I knew it was coming. I had known it was coming since the very beginning. So when I hunkered down in my bed, my room pitch black, Netflix open on my laptop, tissues at the ready, it shouldn’t have been that shocking or painful. After all, I knew the basics of what was about to go down. I had seen frantic and panicked tweets about it almost a year ago before I had even started watching the show. I knew what was going to eventually happen the moment I clicked play on 01×01 a month ago, but like always, I never expected to get attached. In fact, I purposely tried to distance myself from the character because I knew Season 5 would see his untimely demise.
And yet, I still thought it was a good idea to watch The Good Wife, to become emotionally invested in the character of Will Gardner, and to see him shot dead in a courtroom by one of his clients, never to grace our screens again as the flawed, sports-enthused, judge-bribing, Alicia Florrick-loving, passionate, lawyer.
In a shocking turn of events that left audiences completely blind-sided, Jeffrey Grant, Will Gardner’s 21 year old rich boy client on trial for murder, presumably consumed with fear and at his breaking point, took a gun from an oblivious police officer’s holster and began shooting up the courtroom. We hear the first gunshots from Diane Lockhart’s POV in the adjacent courtroom. It’s a powerful moment. Like Diane, the viewer doesn’t yet know what’s happening and a feeling of panic starts to set in, a panic that’s even more tangible if you’re like me and you already know what’s about to go down. From there, we have Diane and Kalinda Sharma meeting up in the courthouse foyer, both of them knowing that it’s Will’s courtroom that’s being attacked. Kalinda manages to squeeze her way past police officers, in true Kalinda fashion, and into the courtroom where she sees Grant repeatedly trying to kill himself with his emptied gun.
Still, at this point, the audience is not aware of Will’s condition. How can Will Gardner, a character who’s been with us for five seasons, actually be in any real danger? Maybe he got shot, but in a fully recoverable way. Maybe he’s the hero in all this and managed to save a bunch of people. Maybe he got out in time. And when we finally do see Will, from Kalinda’s POV, being cradled by Finn Polmar, blood gushing from his neck, him gasping for breath, we’re still in denial. He’s okay, we all think, there’s no way a major character can just die randomly like this. We still have hope that things will turn out fine. Even if you’ve already been spoiled and know that Will does, in fact, die, you’re still in a state of denial. Maybe the “Will’s death” twitter spoilers were all an elaborate joke to get more viewers. Maybe he dies, but then comes back to life a la Juliana Margulies’s character on ER. There are limitless possibilities; after all it is a TV show. And we hold onto that hope, even when Diane and Kalinda discover Will’s lifeless body covered with a sheet at the hospital. Even when we know that Josh Charles actually did leave the show for good after his contract was up. We’re even in denial as Diane and Kalinda cry over his dead body. “He doesn’t look like himself,” says Diane, oddly composed, perhaps in denial herself.
After the initial shock of Will’s death and after we’ve finally realized that it actually happened and that it’s irreversible and final, we have to come to terms with the fact that the hardest part isn’t over. We’re going to have to watch the fallout, the effect on each character, the gaping hole that will be left without him. “Dramatics, Your Honor” or the “Will’s Death” episode, as it will always be known, ends with Alicia answering Kalinda’s “Will is dead” phone call.
Deaths are commonplace on shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, in fact we expect them, we know they’re going to happen at some point so we can brace ourselves and not be too shocked when something goes awry. And that’s why Will’s death was so powerful. Dramas like The Good Wife just don’t kill off main characters like that, especially 105 episodes in, but when it does, it’s absolutely gut wrenching. Listen, I’m well aware that TV shows aren’t real, Josh Charles is still alive, Julianna Margulies hasn’t lost the love of her life, the world is still spinning, but it’s still a very painful and emotionally draining thing to happen. For about a week after watching this episode, I felt like I was mourning the loss of a real person. Granted, it wasn’t mourning in the real way. Just little twinges throughout the day that reminded me that my favorite Will Gardner would no longer be there to show his passionate lawyer prowess, slow dance with Diane in the office, or share cute chummy moments with Kalinda. He would no longer be there, rolling his baseball in his hands, trying desperately to be the good man that he was, despite his flaws. He would be gone. Just like that.
And let’s not forget about the “Willicia” of it all.
I initially wrote: “I could write a whole article on ‘Willicia’ but for now, I’ll keep it simple.” That clearly didn’t happen. This is now an article about Will and Alicia. I can’t help that I’m a shipper at heart.
The entirety of season five leading up to Will’s death was unsettling and uncomfortable. Alicia and Cary Agos, after months of secret planning, leave Lockhart/Gardner to start their own firm, taking many of their millionaire clients with them. Will takes Alicia’s exit as an extreme form of personal betrayal. The woman he loves clearly doesn’t care for him if she’s willing to steal his clients and take advantage of the chance he took on her. “I took you in. No one wanted you. I hired you, I pushed for you. You were poison,” he hisses, after having violently knocked everything off Alicia’s desk. He then fires her and takes her cell phone. He clearly needs to feel in control when everything else around him is unraveling.
