Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And watch out! There will be spoilers:
The Good Wife kept a lot of secrets. Whatever was going on between Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi that kept them from filming in-person scenes together will hopefully fill a book once the people involved can figure a way out of their NDAs. Another well-kept secret was Josh Charles’ departure and the shocking death of his character Will in Season 5. As Amy Amatangelo wrote in her “It Still Stings,” Will’s death was one of the last times I was truly surprised by an event on television—I didn’t know Charles was leaving the show and apparently neither did anyone else. I never imagined Will wouldn’t survive that shooting until he didn’t. But the secret that keeps me up at night even years later is wondering why Finn (Matthew Goode) and Alicia (Julianna Margulies)—who had oodles of sexual tension—never got it on.
Finn Polmar made his first appearance on The Good Wife in the same episode Will was killed. Early on, his charm holds up next to Will as they banter and battle in the courtroom, but only Finn leaves alive. Introducing Finn at the same time they kill Alicia’s biggest love interest on the show is a brutal way to introduce a new hot love interest for Alicia, but that’s what he becomes. Alicia first speaks to Finn while he’s in the hospital recovering from his gunshot wound, and she asks him to tell her about Will’s last moments. Their soft “hi” as they great each other is tender and sad, a hint of things to come. (Maybe it’s only in hindsight I see chemistry in these first moments as well, but I swear it’s there.)
Over the next season, Finn and Alicia dance closer and closer to each other without ever actually consummating anything. They don’t even kiss. Instead, they speak in codes and intense glances. Their sexual tension becomes a fully formed third character in every scene with them. In one episode in Season 6, Alicia was having a rough time with her husband Peter (Chris Noth) while she was running for state’s attorney. She goes to Finn’s office late at night. “Do you want to talk?,” he asks her. “No, I don’t,” she said. He places his hand on top of hers—and I screamed at the TV. And then they get interrupted, and Alicia flees the scene.
Are you kidding me with this? She goes into his office late at night, confused and sad and wanting him. Their attraction has been building and building. They finally touch, alone, in the dark. And then she walks away.
The next day he goes to see her, this time in her office in the daytime. She says she wishes things were simpler and she always hated that these office walls were glass—presumably because if they weren’t she’d sweep the papers off her desk and they’d bang right then and there. But they don’t. (I yelled at the TV again.)
At some point in a will-they-won’t-they romance, the couple in question needs to actually do it. And I don’t necessarily mean it—having sex is one way to resolve the tension and the storyline, but they could also commit to each other, go on an actual date, or have a world-ending drag-out argument. Something, anything, needs to happen to recognize their journey and make all that pining worth it.
This isn’t just about my desire for everyone on every TV show to kiss (my husband often teases me for yelling “make out!” at pretty much everything I watch). No, this is about narrative payoff. With the extended sexual tension over weeks and months that is possible on a TV show, the show is making a promise that a storyline is developing. If it fizzles into nothing, that can feel like a cheap way out or a winding road that went nowhere—and that’s frustrating in any storytelling scenario. When the tension is as good as it is between Finn and Alicia and it still doesn’t go anywhere, it feels like such a waste: a waste of acting talent, a waste of a story thread, and a waste of time.
One of the best payoffs of a will-they-won’t-they that finally did is Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) on New Girl. Their kiss in the episode “Cooler” is one for the record books. The pair flirt and tease an attraction for the better part of two seasons and finally get the chance to kiss behind a closed door while they play a drinking game with their friends. They don’t kiss then, but instead of a frustrating moment that never develops anything, their missed chance sets up their actual kiss later in the episode. In a surprise move, Nick grabs Jess while they are alone in their apartment in the middle of the night. He sweeps her into his arms and kisses her, and she enthusiastically kisses him back. He tells her that’s how he always meant to kiss her—not in a contrived game but in a moment of passion that’s just for the two of them. He leaves her shocked in the hallway processing this new development between them. It’s satisfying and romantic in all the ways that Alicia and Finn are disappointing. Alicia and Finn never get that moment of recognizing their feelings and the catharsis of acting on them.
Nick and Jess go on to try a relationship, but not all participants in sexual tension storylines have to end in love or with a happy ever after. Another epic journey of frustrated romance shows how tension can build to a satisfying but sad ending, with two lovers going their separate ways. In Season 2 of Fleabag, the title character and the Priest get closer throughout the season, and their attraction and genuine connection threaten to derail both of their lives. They have sex, but then they break up, acknowledging their love but also clearly seeing that it can’t last. It’s devastating but narratively and emotionally satisfying, portraying growth for both characters.
This kind of chemistry and successful connection between two damaged people can sustain fans’ shipping—and my personal happiness—for years. The explosiveness of Alicia and Finn especially could have powered small cities. But all they get is a conversation that tacitly admits they have something going on before Finn leaves forever.
In Season 6, Alicia asks Finn to partner with her … in creating a new law firm. He says yes and they work on their first case together, but they both push their attraction just a little bit further than professionalism allows. “Anger looks good on you,” Alicia says as the two of them get drinks at a bar after their time in court. Finn sees that a line could be crossed and he’s tempted to jump over it, but this time, he’s the one to leave because he’s recently gotten back together with his ex-wife. As he walks away, so does any chance of Alicia and Finn hooking up.
Later, he goes to Alicia’s apartment and tells her he can’t partner with her at the firm. It’s a flat ending, leaving Alicia—and me—hoping for more. He goes on to say there’s something between them and they can’t seem to leave it alone or do anything about it, and he can’t live like that.
And you know what? Neither can I.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. Her book is All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian will come out in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson
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