'The Good Wife': One viewer's 10 stages of grief

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Image Credit: David M. Russell/CBS

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife, stop reading now!

I’ve lost beloved television characters before. I have grieved before. But sitting on my couch watching The Good Wife on Sunday night was unlike any experience I’ve ever had as a viewer.

Going into the episode, I knew it was going to have a big, shocking moment. The promos had teased that fact time and time again. And as someone who also watches Scandal on a weekly basis, and has been a Grey’s Anatomy viewer for 10 years, a death was something I had considered as a possibility, even though shocking deaths weren’t quite as commonplace on The Good Wife. I even said to a co-worker last week, “I wonder if they’re going to shoot Peter.” It was a concept that seemed both feasible and interesting to me. But what happened last night was not something I ever could’ve anticipated, and now I’m left to try and figure out how I feel about it and why I’m so attached to fictional characters.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve chosen to read this, Will Gardner died last night. The whole thing started with the trial of Jeffrey Grant, who we met earlier this season. Jeffrey was accused of killing a fellow college student, but swore that he didn’t. The problem was that they had found his DNA under the victim’s fingernails. So as Will and Kalinda worked to discredit the DNA — something they’d figured out how to do just before the shooting — Jeffrey was being repeatedly beaten up in his holding cell. And when Will mentioned moving him to solitary, the client claimed that he’d “kill himself” if that were to happen. But when he showed up to court with another scratch on his face, Will brought up solitary again, and the change in Jeffrey’s expression was obvious. As Will and the prosecutor approached the bench to talk to the judge, we watched as Jeffrey looked around the room and noticed how little attention was being paid to him. And when the cop standing next to him hadn’t properly buttoned his gun in its holster, Jeffrey got an idea. Out of the courtroom, we heard shots being fired.

At this point, I told my roommate, “So they’re going to shoot Will, but it’s going to be great, because Alicia will come to his bedside, and this is how they’ll get past all of their stuff.” And when Kalinda walked in to find Will had been shot in the neck, I still didn’t panic. Even as Kalinda and Diane stood in the emergency room, I was calm. But when that cop walked out of one of the treatment areas talking about the deceased from the courthouse, I started with the, “No. They didn’t kill him. No. They can’t. No!” Then, Kalinda saw his shoe. And by the time she pulled back the sheet to reveal his pale face, I was in full denial. “They’re messing with me. He’s going to open his eyes,” I told my roommate. “No!”

And when Kalinda later uttered the words “Will’s dead,” my heart stopped. I still refused to believe. Honestly, I just recently binge-watched the whole series, so I felt like I had just gotten deeply invested in something only to have it ripped away from me. I literally only got to watch three episodes live before this happened, which brings me to my grief …

Stage one of my grief: Denial. I sat there and watched the promo for the rest of the season and still didn’t believe it. They did not just kill off my favorite character. They did not just take away all hope for an Alicia-Will happy ending, which is what I thought we were building toward. They did not just kill Will-freakin’-Gardner!

Stage two of my grief: Anger. “I’m done. I’m out. I’m not watching anymore,” I told my roommate. Immediately, I started comparing this to other shows that have had big deaths. First was The O.C. “For me, this is the equivalent of if they’d killed Ryan Atwood instead of Marissa Cooper,” I argued. Or in terms of Grey’s Anatomy, I immediately flashed back to hearing, “It’s George,” and sinking to my knees. But compared to Will, George was a smaller part of a bigger ensemble. They could afford to lose him without shaking the entire foundation of the show. A better parallel perhaps was the hospital shooting in which I argued that “They shot McDreamy, but they didn’t kill McDreamy. That’s the line, and The Good Wife crossed it!”

I then called my mother, and we discussed everything we hated about this twist: It was a loss of hope. What were we working toward now? And as much fun as it might be see Alicia unravel, she’s at her best when she’s strong, so will I even like what comes next? And please don’t tell me Louis Canning is actually going to be the new Will, because no.

