Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Micro-Tension and The Good Wife

I’m a huge fan of the TV show, The Good Wife.

For those of you that don’t watch it, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies) is an attorney whose husband, Peter (played by Chris Noth), has cheated on her. Peter was the Cook County State’s Attorney and his infidelity was a big deal in the media. Since the series began, Alicia has stayed faithful and committed to her marriage. With Alicia’s help, Peter is reelected to the State's Attorney office. Right after Peter’s reelection, another of Peter’s infidelities came to light. Fed up and hurt, she kicked him out of their home that same night.

You can’t have a show titled The Good Wife if you don’t have some sort of temptation that might keep her from being good, right? Enter Will Gardner (played by Josh Charles), who is a partner in the law firm where Alicia works, and an old boyfriend of Alicia’s from law school. The old attraction is still there, simmering beneath all of Will and Alicia’s interactions.

Alicia’s choice to stay married to Peter not only impacts their children, but also the future of his political career and that of the advisors and politicians that support him. In turn, their interest in Peter’s success affects Alicia’s position in the law firm. As stated in the show last night, with her by his side, Peter is a Kennedy. Without her, he’s just another john who’s slept with a hooker.

One reason I love this show is because I’ve found myself rooting for Alicia and Peter at times, and then rooting for Will and Alicia at others. No clear lines. No clear motives. No clear good or bad people.

The season finale was last night. If you haven’t seen it and want to, don’t keep reading. If you have seen it, stay with me. If you don’t watch the show, you should.

At the end of the episode, Will and Alicia decide to take their attraction to the next level and rent a room at a hotel. Due to a convention in town, the only suite available for the night is the Presidential Suite, which costs $7,800.

Will they take it?

Will decides it’s worth it and pays for the room.

Next, Will and Alicia approach the elevators, and the elevator is full. They are forced to wait for the next one available.

Will one of them change their minds now?

An elevator opens up, and a little girl and her mother exit the elevator. Will enters the elevator and looks down to press the button for the floor to the Presidential Suite, and the majority of the buttons are lit up (the little girl had busy hands).

The elevator stops at all the floors. The doors open. The doors shut. Will and Alicia look straight ahead, and then glance covertly at the other. No direct eye contact.

Will one of them have second thoughts and back out?

The doors open. We see Will’s straight face. The doors shut.

The doors open. We see Alicia’s straight face. The doors shut.

What are they thinking? Will they still go through with it? Now are they having doubts?

“Will, maybe…” she says. He reaches for her hand. They kiss.

The doors open. The doors shut.

Finally, finally, they arrive at the top floor where the Presidential Suite is located. Will enters the key card into the slot and the lock flashes red.

Will he have to go all the way back down to the front desk to get the card to work? Will it give them time to change their minds and back out of such a risky temptation?

After all, Alicia’s still married (albeit separated), and Will’s still her boss.

He inserts the key card again. Again it flashes red.

She takes the card from him. Turns it over and enters the key card into the slot. It flashes green. Together they enter the suite, and the door shuts behind them. The viewer is still left wondering - will they or won’t they?

This, my friends, is what Donald Maass calls micro-tension. Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment, line-by-line, simmering-beneath-the-surface tension that keeps a reader or viewer in a constant state of apprehension about what will happen in the next few seconds of the story.

Micro-tension is what keeps people riveted on the edge of their seats. It’s what kept me riveted in mine as the elevator doors opened and closed, floor after floor, as I wondered what the characters were thinking and what they would do next.

This link has a video of the last five minutes of the season finale, including the micro-tension and the elevator.

Did you like this use of micro-tension at the end of The Good Wife? Can you think of another show or book that had memorable micro-tension in it, and you sat, gripping the pages or the edge of your seat, anxiously awaiting what came next?