicia in the middle of the two men, or holding hands with both.

And television characters, especially women, often make decisions that keep them in the orbit of their love interests, even when it doesn’t make sense to what we know about them. For example, would a savvy political fixer like Olivia Pope on Scandal really risk her career to keep working on her lover Fitz’s presidential campaign? In the Veronica Mars movie, would Veronica—who spent three seasons of her show plotting how to escape her corrupt hometown of Neptune—really give up a stable life in New York City to return home and rekindle a romance with Logan? While “Olitz” and “LoVe” fans get to enjoy seeing their favorite couples together, it comes at the cost of diminishing Olivia and Veronica as believable characters. Will’s demise, then, prevents Alicia from making similarly head-scratching choices in the future.

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Kirthana Ramisetti

Kirthana Ramisetti is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in NewsdayThe Wall Street Journal, and Entertainment Weekly.

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