Season five is a stark contrast to the other seasons, especially in terms of the Will and Alicia dynamic. Love and hate are closely related emotions. We saw this in season four’s “Red Team, Blue Team” episode, when Alicia’s anger about her delayed partnership manifests itself in a mock trial that ultimately loses a client for Lockhart/Gardner. The tension between Will and Alicia in the episode is a culmination of Alicia’s suppressed anger and the emotional (and sexual?) frustration that has never really seemed to end. Let’s be honest, the entire episode was a sort of angry form of foreplay that ends in a passionate kiss, or as Will says, a “weak moment” between the two.
It’s clearly a mistake that they kissed, right? Except it’s not, because in the season four finale, they share another emotional kiss in the car and promise to talk about what it means for them. Alicia says that a door opened with them again after their angry post-mock-trial kiss, and she doesn’t know how to close it. Nothing has ever been over between them and that messes with Alicia’s mind. She can’t be the “good wife” she thinks she’s supposed to be if Will’s in the picture. It’s a push and pull relationship she has with Will. The very thing that will bring her happiness, which we assume is Will, is also the very thing that will break Alicia. It’s a tragic romance, a romance that was probably never meant to end in happiness. I’m not sure Robert and Michelle King ever pictured them as endgame (although I will continue to believe that they are).
This unbreakable connection she has with Will, along with her need to control her own fate and be happy (as referenced in 05×14 “A Few Words”), leads Alicia to leave with Cary to form Florrick, Agos & Associates. “Don’t end up hating me,” Alicia inaudibly whispers to Will after she’s cemented her secret plans with Cary. Of course Will ends up hating her. If there’s one thing The Good Wife excels at, it’s foreshadowing. (Side bar: remember in “A Few Words,” the episode right before “Will’s Death,” when Alicia says, “tragedy is the best kind of wake up call” in her keynote speech. Stop that right now, R. & M. King.)
The first half of season five is, at its core, a display of the push and pull and the love and hate dynamic, between Will and Alicia. The two are constantly sparring in court, which is a tension that’s equal parts fun and disconcerting to watch. If you’re a “Willicia” shipper like me, it’s upsetting to see them trivialize the relationship they once had. Will tries to throw Alicia off her game in court by interjecting every five seconds with unwarranted objections. Alicia lashes back with something much more personal. She changes into the outfit she wore when Will dished out $7,800 at the hotel to have sexy times with her for the first time. This, of course, turns Will into a blubbering mess as he’s questioning a witness. “So you decided to change,” Will says later. “Yep. Into what I wore the first time you banged me,” Alicia replies nonchalantly. “That’s low of you,” Will says, probably crying inside. “I wasn’t so discriminating back then,” Alicia monotones. If Will wasn’t crying inside before, he definitely is now. On the surface it’s one of those fun “ooooh, burn” moments, but it’s so insensitive that it almost isn’t funny.
And it goes on like that. The longing glances they once exchanged are replaced with angry looks and eye rolls. The love and mutual respect they once had for each other is replaced with heated competition in and out of the courtroom.
All of this hate, of course, is rooted in the pain Will feels about Alicia’s betrayal and the love he still has for her despite all of that. Alicia hates Will because she has to. She thinks she’s doing the right thing by moving on and it’s clear she doesn’t want to go to war with Will, but it’s something she has to deal with. “I never meant this personally,” Alicia tells Will after being escorted out of Lockhart/Gardner. “I don’t give a damn,” Will says before closing the elevator door on her, something that is symbolic in and of itself. Will isn’t making things easy for her. He feels betrayed so he’s going to do everything in his power to make her feel betrayed by him – he’s going to ruin her new firm and make her realize what she’s lost. And his efforts to hurt Alicia work, on some level, because Alicia and Will love each other despite appearances. The love they have for each other just magnifies the drama, making things more personal and more painful. In the first half of season five, Alicia and Will are competitors, trying desperately to beat each other at a game that isn’t winnable.
It’s interesting to see what Alicia and Will become when their relationship, whatever that is, is broken. Alicia emerges, as her brother Owen would say, as “a warrior princess”, hell bent on being successful. Essentially, she’s not going to take any of Will’s shit: “You should get over it,” she says to Will. “Get over what?” “Me.” Similarly, Will becomes more aggressive and reckless. He starts sleeping with a pretty, young blonde and even she knows she’s the rebound girl.
