Monday, March 24, 2014

Honestly, I'm surprised I was coherent enough to blog about this.

SPOILERS for the most recent episode of The Good Wife, for the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and for major plot elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and House.


It’s kind of weird to me that people keep comparing the latest episode of The Good Wife to Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding.” The Red Wedding, though obviously shocking to those who hadn’t read the books, was fundamentally a follow-through of the series’ basic premise. Sudden deaths of major characters are written into GoT’s DNA. They’re inextricable. They’re part of the package.

The death of The Good Wife’s Will Gardner, on the other hand, is a swerve. Nobody could have predicted it. The show has never done anything like it before in four and a half seasons. Viewers simply do not sit down to an episode of The Good Wife prepared for the idea that a main character might die. On the one hand, that makes the death truly shocking; it leaves viewers shaken in a way that a death on Scandal or Lost, shows that are built on twists and sudden deaths, simply can’t. On the other hand, it runs the risk of being too shocking, and making viewers feel tricked or betrayed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve seen a certain amount of both reactions to Will’s death. As far as I can tell, the latter is primarily from bitterly disappointed Will/Alicia shippers, who seem to have felt they were promised or owed either a successful Will/Alicia relationship, or that Will would not die, or that Will would die in a certain way, if he ever did.

Every TV show makes an unwritten contract with its viewers: “This is the kind of show I am. These are the lines I can’t cross.” The Good Wife has only ever made two promises. First, it promised to take place in a reality very close to ours, one where not only will fantastical things not happen, but events will have realistic and long-term consequences. Alicia’s not going to run into a dragon or a witches’ coven, but equally importantly, if Peter ever has another affair and it’s publicized, his polling numbers are going to drop drastically.

Second, The Good Wife promised to be a show about Alicia. It promised to follow her, to examine her, to watch her grow. If Alicia ever leaves The Good Wife, it will cease, in some fundamental way, to be the same show.

That’s it. That’s all it promised its viewers. It never promised Will/Alicia as the endgame. It never promised that any character other than Alicia would live, and it never promised that there would be a warning if one of them died.

Other shows have pulled off, or almost pulled off, turns this surprising, this late in the game. Buffy the Vampire Slayer created a little sister out of thin air four years into its run, and the ensuing season was arguably the best the show ever did. Half of House’s main characters quit their jobs in its third season finale, and though the show went downhill after that, it wasn’t the change that did it, but the refusal to change—all three characters remained fixtures on the show for years to come, long after they’d stopped serving a narrative purpose.

It’s about follow-through. Buffy’s monumental twist worked because the show can be neatly split into two eras: pre-Dawn and post-Dawn. The show was never the same again. House’s, on the other hand, failed, because the writers tried to drastically change the characters’ world without actually changing the show. If The Good Wife is to remain the excellent show it’s proved itself to be in the last few seasons, it must forever be a show that is, at least a little bit, about grief and loss. It has to be a changed show, and the changes have to last.

If nothing changes, and the world of The Good Wife goes back to normal after a week or two—or if they start killing off a character every sweeps week—then we can start talking about jumping the shark. For now, though, nothing the show has done has intrinsically broken it. The Good Wife doesn’t owe us anything except what it promised on day one. And the writers don’t owe us anything except the best possible story they can tell. And I’ll tell you this—you can agree with what the Kings did or disagree, like it or dislike it, but you can’t argue that they put anything above the story.

No comments:

Post a Comment