This piece reflects events and actions that happened in the season premiere of The Good Wife and its previous season. There are spoilers here.
In one of the most shocking moves in recent television history, The Good Wife killed off Will Gardner (Josh Charles), a main character on the show since its inception, in the latter half of last season. Will was the show's second lead, love interest, villain, and foil to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).
When Will was killed off last season, the show was in the midst of a massive upheaval. His death added to the chaos of Alicia and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) branching out and starting their own law practice, and it brought further intrigue to Diane's building desire to leave her own firm. While we saw people mourn Will, we didn't really get to see how The Good Wife, a show built on subtleties and the quiet spaces between, would miss Will Gardner when things calmed down (because it never did).
As the show settles back into its groove for its sixth season, the unavoidable question is: who is going to step up and take Will's place? And further: which characters will thrive in his absence?
On last night's season premiere, the answer was Cary. Cary, who is languishing in jail because of a false, exorbitant drug charge, was the emotional core of the episode, something that wouldn't have happened if Will hadn't left. We're not just seeing how he reacts to being mistreated in jail (playing it smart so far), but rather we're getting to see his bond with Alicia, Diane's lingering distrust of him, and the difference in his relationships with Robyn (Jess Weixler) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) — Robyn offers up her own money for his bail while Kalinda tries to crack the case.
The show also explores Cary's tenuous relationship with his dad, whom we find out only pledges $8,000 toward his son's bail despite sitting on a small fortune. Diane and Alicia don't tell Cary, because they know it would break him. Both offer to dig into their own finances to help him out, because really, they're the only family he has.
Cary's arc is macabre and chewy in a way that The Good Wife and his character don't often get a chance to be. Though the show played around with a similar idea during Will's tenure — a plot centering on his possible disbarment — but it never dwelled on it. Cary's situation feels heavier, and is raising the stakes for him and those who love him.
If Will's main storyline throughout the series was built on the idea of partnerships and equality with the powerful women of The Good Wife, Cary's, in this brief glimpse of the upcoming season, is one that feels built on something more like family.
Again, this is just one episode. And Will had multiple story lines and played different roles throughout his five season on the show. It will take more than just one juicy storyline for Cary to fill that gap. But the season premiere also suggested how the show might go about doing that.
Here are some guesses as to who looks poised to wear Gardner's several hats:
The best friend
The beauty of The Good Wife is how heavily the show leans on the world it's built. It trusts you to pick up on why things are the way they are and hone in on a character's subtleties. The friendships Will had with Diane and Kalinda were signaled in half-smiles and passing looks.
Through these small gestures, the characters built some of the most enduring friendships on the show. Diane and Kalinda brought out Will's vulnerable side. And he brought out moments of tenderness for these steely, cunning characters. That makes his departure a bit of a problem when it comes to balancing the show.
If there's no Will to keep Kalinda human, does she revert to her Teflon attitude? Does this mean we're going to see some newlywed growing pains with Diane? Whom do these characters turn to?
The favorite: Alicia. She is to Cary as Diane is to Will. Though they started off as frenemies, Cary has an unspoken and confident trust that she will take care of this drug charge for him. Alicia is also starting to be seen as more of an equal to Diane, a shift from the mentor-student relationship they had at Lockhart Gardner. That partnership could give Diane the character shading she got from her friendship with Will previously.
The dark horse: Robyn. The relationship between her and Cary is mentioned at Alicia and Diane's breakfast.
The Good Wife has a different take on romance. In its world, contrary to most other popular television, women — Alicia, Kalinda, Diane — are tougher and less invested in relationships than a lot of female protagonists in network dramas. And the show makes it a point that marriage means more to the men of this show than it does to the women. Alicia has a political arrangement, Kalinda has an estranged husband, and Diane's recent marriage was as casual as one of the show's verdicts.
By contrast, there's Peter Florrick who was blindsided last season when Alicia said their marriage wouldn't work, and Cary, who wants something more than casual romps from Kalinda. But the biggest and most hopeless romantic of the show was always Will.
He was Alicia's other man, but he probably never saw it like that. In his mind, he believed the two would be together eventually, and in his heart (as we see in several flashbacks), he loved her. His torch for Alicia was the reason he wanted to destroy her firm last season and the reason he felt so betrayed.
The favorite: Cary. I am already having anxiety anticipating the moment when Cary will have to choose between Kalinda and Robyn.
The dark horse: Finn Polmar (Matthew Goode). Alicia doesn't need a new man in her life. But if there's going to be one, the bets are on Finn because of the dry, crackling chemistry already forming between the two.
The last moments of Will Gardner's life were spent with him baring his fangs and assuming the role of the show's big bad. He wasn't just mean to Alicia; he tested all his relationships on the show. Will's grandiose plan to expand the practice to New York and Los Angeles stressed his friendship with Diane. His hiring of mercenary lawyer bro Damian Boyle (Jason O'Mara) weakened his friendship with Kalinda.
On a show where the villains are mainly opposing lawyers with quirks and business strategies, Will's villainy was surprisingly personal, crass, and hubristic. That'll be tough to replace.
The favorite(s): Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) and David Lee (Zach Grenier). These two are kind of like those grumpy old Muppets Statler and Waldorf in salty human form. With Diane joining the new firm, expect these two to try and become a long-running thorn in the side of Agos Florrick and Lockhart.
The dark horse: Grace Florrick (Makenzie Vega). There are few characters on The Good Wife whom you need to be reminded that they exist. Last night, Alicia had to point out to Eli that she wasn't actually experiencing empty nest syndrome because Grace exists ... which will totally set up a plot where Grace ruins Alicia's campaign for the state's attorney.