It’s been a bad week to be a ‘shipper. Last Sunday, The Good Wife killed off legal eagle Will Gardner (Josh Charles), gunning down the dreams of fans who’ve hoped that the series would reunite Will with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). That same night, Girls drove a wedge between Hannah (Lena Dunham) and Adam (Adam Driver): In a development as out-of-the-blue as the bullets that claimed Will’s life, Hannah was accepted into the University of Iowa’s prestigious writers’ workshop, then mishandled the communication of the news with Adam, who used the occasion to break up with her after a season of growing doubt about their relationship. A couple days later, another pair of scrappy-scruffy love birds surrendered to anxieties about their union when New Girl’s Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) decided to decouple and revert back to just-friendship. All this, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin called it quits, too. It’s all very sad and Phil Collinsy.
With the three television shows, ‘ship death (and just plain death) brings creative opportunity (albeit not before an obligatory grief ep or two). As Mark Harris observes, Will’s death should seed “dramatic possibility” for several characters, notably Alicia and Diane (Christine Baranski). Season 4 of Girls (due next year) could feel like a markedly different show – one with new characters, conflicts, and of course setting – if Hannah follows through and relocates to Iowa. And New Girl – struggling since the sitcom put Jess and Nick together – has a chance to win us over anew by basically reverting to its original settings.
But that’s all potential, all future. As valuable as these episodes may ultimately prove to be to their respective franchises, the storytelling moves that produced their buzz moments left me angry and cold. The Good Wife – in the midst of a stellar season – took the easy way out with Will by knocking him off with some quasi-random violence that never would have happened if a conveniently snoozy cop with a poorly holstered gun wasn’t conveniently within reach of a quickly unraveling troubled young man. It was a shocker, all right. Shockingly absurd.
In an open letter to fans, Good Wife creators/showrunners Michelle and Robert King explained they decided to write out Will after Charles told them at the end of last season that he did not want to continue on with the show past the 15th episode of the current season. In other words: Offing Will was all business, not creative vision. It’s not an unusual story, but it’s not one I enjoy hearing as a viewer/fan: It always bums me out to know that an actor wants out of a show I love. I’m committed! Why can’t you be, too!? It also gets me wondering to what degree an actor’s want to leave damages the big-picture story that the creators want to tell. Lost would have been a very different show if the writers didn’t have to eliminate Mr. Eko – a breakout character in season 2 – after Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje asked to be released from the series at the start of season 3. Ditto: The last few seasons of The X-Files, which were produced without the full participation of David Duchovny because of a contract/legal dispute with Fox. Also see: Community and Donald Glover. It’s the job of showrunners to roll with these bumps and keep flying straight and true no matter what turbulence they encounter. Still, these kinds of things subvert our want for Big Saga TV to proceed per a master plan – actually, it exposes the reality that such a thing is unrealistic – and it certainly prevents writers from even trying or at least sustaining the illusion of a master plan. Put another way: Sometimes, I wish I didn’t know what happens behind the scenes. Damn you, candid Hollywood people! Damn you, Entertainment Weekly! Damn you, me!
So The Good Wife had to get rid of Will. But why this choice? Why a violent death? According to their letter, the Kings wanted to leave no doubt in the minds of viewers that “Willicia” was never going to happen. They were also engaged by a theme: ”We chose the tragic route for Will’s send-off for personal reasons. We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives. It’s terrifying how a perfectly normal and sunny day can suddenly explode with tragedy. Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death.”
Sounds righteous. And pretentious. And totally wrong. The Kings seem to have forgotten about a lot of television in recent years, or the past, like, 30 years. The death of Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law. The death of Buffy’s mom on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. E.R. The Sopranos. Six Feet Under. The Walking Dead. Downtown Abbey. Game of Thrones. Do I really have to go on? TV loooooves rubbing the fragility of human existence and “irredeemability of death” in our faces by abruptly rubbing out beloved fictional folk. Look: I love a good confrontation with mortality as much as the next death-denying dolt. But dramatizing the idea with sudden, violent Bang! Bang! happens enough to deserve being called cliché. The Good Wife did not expose me to hard truths of human existence with “Dramatics, Your Honor,” just an artless, cynical climax to an otherwise top-notch episode, and the show’s surprising lack of trust in its own “loyal” fans to accept a more complex, ambiguous creative choice, one worthy of the show they love.
In retrospect, “Dramatics, Your Honor” reads better as a reaction – and resentment? – to what the Kings called “the gut-punch” of Josh’s decision to quit the series. It was interesting how the story suggested that Will brought this death upon himself. All of his attitudes and actions – his desperate want for his client, accused murderer Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish) to be innocent; his inability to hide his frustrations with the case; his immoral needling of Grant to lie to save himself; his well-meaning desire to get Grant placed in solitary confinement for his own protection – only succeeded in ramping Grant into a panic. He felt trapped; he felt he had no choice; he had to blast his way out. Another subplot, joined at the hip with Will’s storyline, saw Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) try to quit Lockhart/Gardner because she wanted out, because her romance with Cary put her in an ethical conflict of interest – and saw Will try to talk her out of it, arguing that this was the work she was meant to do, that it was too exciting, too rewarding to abandon, especially now. It all seems so meta now, and annoyingly so. Charles may have enjoyed his splashy-buzzy exit and gotten the “proper goodbye” he wanted for Will, but viewers deserved better.
New Girl’s bold bid at transformation – titled “Mars Landing” – was, for most of its running time, one of the better New Girl episodes in awhile, anchored by a well-written, well-played (significantly improved?) sad clown duet between Deschanel and Johnson. The Jess-Nick breakup was a twisting, turning, evolving, escalating conversation – alternately hilarious and poignant – played out over half an hour. But it fumbled at the goal line. The reason for their split: Their belief (at present) that they work better together as friends; that the only thing they had in common was that they were in love each other. I wasn’t buying it. Deschanel and Johnson had sold me on the relationship. While both characters can be neurotic and nit-witty, they have always struck me as bright enough to be able to work out their issues. And if two people love each other, then they should be deeply invested in figuring out how to love each other. Everything I’ve seen from the show suggests to me that Jess and Nick aren’t so self-absorbed that they aren’t interested in the art of loving or are incapable of it.
Given my low opinion of New Girl’s recent work, I am inclined to view the breakup as a choice to walk-back a storyline that doesn’t currently serve the show’s interests. In that regard, “Mars Landing” is tainted with the implicit reminder of the show’s failings. And to be clear, the fix the story tried to install may not work. For all its tinkering, New Girl might now be like that busted baby toy Nick tried to salvage: damaged goods.
Of course, it’s very possible “Mars Landing” would have happened anyway, even if New Girl was in a healthy place: It could be doing the old blow-up-a-relationship-just-to-put-it-back-together gambit. Some viewers don’t mind this cliche pattern, but I do. It reminds me that the irony of this week’s war on ‘shippers is that television is all about ‘shipping, as the business of successful TV shows is to resist meaningful change unless it’s absolutely necessary, because meaningful change risks scaring away viewers. I’ll be shocked – and impressed – if New Girl’s remaining three episodes this season do something to slam the door on Jess-Nick for good. What I’m expecting, though, is a finale that teases the possibility of down-the-road reconciliation. I have a similar fear/expectations of The Good Wife. Does anyone else think that Alicia and Cary will wind up back at Lockhart/Gardner by season’s end? But we’ll see. Here’s hoping these “game-changers” actually represent meaningful change, not business-as-usual TV game-playing.