Halt and Catch Fire is coming to an end and I can’t stop crying. Not because it is ending, although that’s sad, too. Or because barely anyone is watching such a good show, in part due to AMC banishing its final season to Saturday nights, because I have chosen to take the healthier view of the situation and just be thankful that the network even allowed the fourth and final season to exist in any form. No, I am crying because things keep happening that are tearing me apart. In a good way. Mostly. Maybe “good” isn’t the right word. Let’s go with “beautiful.” I am crying because it’s all so beautiful.
This is some kind of trick the show pulled off. Back when it started, in 2014, it was basically a C+ version of Mad Men that took the wrong lessons from a great show, focusing on brilliant-but-difficult-but-handsome Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace) and leaving other characters to React to the Things He Did. I would go so far as to say it was “fine,” but even that would be a stretch because I gave up on it in the middle of the first season and only jumped back in for season two because people I trusted assured me it was better. I still haven’t seen the last few episodes of that first season. I feel okay about it. Almost as good as I feel about not making a “C++ Mad Men” joke at the beginning of this paragraph. Because the show is about computers, you see.
Except it is not really about computers. That was the key. When it came back for season two it was about people, plural, and especially its two main female characters, Donna and Cameron (Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis), who were starting their own online video game company in the late-1980s, back when women had a tough time in gaming and tech, unlike today. (Hold on, let me just take a big sip of coffee before I fact-check that last part.) Joe was still banging around doing Joe things, and his former business partner, Donna’s then-husband Gordon (Scoot McNairy), was doing Gordon things while helping Donna and Cameron with their company, but now the show was a true ensemble, with a bunch of complex and layered characters who moved the plot forward by talking to each other. It’s the rare television drama in 2017 without explosions or dragons or people getting their insides spilled all over the ground in graphic fashion.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of shows. Game of Thrones is good even when it’s not very good and I giggled like a maniac when a woman on American Gods launched someone’s spine out through the top of his head via groin kick. When you strip those things out and rely almost entirely on words, though, you better have some really good words. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes an unwatchable slog. But there’s a flipside to that coin: If you have those really good words, you can create a much more intimate viewing experience filled with wonderful, deep characters that people develop strong feelings about. And if you create that intimate viewing experience filled with wonderful, deep characters that people develop strong feelings about, you can, if you so desire, metaphorically, launch your audience’s heart out through the top of its head via groin kick.
This is where we talk about Gordon. Gordon is dead. Gordon died at the end of the final season’s seventh episode and it absolutely devastated me. I feel at least two ways about it, and maybe more. Let me try to talk through it. I’m doing this as much for me as I am for you.
On one hand, it was — I’m going to use the word again — beautiful, because it was handled so delicately and almost entirely off-screen, with a flashback to his life with Donna and a focus on a bright light serving as our only indication of what was happening. And it happened when Gordon finally seemed happy and together, after going through a divorce and business failures and issues after getting diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease that ended up killing him. He went out in a relatively good, content place, and between that and the way it was shot, it gave a great character a dignified exit.
On the other hand, all of that makes it just ruthlessly cruel, because man, Gordon was finally happy. He had an exciting new business, and a fun relationship with Anna Chlumsky, and a newly-settled family life after his talk with both Donna and Haley. To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the show. When I say “ruthlessly cruel,” I mean in the way life and the world can be ruthlessly cruel. It just made me so sad. I honestly cannot think of a television character’s death that affected me more. What really did me in was when his daughters showed up at the house. I was feeling bad for me until that point because I liked Gordon and wanted to see him and Joe become billionaires, but then I started feeling bad for them. It was a lot. I didn’t see it coming, even though I probably should have, and I’ve been on the verge of crying about it ever since.
(Something worth noting: Between his character’s death on this show and his appearance on the most recent season of Fargo, in which his character was murdered via falling air conditioner by a woman named Nikki Swango, Scoot McNairy has two of the most memorable TV deaths of 2017. And when I mentioned this to my colleague Josh Kurp, he pointed out that both deaths involved air conditioners, because one of the last things we saw Gordon do was repair the broken unit in his office. I sincerely hope, here in the real world, Scoot McNairy has central air in his house. For his own safety.)
And then the show followed that up with an episode dedicated entirely to the other main characters grieving in the immediate aftermath of his death, and I cried more, and harder. But again, in a good way. What a stunning hour of television. This is what I meant earlier about a show that moves its plot forward using only words. The whole episode was just people talking through it, to themselves and each other, in different pairings and groups throughout the hour, and it was as riveting as anything that happened on any action-packed show. One of the most important scenes in the episode, and the entire series, featured Donna and Cameron — who started the season as sworn enemies after a brutal falling out — sitting outside Gordon’s house and being vulnerable and open about it all. It was so real I felt it in my bones. Especially this exchange:
DONNA: I spent so much time telling him what he did wrong.
CAMERON: [Smiling.] He did a ton wrong.
That is perfect and sad and funny, and something that only carries the weight it does because we’ve lived with these characters for a few years, through their ups and downs and laughs and fights. It left me completely gutted and so glad I was there to see it. I am not at all ready for the show to be over. I think it would help if I had a real-life Bos in my life to come over and cook chili for me the day after the finale like he did for everyone on the show after Gordon’s death. Part of this is because I’ll be sad to see the show go, but also I just really believe that Bos makes excellent chili and I want to try it.
The experience of the show is kind of funny, honestly, when you pull back and look at it as a whole. The series that started out as Don Draper But Computers ended up becoming the rightful successor to Mad Men after all, both as a workplace drama that was about so much more than that, and as a show about people talking to each other. That’s really something. And I’m having feelings about it.