Monday, 31 March 2014

Lost Ones; on the last two episodes of The Good Wife

Will Gardner died, but I left the last two episodes thinking about the other lost life….

With a quarter of the runtime remaining in last week’s “Dramatics Your Honor” Will Gardner was shot. At the end of the episode we realise he had died. Killed by a stray bullet from his client, Jeffrey Grant. The two episodes will forever be remembered as the moment The Good Wife changed – for better, or worse – bringing seemingly mindless violence to a show which had never seen it quite like this before. But, was the violence really mindless and without reason as it seemed?

I was itching to write on the Kings’ decision to have Charles exit from the due via death, especially when the critical conversation turned to whether the moment was authentic to The Good Wife universe or not. I tarried, though, when I saw that Hunter Parrish (playing Jeffrey Grant) was scheduled to make an appearance on last night’s episode of the show. For in an episode titled “Dramatics Your Honor”, the episode that will go down as the episode where Will Gardner died, I left the wreck of tragedy in this fictional Chicago more troubled, and moved, by the client-turned-assailant who killed him.

Grant first appeared early this season when a random traffic violation came to be revealed as a ruse to arrest him for murder. We left him before the case went to trial and he turned up a the opening of the last episode. In fact, he was the first thing we saw.
Even before the complaints of the Kings taking the sensational way out, or giving way to the darkness in primetime TV by having Will be brutally murdered I was already thinking how fitting an end to a main character’s life this was for the show. Too many critics - fans of the show - in the wake of its excellent fifth season have decried its existence as a legal show. No, it's better than a legal show. It just happens to have characters who are lawyers. That's a bit disingenuous, though. Sure, The Good Wife is not a standard procedural but its examinations of the legal system and its foibles have been incisive to its success. Just take a look at the taut season opener. Arguments that the senselessness of Will’s death failed to be coherent because it came out of nowhere seemed, to me, a misunderstanding of the world which Lockhart/Gardner and recently formed Florrick/Agos inhabit. Will’s death was shocking in that no one saw it coming. Still, knowing what we know of jail, how it changes you, and the way people are psychologically affected in the wake of the potentially tragic accusing the moment where Jeffrey Grant goes rogue as inorganic seemed specious.

The Good Wife has always been excellent at using the fabric of the show and its characters proximity to so many hot-button issues  to examine real world problems (DOMA, terrorism, spying, the death penalty) and despite the darker than usual turn the sidebar ruminations on Jeffrey Grant’s actions and what it portends for the penal system and the way it works were the at fore of my mind even before that series changing moment. It's right there in the shot of his eyes which open the episode with that heavy, percussive music. They're dead inside. (Look at Jeffrey's eyes and then look at this.) Something isn't right here, it tells us immediately. Jeffrey mentions it in brief, but never in detail. And, the question sat with me for a week. Considering how significant knowledge of Jeffrey's state of mind might be regarding the moment which changes the fabric of the show – why so short a time spent on Jeffrey’s sufferings in jail? Not because they’d necessarily mitigate the way the series’ fandom might be ready to villainise him in the wake of tragedy. But, for simple follow-through? The more I pondered, the more the lack of Jeffrey backstory in a Will centred episode seemed clear.

Consider the critical incidents of the shoot, a fateful difference between Will Gardner and Alicia Florrick as lawyers has always been their techniques. You were always the better lawyer, Alicia tells him in a moment that seemed a bit jarring even before his demise. Although what she probably meant was that he was the better litigator. With the dogged focus on winning his clients would be lucky to have him unless like Jeffrey, they were young, scared and lost. Alicia’s inclination to handhold her clients has been sometimes observed as a gendered role, but it’s the critical difference between the two so that when in “The Last Call” she says, He was my client, the first thing I think was - how might Alicia's focus on Jeffrey not as a client, but a person differed from Will?

