Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing fates and finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
I feel like I need to begin this column by letting you know that I understand that Will Gardner is a fictional character. In my heart of hearts, I know that Josh Charles is very much alive and charming as ever on Netflix’s new series Away.
These past seven months, not to mention these last four years, have been difficult for us all. But I assure you that I haven’t had any kind of break with reality. I can still very much decipher fact from fiction—even with Trump as our President.
All that being said, I say to you on this day, more than six and a half years after it happened, I’m still not over Will Gardner’s death on The Good Wife. Every time I think of that shocking, devastating moment, I get a pit in my stomach.
Since Charles’ debut in Dead Poets Society (along with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and my beloved Sports Night), I have loved his lackadaisical charm and sly smile. My love for him reached its peak with Will Gardner, a character who smoldered with a quiet intensity and palpable sexiness. The shock I felt when he died shook me to my TV viewing core.
Allow me to set the scene: We were more than two-thirds of the way through the CBS drama’s stellar fifth season. Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) had left Lockhart/Gardner and by extension Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and Will Gardner (Josh Charles) to form their own firm. They had done this in secret—covertly plotting their defection. Alicia had lied to Will’s face. He felt betrayed. She felt justified.
Things between Alicia and Will were tense. The erstwhile star-crossed lovers, whose timing had never been right, were at crosshairs on a number of fronts. They were battling over clients. Will was under federal investigation for covering up voter fraud in Peter’s (Chris Noth) recent election as Governor of Illinois. In the fourteenth episode of the season, Will and Alicia travel to New York for the annual American Bar Association meeting where Alicia is slated to give the keynote address. They both reminisce about Alicia joining the firm and how Will gave his old law school friend a chance when no one else would hire her. They run into each other at a bar and Alicia asks him, “Why do you hate me?” Will responds, “I don’t like you. Hate is probably too strong.” It broke my heart. There is, as the saying goes, a fine line between love and hate and I don’t think either one of them fell on the hate side.
And do you know what I thought? (It’s documented and easy to look up since at the time I was recapping the show for Paste). I wrote “I still say those two are hooking up again before the season is over.” That’s because the sexual tension was a potent and simmering undercurrent to each episode. They wanted each other. You could feel it. They had unfinished business. They belonged together. Like Alicia, I thought they would have more time.
On the fifteenth episode of the season, entitled “Dramatics, Your Honor,” Will is defending Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish), a college student accused of murdering a female classmate. Jeffrey is in a fragile state and continually being beaten up in lock-up. We are enmeshed in this court case until Diane and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) hear gun shots in the courthouse. Kalinda runs to the courtroom to find Will lying on the floor covered in blood with ADA Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode) desperately trying to stop the bleeding. Jeffrey had taken the court officers gun and started shooting. It was, as the episode titled suggested, dramatic.
By the next scene Diane and Kalinda are at the hospital trying to find out Will’s fate. Kalinda, always the investigator, recognizes the shoes on one of the corpses and pulls back the sheet to reveal Will’s dead body. I screamed. Like tragedies that unfold in real life, we had no warning.
I cannot stress how shocked I was. Main characters aren’t often killed off without any warning or foreshadowing. Especially not in the middle of multiple major storylines with so much unfinished romantic business. We usually know when actors are leaving a show. (For example, it has already been announced that both Cush Jumbo and Delroy Lindo are leaving The Good Fight).
What my husband remembers most about that night the episode aired is that while he was sitting next to me on the couch I kept saying “No! No! No! He can’t be dead. This has got to be a dream sequence or an alternate reality or something.” I think it took me hours to believe Josh Charles and Will Gardner were off the show. My denial ran deep.
In the age of social media, it’s almost impossible to keep a TV surprise of this magnitude under wraps. At the end of the fourth season, Charles had opted not to renew his contract, but gave executive producers Michelle and Robert King and the show’s writers the opportunity to write his character off. No one let it leak that Will would die—not the cast, not the crew, not all the extras who were in the scene. No one.
We were all shocked and unprepared. The shock allowed his death to resonate. Sure there were many ways they could have written off Will’s character. He could have moved or joined another firm. The door could have been left open for him to return. As a critic, I recognize that killing him off was the best decision creatively for the show. It opened up new romantic opportunities for Alicia and was a reckoning for her character. The finality of Will’s death meant Alicia could no longer hide her true emotions. However, as a fan, it was devastating.
In the next episode, a grief-stricken Alicia is consumed by a voicemail Will left her hours before his death. “Alicia … hold on your honor … I’ll call you back,” were his final words to her. She fantasizes over what he was wanting to tell her. Was he calling her because he was angry with her? In her final fantasy, Alicia imagines him saying “I want to be with you and only you. Forever.” Like Alicia, that is the scenario I chose to believe was the reason for his call.
Each character deals with their grief in different ways. Kalinda tries to figure out if it was in fact a bullet shot by Jeffrey that killed Will and why he did it. David Lee (Zach Grenier), who is moved to tears (!), immediately starts strategizing about how to keep Will’s clients. Diane fires a client who insists on meeting with her. Cary goes all-in on a deposition the opposing counsel won’t let him postpone. “I want to get out my aggression and my anger by destroying your client,” he bellows. The entire episode was a devastating punch to the gut.
For Alicia it was a realization that she should have been with Will when she had the chance. She can’t even take a call from her husband or hug him back when he offers sympathy. Although she stays in the marriage, she is so done with him.
Watching these episodes again in preparation for this column, I’m struck anew by what a stellar show The Good Wife was. It pulsed along on so many levels—political intrigue, romantic strife, interpersonal and family drama, legal thrillers. A truly phenomenal series.
But the shock of Will’s death never wore off. Over two years later, Josh Charles returned for The Good Wife series finale. Will appeared to Alicia in a dream sequence. “I’ll love you forever,” she tells him. And honestly same, Alicia, same.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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