If you watch almost any television at all, it's happened to you: A show you love up and kills a perfectly delightful human being whom you know very well while you are sitting there, powerless on the couch.
Despite the number of times this has happened, I rarely take these deaths with much equanimity. When Downton Abbey started offing major characters, I ranted and raged every time. When Grey's Anatomy went through a multiseason stretch of catastrophic events, I could be heard screeching "but that's not why I watch this show!" over and over. I knew in advance what happened at Game of Thrones' Red Wedding and I still spent the whole time hoping, maybe, the show would turn out differently than the books.
But I have never quite experienced a character death like Will Gardner's on Sunday night's The Good Wife.
The Good Wife is a great show. Its case-of-the-week format has given it the leisure to develop its characters in extraordinary depth. It is a show about adults for adults, who don't need skin and sex and histrionic developments to hold their attention.
And so Will Gardner's death came as a really, really big surprise. This is an impressive accomplishment on a tactical level. It's hard to keep secrets about your TV show these days, hard to keep hints of a massive surprise out of the "scenes from next week," and hard to keep stories out of the magazines when a character is leaving because the actor wants out of his contract — as Josh Charles, who plays Will, apparently did. But keeping Will's death a secret is an even more impressive display of self-discipline: The Good Wife, like life, had no foreshadowing. The plot was hurtling along. Will was here, and then he wasn't.
TV deaths typically arrive in a frenzy of tells and tears, along with deathbed confessions and last words. But not here. As Michelle and Robert King, The Good Wife's creators, put it, "Television, in our opinion, doesn't deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. Your last time with the loved one will always remain your last time."
Will thought he had all the time in the world and so did everyone else, and they were all wrong.
Just like that, Will was dead, all his business unfinished. It was brutal and horribly realistic: Sudden death doesn't come with a spoiler alert.
Everyone who loved Will is sure to torture themselves thinking over details of the last few episodes. Should Diane have pushed harder to get Will to settle? Should Alicia have taken the case? Should Alicia have tried harder to work things out with Will while she could have?
But this is all so much more down-to-earth than the usual questions that surround a character's sudden death. The Good Wife, like its characters, is all about suppressing the drama just enough to keep it roiling right beneath the surface.
But I'm still worried about the future of The Good Wife. Will and Alicia's relationship was its most important. Watching the scenes from next week, of Diane and Alicia embracing each other, sobbing, I teared up.
But in a few weeks, when Will's death is no longer the central subject, when it, like almost everything else on The Good Wife, becomes subtext, will I be as excited to turn it on every week without Will, and his cynicism and loyalty, his hubris and his humor, his chemistry with Alicia? Will I still care as much about The Good Wife?
I'm not sure. Like everyone on the show itself, I'm having a hard time imagining it without him.