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.

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.

The death of Alicia's ex also liberates her from an endgame that befalls a majority of female leads on long-running television series: a tidy, and often implausible, happily-ever-after with her true love. (Ironically, a classic example of this would be Julianna Margulies’s ER character Carol Hathaway reuniting with Doug Ross.) Numerous television series have sustained themselves on the “will they/won’t they” dynamic for years, eventually succumbing to the former; indeed, even after Alicia left Lockhart Gardner, there was always the possibility of rekindling a relationship with Will later on. But that The Good Wife showrunners wouldn’t pull an ER and, in their words, “send [Will] off to Seattle,” is fairly revolutionary.

Yes, Alicia does still have a husband. But Peter has never been an active presence on the series, due to Chris Noth’s “special guest star” status, and Alicia’s recommitment to him wasn’t a romantic choice, but a pragmatic one. Throughout the show’s run, Will Gardner has been presented as “the one”—the guy she couldn’t be with, but couldn’t stop thinking about. Her own Fitz or Logan, if you will.

In crafting Josh Charles’s exit from the show, The Good Wife writers hinted at the possibility of a post-Will world by transforming the two into rivals, with Alicia leaving Lockhart Gardner to form a new firm. Even though the former couple sparred frequently in the courtroom, they were no longer were taking smoldering elevator rides or working late hours together, the bedrock on which they built their initial romance. It’s almost as if the writers were weaning Good Wife fans off the Alicia/Will pairing.

If so, it was a wise decision on their part. Because while her attraction to and brief romance with Will were captivating parts of her process of finding an identity outside of being a mother and wife of a disgraced political figure, Alicia proceeded to evolve into a confident and ambitious attorney—and her yearning for Will and strained reconciliation with Peter became the least interesting aspects of her. The past five seasons have seen her progress from a smart but insecure first-year associate to a partner at Lockhart Gardner to the head of her own fledgling law firm. She also has strong, multifaceted ties to many other characters on the show—such as her complex relationships with Diane and Kalinda, her professional partnership and friendship with Cary, and her fierce devotion to her children. Perhaps more than any other TV protagonist, Alicia’s world is populated with vibrant people—friends and antagonists alike—who offer tremendous story potential for seasons to come.

Since Will’s farewell aired, some of the show’s fans have said they’ll stop watching The Good Wife. But to tune out now would be to say that Alicia has no value as a character beyond her romantic storylines. After all, viewers don't expect male protagonists like Don Draper or Walter White’s story arcs to be solely propelled by their love lives. Why should it be different for Alicia Florrick?