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A Gunshot in the Courtroom

“If this was a love to last the ages, the only wall high enough to keep the two lovers apart was death,” says The Good Wife’s creators, Robert and Michelle King.Photo: CBS

The Red Wedding. Charlie’s writing “not Penny’s boat.” Scandoval. The 97-year history of television has offered no shortage of astonishing onscreen moments, but few were as truly unexpected as Will Gardner’s sudden death in season five of The Good Wife. Rumors were swirling in the early months of 2014 that actor Josh Charles, one of the CBS drama’s leading stars alongside Julianna Margulies, would be leaving the show. Most viewers assumed his exit would come after a long, sentimental send-off at the end of the season — certainly not in a random act of violence executed by a desperate client midway through episode 15. When the gunshot rang out in that courtroom and Will was pronounced dead, Good Wife fans were left stunned, heartbroken, and so lost in grief that Charles himself had to call a few just to reassure them that he was okay.

“It was wild to see how intense the response was,” says Charles, speaking to Vulture ten years after his beloved character’s death. Robert and Michelle King — who co-created The Good Wife and wrote the episode in question, “Dramatics, Your Honor” — agree. Despite knowing how much fans cared for Will, they never expected such a reaction. “We built the episode and the following to be about the shock and irredeemability of death, so we liked that the show had that impact,” the couple explains via email. “We were hated for a while.”

The decision to **** Will was, unsurprisingly, not easy to make. Going into season five, the Kings knew they had to find a way to send him off. Feeling burned out from four years on a network procedural, Charles had decided at the end of the previous season not to renew his contract in full. “The grind had gotten to me,” the actor, 52, recalls. “I was ready to move on to the next chapter.” Still, Charles didn’t want to exit on a sour note. “It had been such a fantastic experience for me and my career, and, importantly, I wasn’t leaving due to a money issue or because I thought I was some hot-**** movie star,” he says. He and the Kings, along with producer Margulies, quietly worked out an agreement through which Charles would stay for 15 episodes, enough to give the writers time to figure out a worthwhile end for his character and still allow the actor an early leave.

The Kings first considered having Will move to Seattle or be disbarred, forcing him to leave Lockhart/Gardner — and Alicia Florrick, his longtime foil and romantic interest — for good. But both options “seemed so easily reversed,” the Kings say. “If this was a love to last the ages, the only wall high enough to keep the two lovers apart was death.” Thus, Will’s fate was decided: He would be shot by his own client, Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish), in the middle of a trial while the young man seemingly had a psychotic break. Viewers wouldn’t see the actual shooting, only the aftermath: a distraught Jeffrey trying to **** himself, the prosecutor trying to stop Will from bleeding out, and, later, lawyers Diane (Christine Baranski) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) identifying Will’s body in the hospital and delivering the news to political consultant Eli (Alan *******) and Alicia. It was an excruciatingly painful series of events, made all the worse by Alicia, who was giving a press speech elsewhere in Chicago, not getting the chance to say good-bye to the love of her life.

Charles was immediately onboard with the plan. “We all agreed it could be incredibly dramatic and impactful, especially if we could keep it a secret,” he says. Crucially, Margulies approved too. “She understood how that turned up the emotion to 11,” the Kings recall.

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife’s “Dramatics, Your Honor.”Photo: CBS

Then came the hard part: months of making sure that word about Charles’s midseason exit didn’t get out lest it ruin the surprise for viewers. To prevent leaks, the Kings numbered the scripts and begged crew members and the dozens of background actors who appeared in the episode to keep the secret. Luckily, most stayed mum (except for *******, who recently revealed he happily “told everyone,” including his hairdresser). Charles did his part by not letting his agent put him up for another show, which “would’ve been a dead giveaway” that he was leaving, per the Kings. Still, it was a risky bet. “It was amazing we were able to pull it off,” Charles says.

