Twist and Shout: When Tragedy Strikes the 'Good Wife'

Episode 15 of the drama show left viewers in shock, while producers claim the tragedy gives the series more depth.

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She is “The Good Wife.” Her name is Alicia Florrick. Her maiden name was Cavanaugh, and she has an independent and strong-willed mother and a gay younger brother. She also has a husband, Peter Florrick, a former State Attorney in Cook County, who was involved in a corruption and sex scandal. She stood by him when he was apologizing to the public for his escapades, (as did many other “good wives,” Hillary Clinton for example) prior to his going to jail. Since then he has been cleared, regained his former post, and subsequently was elected as the Governor of Illinois. They had separated, (although she still loves him), and she – after keeping her own career on hold for 13 years, raising the kids and being a good wife – has to start again. She becomes a junior associate at the law firm Lockheart & Gardner, with a little help from a former fellow law student, Will Gardner, and they eventually have an affair.

I’m talking about a TV series, of course, devised, produced and mostly written by Robert and Michelle King. It stars Julianna Margulies, best remembered as Nurse Carol Hathaway, the on-off love interest (and vice versa) of Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) in the TV series “ER.”

The series, which went on the air on CBS in 2009, and is now in its fifth season (with the sixth already commissioned), was lauded by TIME as “the best on TV outside cable” and by the New York Times as being “miles ahead of anything else that’s on at the moment.” Its two first seasons had more than 13 million viewers, with the numbers dwindling a bit, to 8-9 million viewers for subsequent seasons. It is basically a legal procedural drama, with court cases argued and generally being resolved by the end of an episode, mixed with political drama (Governor Florrick is continually being investigated, and accused of rigging votes, by the Ethics Commission). What makes it different from many other procedurals, like “LA Law” and “Boston Legal” and political dramas (“Scandal,” “House of Cards”) is the fact it has an arc – a line of action that carries the main characters within a season and from one season to the next. It also echoes closely public life as we know it, and is generally lauded for being technically savvy, dealing with issues like technology and the law, the Internet and politics and more.

And there is a female character at the epicenter, and what a formidable character she is. Florrick (Margulies) is efficient, calm, fully in control at all times, inscrutable and beautiful. It is mainly about Alicia Florrick, or as the Kings put it, the education of Alicia Florrick: the way she faces the challenges thrown at her without panic or unnecessary emotion.

Which brings me to episode 15 (out of 22), of season five, broadcast in the U.S. on March 23, and in Israel by YES on March 30 (also on VOD). The end of the episode left viewers in shock. However, so as not to spoil more than I have to in order to write about it at all, I’ll try to be as oblique as I can, and you are hereby alerted not to read between the lines: a major character – let’s call this character XX – is killed by a stray bullet. It is not a case of “Who shot J.R.?” as in the “Dallas” CBS series in 1980. We know who shot XX, and there isn’t really a “why” here, as it was a stray bullet.

A real spoiler could have been me telling you how Alicia handled the news, and I couldn’t do that, as I don’t know, and I wouldn’t have told, even if I knew. In Sondheim’s’ musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” a lyricist is asked what usually comes first in a song, the words or the music, and answers “the contract.” Similarly, the answer to the question “Why did XX have to die?” is the same: “the contract.” By the start of the fifth season, the actor playing XX started to dream about greener pastures and notified the producers. Robert and Michelle King tried to placate the inconsolable fans with a personal letter on the website, in which they speak of the tragedy of bad timing: “The brutal honesty and reality of death speaks to the truth and tragedy of bad timing. ... XX’s death propels Alicia into her newest incarnation. … Death also created a new dramatic ‘hub’ for the show. … XX’s death in many ways becomes a hub for the whole series, violently spinning everybody in new directions. … We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives. … Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. …‘The Good Wife’ is a show about human behavior and emotion, and death, as sad and unfair as it can be, is a part of the human experience that we want to share.”

Reading that, I wonder whether prosaic honesty is indeed the best policy for producers of a TV series, which is after all a work of fiction.

So, this is it. XX has left the building for good, not to be replaced by another actor. We are left with Alicia, her estranged husband (Chris Noth, onetime Mr. Big in “Sex and the City”), all the other characters of the main cast (in my view the most intriguing is the bisexual female investigator, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi), and a myriad of guests: in the couple of episodes I sampled I encountered Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Nathan Lane, Wallace Shawn, Brian Dennehy and Raymond Burr.

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David Giesbrecht/CBS