Chloe Gilke: Don't you forget about Will Gardner

Monday, April 4, 2016 - 5:39pm

“The Good Wife”

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I think about Will Gardner a lot. Since the character’s death on “The Good Wife” two years ago, Will (played by Josh Charles) probably crosses my mind unbidden at least once a day. It’s always something stupid or small that reminds me of him, like the way somebody pronounces “Chicago” or the way the newsroom felt when I’d stay late at work, the fluorescent lights glowing dim yellow and the office quiet except for the breaths of a few hardworking insomniacs. I can recite lines of Will’s dialogue like they’re lyrics to my favorite song; I can’t step into an elevator without remembering the way his hand clasps with Alicia’s when the doors close and they’re alone and unseen. These memories feel like my own — and when Will was shot to death in court in season five, the grief that his friends and co-workers experienced felt like mine, too.

I could barely finish “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” because it was so weird to see Josh Charles wearing a sky-blue polo shirt instead of a blood-stained gray suit, to see him smiling and laughing instead of lying motionless on the courtroom floor. I miss him viscerally. Even two seasons after the fact, my throat closes up when someone mentions his name on a new episode. I watch old clips from season one just to hear his voice. I read episode recaps from five years ago so I can remember what he argued in the case that week and what he said to Alicia after. And more often than I’d like to admit, I rewatch mopey fan videos on YouTube and weep openly about that big, bursting heart that isn’t beating anymore.

“The Good Wife” just doesn’t feel the same without him. Though I’d count it as one of my favorite shows (anyone who has ever spent five minutes with me can attest that I will never fucking shut up about “The Good Wife”), watching new episodes is a chore. Objectively, the show has gone downhill with its reliably lazy writing and uninspired plotting. It’s a shame, really. There are only four episodes left this season, and I can barely get any joy from seeing Alicia Florrick chasing her dreams of a female-led law firm and giving a hand job to Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a crowded restaurant.

It’s not just me. The “Good Wife” Twitter-verse laments the days when this show was one of the best on TV, rivaling “Breaking Bad” for the most thrilling episodes of the year, and the simple act of pushing papers off a desk could make professional pop culture journalists lose their shit. “The Good Wife” ’s weekly recapper on The A.V. Club (and former Michigan Daily TV columnist) Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya noted in a recent review that “ ‘The Good Wife’ is going out at its most mediocre, its most bland,” and I’d have to agree. When is the last time somebody did something really surprising, something that landed as emotionally grounded? Drama, or at least “The Good Wife” ’s version of it, comes from characters, history and bursts of feeling bubbling out from behind poised, lawyer-like exteriors. “The Good Wife” has been completely devoid of this since Jeffrey Grant grabbed a guard’s gun in season five.

“The Good Wife” ’s greatness died on the courtroom floor with Will Gardner. It was hard to recognize when he was still alive, but Will really was unlike anyone else on that show. Where Alicia, Diane and Cary are pragmatic and governed by their logical, politically cognizant brains, Will had an atom bomb of a heart that he couldn’t always control. His feelings buried themselves deep — he’d crushed on Alicia since their law school days, feelings he carried with him for 20 years and moves across the country until she was back in on the job market with a wounded marriage and looking for some help. He wasn’t very good at hiding it — which made seasons one and two’s stolen kisses and impulsive declarations of love so electric. He had passion to spare, enough to kick-start nearly every serial storyline in the first few seasons. The musical chairs of the name partner switch ups, Alicia’s climbing of the corporate ladder, the gaining and losing of big clients and major cases, the spark that ignite Alicia’s romance and push her further from her husband Peter — it all traces back to Will and his big mouth and his giant, fragile heart.

The best “Good Wife” drama married the firm’s politics with the characters’ tangled relationships, and no stretch of episodes nailed it more than season five. After almost 100 episodes of carefully laid character moments, we knew that Will valued justice and loyalty above all. Season five’s “Hitting the Fan” is a series highlight, bringing unparalleled, delicious dramatic tension. When Alicia betrays Will to start her own firm with Cary (and take some of the clients they’d earned for Will and Diane’s firm), Will’s passion finally boils over. He clears everything off the traitorous Alicia’s desk with one furious swoop of an arm. His eyes look wide and crazed, burning with hurt and wildness and self-hatred for everything he’s about to say and can’t hold back. “I took you in. No one wanted you. I hired you. I pushed for you. God. God, you’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are.” With Alicia’s stony glare returning Will’s burst of fire, it’s clear nothing will ever be the same.

And it wasn’t. After that episode, Will lost his better judgment which he went face to face with Alicia in court. He couldn’t choke his feelings down, and Alicia wounded him further; she knew he was a sentimental type and would remember the shell-pink suit she wore the time they made out in the elevator. She wore it to court, and with each subsequent episode, his heart stretched wider and thinner — until there was nothing else for him to do but take a bullet or a dozen to that delicate chest and go out in a blaze of dramatics. The episode where he died, “Dramatics, Your Honor,” was the highest peak “The Good Wife” would ever reach, and the show should have ended there.

Of course, it didn’t. It’s been two years and one month since Will left in a body bag, but the show is still ticking. Alicia is haunted by the happiness she could have seized with Will, those lost years of passion when she stayed buttoned up, kept her heart in its cage and pushed Will to think practically. Four episodes from series end, she’s now letting loose a little more, starting an affair with her employee and finally asking for a divorce from flop husband Peter. But it feels inorganic, because we know this just doesn’t fit with the Alicia we know. Will Gardner was the wild one, the tactless and passionate who made mistakes and thought and spoke with his heart first. He got mad, he got hurt and he was the catalyst for drama — both in his personal life and for “The Good Wife” ’s greater plot. Alicia’s new lover (and probable end game dude) Jason Crouse is handsome and nice enough, but he’s bland as a saltine cracker and is missing that uninhibited soul that made Will Gardner so compelling.

Since this is my penultimate column, I’ll inevitably graduate and burn out before “The Good Wife” ends in May. Somebody else will review the finale, and they’ll probably do a great job and avoid talking about supporting characters that died two seasons ago. But if I could make one last passionate plea to Robert and Michelle King, the creators of my favorite show, I’d say: Please, please, please don’t forget about Will Gardner. It might be too late to bring him back from the dead, but it’s not too late to start some fights, some fires and reignite that classic “The Good Wife” drama.