The tension is finally cut (sort of) after Alicia gives her keynote speech at the American Bar Association in New York. Alicia goes to a diner, disappointed after her speech bombed through no fault of her own. Will shows up and surprise, surprise, is seated at the neighboring table. They’re facing each other, yet at different tables. Symbolic, right? Will initially makes fun of Alicia’s less-than-impressive speech, which leads Alicia to pose the childish question she already knows the answer to: “Why do you hate me?” Will explains that it’s not that he hates her, he just doesn’t like her. He basically tells her that he still feels hurt that she conspired to leave Lockhart/Gardner for weeks behind his back. They come to some sort of mutual understanding and Alicia offers her hand to Will. He shakes it. It’s a little bit of closure, a peace offering. It’s the last beer they will ever “share” “together.”
On the day of Will’s death, Alicia and Will have the first civilized conversation that they’ve had in a long time. Alicia does the right thing and lets Will know that one of his clients came to her for a second opinion. Will says thanks. They share a joke and a laugh. And that’s it. That’s the last conversation they will ever have.
And then Will dies and nothing is the same.
Alicia picks up Kalinda’s phone call and the world’s collective stomach drops. I can almost feel the numbness she feels as she drives to Lockhart/Gardner, the world is muted, birds are flying in the sky, a mother protects her child in the street. The realization of the situation finally hits Alicia and she breaks down right there in the car. When Alicia cries, the world cries.
The rest is a blur. Alicia meets Diane at Lockhart/Gardner and they share an emotional embrace. She sees Will go into his office, except it isn’t Will. Diane tells Alicia that Will loved her. She finds a voicemail from Will on her phone that was left a few minutes before he was shot. It’s not substantial – before he says anything of value, he’s interrupted by the judge and promises to call her back. In the whirlwind, Alicia decides to focus on this and make it her mission to find out what he might’ve said. The first two possibilities she thinks of are: “Alicia. This feud, it’s stupid. I care about you too much to let it come between…” and “Alicia, are you kidding me? Leave my clients alone, Alicia. Find your own.”
Her mission takes her to the scene of the crime and to the hospital. She learns several things: (1) Will died trying to get the gun away from Grant, (2) Finn stayed with Will and held his hand during his final breaths, (3) Will was trying to say something as he lay dying (he was calling out for Alicia, obviously) and (4) nobody knows what Will’s last phone call to Alicia was about.
That’s the hard part about death. We never know when it’s going to happen and we can’t prepare for it. It’s final. It’s something we can’t change. And there are never any answers.
Did he die hating me? Where is he now? Could I have done something to change things? What if I had just stayed at Lockart/Gardner? Did he love me? Did I love him?
Alicia’s final heartbreaking interpretation of what Will’s voicemail could’ve said goes like this “Alicia, I’m sorry. I want what we had. I want to be with you, and only you. Forever. Call me back, please.” What makes it even more powerful is that she’s in a dead fish hug with Peter as she’s imagining it.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we have Peter, Alicia’s worm of a husband, getting confrontational and jealous over the fact that Alicia is mourning Will. He knows full well that Will and Alicia had history and yet he still chooses to be an insensitive selfish child about it: “You didn’t lose a child. You didn’t lose your husband,” he spits. “No, you’re right. I lost my husband a long time ago,” Alicia deadpans. Things escalate between the two, Alicia still dead to the world, eyeliner smudged, but still not allowing Peter to walk all over her. “How many times do I have to tell you that when I cheated it didn’t mean anything!” Peter yells. “Well then it was a waste, because when I cheated, it did!” If that’s not a “burn” for the history books I don’t know what is, people. “Well, I can’t compete with a dead man,” Peter snaps back. Honey, you couldn’t compete with him when he was alive.
Alicia later tells her mom that none of it feels real, that it’s like Will is still there but like he’s never really existed at all. “Talk to him, talk to Will,” her mom says, “he’ll listen. He may not answer but there’ll be things in the middle of the day that’ll seem like he’s answering. A balloon in the sky, a leaf falling from a tree.” Pure poetry, Veronica.
Will and Alicia always had bad timing. Their relationship was never perfect. But they loved each other despite everything. Will’s death was tragic and painful, but Alicia and the others will eventually move on. That’s another fact of life: it goes on. It doesn’t stop for anybody. Alicia’s daughter says, “mom, I just want you to be happy.” “I will eventually,” she replies.
And she will. In her key note speech before Will’s death, Alicia says: “the one upside to a scandal or a tragedy in your life is that it is the best kind of wake-up call.” Will will always be a part of Alicia’s life, even in death, but it will be interesting to see her rise from the ashes yet again.
In the end, Will Gardner did what he was always good at: he fought to the death for his client.
RIP Will Gardner
“I loved him.” – Diane Lockhart & Kalinda Sharma
“He did some bad things, but he did them because he wanted to be good.” – Alicia Florrick
“Life is overrated.” – Will Gardner