The story’s insistence on shrouding the what of Jeffrey’s psyche, though, becomes part of a larger formal exercise in avoidance the episode takes on. Good editing is always best when unobserved the argument goes, except this episode depends on the savvy cuts director Brooke Kennedy makes in moments that seem odd. In the climatic build-up to Jeffrey losing his mind as his eyes gaze on the bailiff’s gun we don’t see chaos break but cut immediately to Diane in an adjoining courtroom. It’s a similar cut away from pain which closes the episode that has us ending not with Alicia reacting to the news, but just her opening “Hello” on the phone to Kalinda. Brooke Kennedy produced six episodes of peerless comedy Pushing Daisies in its first season, but she turns her comedic sensibilities on their head in “Dramatics Your Honor”. She doesn't direct the follow-up episode, but the way the camera circles Kalinda as she delivers the news to Eli in the opening to “The Last Call”, finally settling on her face informs the same avoidance of pain. Kennedy is doing excellent work, though. In the build-up to Jeffrey's gunfire the loud music seeps into the sound-design again as we focus on his face, going through emotions. Except, this time when the music take over the courtroom isn't silent. It may seem slight, but the opening use of the music rendered everything in the courtroom silent except this time the percussive music is accompanied by the faintest sound of Will laughing attached to the final image of a live Will we get. Kennedy, and the entire team of The Good Wife is giving its audience credit. The shrouding of Jeffrey's state-of-mind are not cop-outs, that cutaway from Jeffrey's desolate face to a laughing Will tells us everything that Jeffrey feels. He is alone and forsaken. No one cares about him, or so he feels.
Eventually, we have to deal with Will's death and Jeffrey's culpability. Kennedy's directing is all about keeping the most gruesome at bay, until it cannot be kept and the episode ends just before Alicia gets the news. Jim McKay directs the follow-up episode dealing with the fallout, the tears, the realisation, the drama. I prefer Kennedy's work on the quieter episode, though. Her directing the taut build-up from the gavel banging in Diane’s court to Kalinda crying over Will’s body is some of my favourite directing work on television this season. And not because her camera is milking for emotion. Kennedy, a producer on the show, gets the beauty of the show – how acts of sadness or violence don’t just happen in a vacuum. So much has been written on how the Kings wrote this episode it's a shame more emphasis wasn't placed on how well directed it was. An episode of harrowing details, the single most devastating shot was not the reveal of Will's corpse but the hollow image of Jeffrey fruitlessly pulling the trigger on the gun with no bullets. Eerily accompanied by the silence but for the hollow click-click the shot so effectively. Nothing gets to the root of the tragedy as well.
The most memorable image of the two episodes.
It's not just because I was no big fan of Will Gardner the character. I liked him, I never loved him. But, even if you hated him the show did a fine job of grieving him. But, even amidst Goodbye-Will show the unsettling realisation that more than one life was lost was what made the follow-up episode so much more poignant. Yes, the life of Jeffrey Grant. It’s that sense of overwhelming loss hanging over the entirety of “The Last Call” - Kalinda and Diane have lost a colleague and friend, Alicia has lost a lover and a wisp of a hope, Lockhart Gardner has lost a partner, Peter has lost a rival but that final shot also evokes a sense of a loss of greater magnitude regarding Alicia's reaction to the death. But, most moving, is Jeffrey's loss occurring at his own hands. What of the evidence which seemed to exonerate him? Sure, he was not-guilty of the initial murder-charge, right? What, then, to make of a prosecution that a year after the murder arrested an innocent man having him languish in jail for months suffering severe psychological trauma?

Will's death, although, tragic was less heartrending both because the effectiveness of his send-off gave it a respectability and because of his prescient final bar conversation with Kalinda. He loved what he did, and even amidst the tragedy of Will and the not un-analagous tragedy of Jeffrey shone through. What was happening to Jeffrey in jail? Usual piling on the newbie in prison? Something more insidious? A great deal of the story line managing to succeed is on Parrish's performance giving one of my favourite guest-turns of the season. In an episode of quiet shows of grief, the most overt emotion shown in an episode of muted, clinical grieving was Jeffrey's loud sobs, jarring both for its overtness as well for the realisation that unlike the main characters he was not only grieving a friend, but something more. It's why I was so thrilled to see the always austere Becky Ann Backer turn up as his lawyer. I suspect, the show being what it is, focusing on Jeffrey's future in the penal system would be unnecessary especially since Kalinda's "only suffering for you" has so much finality. But, what an interesting and necessary subject. And even in an episode not about him, what a fantastic directorial choice to leave us with this image which represents the chilling, and depressing resolution to Jeffrey's life.
It is more than just personal interest in the effects of the penal system making this arc resound with me. The Kings have their plates full dealing with justifying Will's death to the fans of the show, but even with so many things like the pain of the eponymous Good Wife and the loss of a formerly main character this still remains the same savvy show which does peerless work at fitting social issues into its narrative. Jeffrey Grant might be just a vessel towards the show's development as Josh Charles leaves the show, but his existence and his plight are not incidental things. More significantly, his story, though briefly examined teems with profundity. His actions led to a shocking moment for the show, but the story itself - of the way that the legal system works, and does not work, evoking unfortunate tragedies like this - is not one that is at odds with the world of The Good Wife.


Moni Bolis said...

Great article. It made me look at the even differently.

Melisa Vargas said...

I arrived late to this party... Just watched the episode last night... I am also soooo surprised the direction of this episode didn't get more attention. I hadn't read anything about the show until now precisely to avoid spoilers.. it paid off. Anyway, thanks for this, the way the show managed to express the oddity, strangeness and realistic shock that comes with sudden death, the horror in those crazy details, how the only coping mechanisms for these characters were to keep "working" in figuring this insane situation out was what really made it such an intense and painful experience... great choices!!!