'The Good Wife' Delivers A Game-Changing Stunner

Last Sunday, the CBS drama delivered something major and unexpected. If you don't know what happened, and don't wish to, you may not want to listen, but Fresh Air's critic has a lot to say about it.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Last Sunday, on the CBS drama series "The Good Wife," something major and unexpected happened. If you don't yet know what occurred, and don't wish to, now is the time to stop listening for a few minutes.

For the past few years, whenever I've been challenged to name a series on broadcast TV that's the equal of shows produced for cable or streaming networks, my instant go-to example has been "The Good Wife," on CBS. And boy, did series creators Robert and Michelle King prove that this past weekend.

Major, unexpected plot twists have been a hallmark of this series from the beginning. Juliana Margulies, as attorney Alicia Florrick, has made sudden, surprise changes in her life over the show's five seasons. Change never has been as pronounced as this season, though, when Alicia quit her job to start a rival law firm, putting her in an adversarial relationship with her former bosses and mentors, Diane Lockhart and Will Gardner. Gardner, played by Josh Charles, had been her lover as well. But for most of this season, they've been cold and hostile to one another.

Yet that coldness was beginning to thaw. Two weeks ago, an episode heavy on flashbacks showed how Will ended up hiring Alicia. And in the most recent episode, Will and Alicia had a quick and sweet moment at the Cook County courthouse, where she pulled him aside after watching him defend an accused murderer in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

JOSH CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) What's going on?

JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) The Grants called me for a second opinion on your trial.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) You're kidding me.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) No. I told them no.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) Then why are you here?

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I decided to warn you. I was thinking if I was in your shoes, and I had a client calling behind my back, I would want to know.

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) Alicia, thanks.

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Hey, we might have our differences but you're the better lawyer.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: (As Will Gardner) I am, aren't I?

(LAUGHTER)

MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) And the more humble.

BIANCULLI: That ended up being their last moment together. Alicia ran off to a luncheon where she was a guest of honor, and Will resumed his defense of his client. At one point, Will was called to the bench for a sidebar with the judge and the opposing lawyer. The scene shifted to the defendant's point of view as he got more and more agitated. Voices muffled. Menacing music began to build on the soundtrack, and the defendant looked frantically around the courtroom to the lawyers and the judge, to his parents, to the closed courtroom door and finally, to the guard's unclipped holster with its revolver within reach.

It was an intensely and impressively constructed scene, made even more intense by a sudden shift of locales to the courtroom next door, where Diane Lockhart, played by Christine Baranski, was arguing an unrelated case. She hears and reacts to the sound of gunfire. Then, so does her firm's chief investigator, Kalinda - played by Archie Panjabi - who instantly phones 911.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

ARCHIE PANJABI: (As Kalinda Sharma) (On cellphone) Shots fired at Cook County Courthouse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Everyone stay put!

(BACKGROUND NOISES INCLUDING SCREAMS, GUNFIRE)

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) What is it? What's going on?

PANJABI: (As Kalinda Sharma) I don't know.

BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Will's court.

PANJABI: (As Kalinda Sharma) I know. Look, stay here.

(MORE SCREAMS, GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Orders to lock us down. Come in...

BIANCULLI: Kalinda goes running through the chaos to the adjacent courtroom and soon learns - along with the viewing audience - that Will has been seriously wounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")

PANJABI: (As Kalinda Sharma) Will!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Damn it, Kalinda, back off.

PANJABI: (As Kalinda Sharma) My boss is in there!

BIANCULLI: A few scenes later, we get surprised again, as Kalinda and Diane go to the hospital and eventually discover Will on a gurney, covered with a sheet, already pronounced dead.

This was a main character killed unexpectedly, and with absolutely no leakage from the press or elsewhere on the Internet. And it was a stunner. The next night, Josh Charles, who played Will, even showed up on "Late Show with David Letterman" with a suitably stunned introduction from his host.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN)

DAVID LETTERMAN: Our next guest stars on the very popular CBS television series "The Good Wife," and guess what? Last night, he was killed off the show.

PAUL SHAFFER: What?

LETTERMAN: Yeah.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Lady and gentlemen, here's the alive Josh Charles, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: More and more, primary TV characters are getting killed all the time these days. "The Walking Dead" gets rid of more cast members each week than "American Idol." And even shows as different as "Downton Abbey" and "Justified" will build up major characters, only to unexpectedly mow them down. But usually, word leaks out beforehand about the plot or an actor's contract dispute. So pulling off a total surprise, as "The Good Wife" just did, is a big deal. And for fans of quality television, it's a very good deal.

In the earliest days of TV, when drama anthology shows were produced live and were like weekly little movies, characters and stories changed each week. So it was easy to put the main characters in genuine jeopardy. But once television evolved to weekly drama series, for the first few decades, the heroes almost always lived, and returned; and one episode was pretty much interchangeable with another.

One exception early was on ABC's "Naked City," in the late 1950s, when the leading character of that cop show - played by John McIntyre - was killed in a fiery car crash. And the closest early precedent to what happened to Will Gardner on "The Good Wife" occurred on the CBS series "The White Shadow." That was a drama series produced by Bruce Paltrow before he did "St. Elsewhere," starring Ken Howard as the basketball coach of a squad of innercity high school kids.

In one 1980 episode, one of the high school players went to a liquor store to score some booze for his friends, and got caught in the middle of a robbery and killed by a stray bullet. That happened almost 35 years ago, and I still remember it vividly because on TV in those days, that sort of random and fatal violence just didn't happen in a drama series. A third of a century later, TV - when it's in the right hands and handled just the right way - can still shock us like that. Taking our TV characters away can really register and be worth talking about as part of the national conversation, but only if they're written and performed well enough in the first place.

Will Gardner, thanks to Josh Charles and his collaborators on "The Good Wife," certainly was. I miss Will already, but I have a feeling the remaining shows this season are going to be amazing.

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