Leading up to the episode’s air date, the Kings fretted about how viewers would respond. “We worried it would be seen as melodramatic and not intrinsic to the show,” they recall. They tried to get ahead of the problem by introducing Jeffrey as a routine case of the week earlier in the season, “so it would feel like it was sewn into the fabric of the show.” At the same time, wanting to ensure an element of surprise, the Kings purposely “tried to mislead the viewer” into thinking Will and Alicia would get back together — adding to the inevitable shock value, yes, but also the heartbreak.

There was no question about it: Fans were going to be seriously upset. At the suggestion of CBS Studios head David Stapf, the showrunners wrote a letter to viewers that would be released online right after the episode aired, in which they explained their decision to **** off Will and offered reassurance that “life does go on” (in the form of seven more season-15 episodes, one of which Charles directed).

And then it was time. On Sunday, March 23, 2014, in an episode seen by 9.1 million viewers, Will Gardner died from a gunshot wound to the neck. Twitter immediately blew up with devastated reactions and viewers in disbelief — and straight-up denial — that The Good Wife would **** off a main character so abruptly. Charles, who was in the show’s editing room cutting an upcoming episode, watched as the responses poured in and spent the next few hours replying to some particularly distraught fans on Twitter. Assuring them that he understood their grief and promising they would all be okay, he even called some fans on the phone to offer his personal condolences. “Reaching out to people who were bereft felt like the right thing to do,” he says. The depth of fans’ reactions, he adds, made him proud of his performance: “Seeing that this character we had collaborated on for five years resonated so deeply with so many people moved me.”

Over the coming days, fans attempted to overcome their shock and sorrow only to find themselves even more traumatized the following Sunday, when Alicia, after discovering a lost voicemail from Will, struggles to figure out what he wanted to say to her while the rest of Lockhart/Gardner manage their own grief. “We felt that all the characters were owed a reaction to the death, so the whole episode was built around the world continuing to spin as our characters try to process unfathomable information,” the Kings explain. “It feels like the true tragedy of life: We all grieve alone.”

While it would’ve been easier to have Alicia & Co. move on from Will’s death in just an episode or two’s time, the Kings instead chose to depict her grief and regret for the remainder of the season. This decision had potential pitfalls (“We were worried about flattening out the drama and especially the comedy,” they note), but it gave Margulies the opportunity to add even greater depth to an already layered performance. “We wanted to push Alicia to almost a mad place, a sort of Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown place,” the showrunners say.

Although The Good Wife’s ratings and reviews had been consistently strong throughout its four and a half seasons, there was no guarantee that viewers would respond well to a Will-less series going forward. “The show seemed to be floating on the arc of a love triangle, and here we were yanking out one of the three legs of that platform,” the Kings say. Yet viewers responded positively — remarkably so. Season five of The Good Wife was nominated for five Emmys, and Margulies won for her performance in “The Last Call.” In September, the season-six premiere garnered over 11 million viewers, more than the show had seen in years. The next two seasons were some of The Good Wife’s very best, with veteran characters such as Diane and Matt Czuchry’s Cary exploring intriguing new directions and newcomers including Cush Jumbo’s Lucca and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Jason bringing welcome energy (and in Morgan’s case, a post-Will romance for Alicia). As The Daily Beast put it six months after Will’s death, “Josh Charles’s exit last March, as shocking and painful as it was, is probably the best thing that could have happened to The Good Wife in the long run.”

Two years later, fans finally got the closure they were looking for: In the series finale, Charles cameos as Will in a dream sequence in which Alicia imagines coming home to her late lover. They kiss, and, later, Will gently encourages Alicia to pursue a new romance, replying to her declaring that she’ll always love him with a sweet “I’m okay with that.”

Nearly eight years after the finale, the Kings are hard at work running CBS’s Elsbeth, the second series to spin off from The Good Wife after the six-season drama The Good Fight. Charles, meanwhile, remains a consistent presence in TV and film, starring in Amazon’s The Power and soon to be seen alongside Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in the upcoming thriller Mothers’ Instinct. He has moved on from Will Gardner — well, probably. When asked by Deadline recently if he would ever revisit the role, Charles replied, “Who knows? You never know.”

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