For The O.C., ratings were low, and killing Marissa was beneficial to story, but considering this has been one of the best seasons of The Good Wife, how was this a good choice? Did this show just ruin everything?

Stage three of my grief: Sadness (and more disbelief). When I read that it was Josh Charles’ decision to leave, I immediately felt bad for threatening to stop watching the show, because I can’t imagine what it would be like as a writer to have to change your story in such a big way due to something you can’t control. And at the end of the day, these are amazing writers, and I do think this show will continue to be great, but I’m just not positive I can handle it. I will try, but I’m the kind of viewer who can’t see the forest through the trees — I’m way too attached to the tree. Do I hate that about myself? Yes. Will I get over it in time? Maybe.

Stage four of my grief: Questioning everything. This is where I started to look at my life as a whole. Why am I so attached to fictional characters? Why do I feel like this was a real tragedy that I just suffered? And why, God, why did they have to kill him?!

Stage five of my grief: Temporary understanding. Throughout this entire process, I tried to keep bringing myself back to these writers and the challenge they were handed when Charles mentioned leaving the show. Looking at this objectively, it was a hell of an episode, and a shock that will certainly go down in television history as a best-kept secret and truly unforgettable moment. I also understand that this does happen in real life. Not everyone gets their happy ending, and we don’t get to choose our last words to people, but wait. This isn’t real life! We can change this!

Stage six of my grief: Metaphorical stomping (a.k.a. the selfish toddler phase). I understand Josh Charles needing to do what’s best for him, professionally and personally, and I respect his decision, but how could he do this to me?! Did he not think about the show in the larger sense, in terms of what losing Will Gardner would mean?! I know that this happened but it’s not fair! Nothing is fair!

Stage seven of my grief: Insomnia. Every time I attempted to close my eyes to fall asleep last night, I started reliving the moment where Kalinda saw Will’s sock at the hospital. And as soon as I put myself in that moment, my heart started beating so loudly that I couldn’t sleep over the sound. Then I’d repeat stages one through six.

Stage eight of my grief: A weird appreciation. This show had given me a television moment I’d never forget. They had shocked viewers in a way that we hate, but really love. This was Lucy getting stabbed on E.R., but for me, bigger. This was great television. I love them for it, and I thank them for it. But also, I hate them!

Stage nine of my grief: Anger (again). “Of all people, why Will?! You could’ve killed anyone else and I would’ve felt the impact without feeling as if the show can’t go on!” Then, of course, I would remember why it had to be Will, and suddenly I was mad at the universe and pretty much everything.

Stage ten of my grief: A combination of stages one through nine. I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever just accept this twist. Even it if makes for great television moving forward, Will was the glue for me. He was an essential part of every relationship in this show, and more than anything else, I was watching and waiting for the day that he and Alicia would at least be on decent terms, if not fully achieving a happy ending. For me, the endgame of this show is gone, and that’s sad. Every time I think about the twist and the fact that it actually happened, I’m mad all over again. And then I want to cry.

Will I keep watching? Yes, I owe this show that much. But I’m fearful that my favorite days are behind me. I’d love to be proven wrong, and I’m open to it. After all, it was a brilliant moment of television, and there is no denying that. But if I know myself at all, I will watch the rest of the series, and maybe I’ll love it, but ten years from now, when I’m re-watching old episodes, the focus will be on seasons 1 through 4, because when I will crave The Good Wife, I will crave Will, and more than anything, I will crave Will and Alicia. At least, that’s where my head is at right now.

All in all, what we experienced last night was one of those rare times in TV when you think “This show can’t kill that person, they’re a main character,” and yet somehow, they do it anyway. It’s exciting, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s one of the things we live for as viewers. That being said, when it’s a character as central as Will Gardner, there’s a lot that comes with it. For me, it’s a mixed array of disbelief and anger and appreciation and sadness and “life is unfair”-ness, and what I’m sure will be a few more sleepless nights.

Let me know your thoughts on the twist in the comments below, and if anyone would like to start an R.I.P. Will Gardner support group, I’ll happily be your Vice President (I’m clearly not emotionally stable enough to be in charge).

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