‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Learns To Grieve In ‘Goodwill’

A few thoughts on tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire coming up just as soon as the secret’s in the cinnamon…

Halt has never been a show about grief, but it has been one about connections, both ones formed in the physical world and in the virtual one that Cameron and others helped to create. And it’s also about what happens when those connections are severed, from Joe walking out on Cardiff to Cameron and Donna’s falling out.

Where there’s life, there’s always hope of connections being restored, as we’ve seen with the mixing and matching of alliances and friendships among the four leads over the years. Gordon’s sudden death in last week’s stunning episode, though, is the end of his story, and the end of his connection with his family and friends, and “Goodwill” does a powerfully understated job of showing not only how each of them are dealing with the loss, but how Gordon was in many ways the glue holding them all together.

The episode opens with a bit of a sucker punch: Gordon Clark, alive and well. It is, of course, a flashback — the bushy ’70s sideburns make that clear even before Donna emerges with long hair, and we realize they are caring for Joanie as an infant — to a time before Comet, Mutiny, Cardiff, or even the Symphonic, which at this moment is the dream the Clarks are building their modest lives around. The flashbacks are both a balm and a taunt: they temporarily give us Gordon back, but it’s the high-strung, distant, and occasionally cruel Gordon of the series’ early days, not the content, easygoing charmer who was so present throughout his final episode.(*) He was never a perfect man, and “Goodwill” walks a neat line between hagiography and honesty, like the moment where Donna laments that she spent so much time telling him what he did wrong, followed by Cameron hilariously interjecting, “He did a ton wrong!”

(*) When Donna checks the clock in the middle of the night while comforting baby Joanie, it’s 4:07. Gordon died in what in production terms is usually referred to as episode 407 (the seventh episode of season four).

Other than Donna’s argument with the teenage Joanie about her college applications, the 1994 scenes are relatively calm, considering the shock all the characters are dealing with. But that feels true to life. Grief isn’t some non-stop fit of crying and screaming. It comes at you in waves, and you can be numb far more often than you’re overtly upset. And then it smacks you upside the head again just when you were starting to get used to its absence, like the moment where Katie realizes she’s standing in the same spot where she found Gordon’s body. She hasn’t known him nearly as long as the others, but their connection went deep enough that she can’t stay at Comet, in California, or especially not in that house, and the moment where she sits in her car — its windshield streaked with rain, like tears — and can only wave to Haley, rather than get out for a proper goodbye, is among the episode’s more gut-wrenching, even though she’s a relatively minor character in the scheme of things. (When Veep is done, I hope Anna Chlumsky gets a chance to do more dramatic screen work; she’s great at it.)

The episode had a lot of emotional roller coaster moments like that. Joe and Haley’s escapade with the stolen Goodwill bag gives them a desperately-needed opportunity to laugh and smile, yet within moments they’re back to being sad again. The sisters manage to comfort each other and are able to function and even joke around while everyone enjoys Bos’s famous chili, yet there’s Joe — the most upset of all of them, because in some ways he needed Gordon (who continually forgave him for his worst sins in a way that even Cam never has entirely) more than even the girls did — fighting back tears and apologizing to Haley for failing to get back the green sweater.

All of them knew, and loved, Gordon, but all of them knew a slightly different Gordon. When Katie talks about the ’70s photograph of him and Donna that she loved to look at, she’s describing a version of him, and of their marriage, much more simple and easy than the one Donna lived with, and that we get a glimpse of in the flashbacks. Yet Katie’s monologue also seems to fill Donna with even more regret over the fact that she and Gordon couldn’t make it to the finish line together — that he couldn’t live up to the promise he makes at the end of the episode to never leave again.

Joe was the charismatic figure who hired Cameron and came up with the Giant. Mutiny was Cameron’s dream, Calnect came from Joe and Ryan’s brainstorming, Comet from Joe and Haley. Gordon was rarely the idea man — the Symphonic was an infamous failure, though Gordon’s anti-virus software turned out to be a multi-million dollar concept — but he was the glue that tended to hold each project, and the people making it, together. He brought Donna into the fold when the Giant was on the verge of collapse, he helped keep Mutiny running while Cameron and Donna were feuding (while also providing Cameron with friendship at a time when she desperately needed some), and he even wound up the primary caregiver to the girls when he and Donna divorced.

Who needs a guy? They all did, and they all leaned on Gordon in one way or another. Now he’s gone, and the only good to come of it is that it got everybody else in a room together. The rift between Donna and Cameron isn’t magically healed, but the fact that they were able to talk, to admit how much they missed each other, to share thoughts on relationships and children (Joe wants them, Cameron very much does not), and to discuss Pilgrim — and the fact that Donna won a game that Cameron’s many critics complained was unwinnable — feels like a start.

What becomes of the friendship, of Comet, of Joe and Haley and Joanie and everyone else with Gordon gone? Well, things will move forward. Or they won’t. That’s life. And life only goes one way: to a concluding point. When Cameron and Donna talk about Pilgrim, Donna notes, “I liked the way it ended.” Hopefully, we’ll all feel similarly about Halt in a week.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is out 10/10 and available for preoder now.