A meaningful, beautiful death anchors what might be the AMC drama’s best episode ever.
Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 1 through 8 is “Goodwill,” the eighth episode of the fourth and final season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens. It’s not the shock of the moment, or the goriness of the body splitting in two. It’s not the way the death moves the plot forward, or even how it might be unexpected.
No, the important thing about a TV death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain? Does the audience? When I’ve written about this issue before, I’ve come to realize that so many people in the television industry have internalized the lessons of shows like Lost and Game of Thrones to mean that death should be a sudden, unexpected jolt, which shocks the characters but ultimately takes up very little space in the narrative.
But the reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant (okay, usually so resonant) is because those shows give their deaths space. Something like the massacre of Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding is met with sadness on some ends and nasty celebration on others. That show takes a full episode to live in that space, before moving on to other things. Compare that to, say, several of the more brushed-off character deaths the show has indulged in since. They don’t have nearly the same level of emotional power.
So when it came time for Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s soon-to-end series set in the world of the ’90s tech boom, to kill off one of the characters who has been with it from day one, thank goodness the series realized that what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.
Halt and Catch Fire couldn’t exactly make its big death a surprise
“Who Needs a Guy,” the seventh episode of this fourth and final season of Halt, featured the death of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), all-around good friend, dad, and person. (He was … not so great of a husband, which is part of why he and his ex-wife, Donna, played by Kerry Bishé, were no longer together.)
Gordon was diagnosed with chronic toxic encephalopathy way back in season two, and the disease had worn away at his brain ever since. He could treat it, but he could never defeat it. Death was always coming.
Then again, death is always coming for all of us, right? And it wasn’t as if Halt hadn’t reminded us, over and over again (including in this season), that Gordon’s symptoms were always there, lurking, and one day his brain might just give out. It was fitting that a man who could take apart any computer and put it back together would die due to faulty wiring.
“Who Needs a Guy” depicts Gordon’s death in a memorably beautiful manner. He prepares for a date with his new girlfriend, only to see Donna (a younger Donna) walk into his house in a mirror. Then she’s singing “Baby Mine” from Dumbo to his younger children. He walks into the other room and sees her, then younger versions of his daughters race through, and McNairy plays the moment beautifully — as though Gordon has all at once realized just what is happening to him, right in the middle of his life flashing before his eyes.
Director Tricia Brock gradually floods the screen with light, as though the fabled “light at the end of the tunnel” isn’t something you float toward after death but something that rushes forward to consume you. We never see his body. We simply hear that he has died. It’s stunningly evocative TV.
Halt and Catch Fire isn’t really a show that goes in for gigantic set pieces or big, epic moments. (Its budget almost certainly wouldn’t allow for them — its idea of a major guest star is the Blue Man Group.) But its quietly beautiful cinematic technique means it can turn deceptively simple sequences into moments that feel bigger than their actual shot selections. (Gordon’s death is a great example of this.)
So “Goodwill’s” choice to remain small-scale — to focus entirely on the handful of hours after Gordon’s funeral (save for a flashback to Gordon and Donna in 1976 that bookends the episode) as the characters pack up his belongings — ended up being superbly effective. Just when the show could have gone in for histrionics and waterworks, it chose, instead, to look at the rawness of grief when it’s still fresh but you’re getting used to living with it.
“Goodwill” is an acting showcase for everybody in the cast — and what a cast
Halt and Catch Fire has always had good actors. McNairy, Bishé, Mackenzie Davis (as preternatural genius programmer Cameron), and Lee Pace (as would-be visionary Joe) have played the hell out of whatever they’ve been given, even when the series wasn’t giving them all that great of material to work with. But “Goodwill” marks a new pinnacle for one of TV’s best ensembles (which now includes a host of other regular and recurring players, most of whom pop up in this hour).
Yet the hour belongs to Bishé and Pace. The former plays Donna’s inability to compartmentalize her emotions around a man who was so important to her life — but a man from whom she had become estranged, save for occasional dinners to discuss their daughters — with steely restraint.
The latter gives Joe a haunted quality, even as he embarks on a quixotic quest to retrieve the jacket of Gordon’s he accidentally gave away to Goodwill for Gordon’s younger daughter, Haley (Susanna Skaggs, a complete newcomer to TV who’s been tremendous all season long), who had hoped to keep it to remember her father. It’s not as though Gordon’s ghost is visiting Joe; it’s as though Joe is a little disappointed Gordon’s ghost isn’t visiting him.
What “Goodwill” posits is that Gordon was the one thing still holding this group of people together, but that his death just might reunite the two of them who most need to be brought together again. Donna and Cameron, whose once promising partnership fell apart in nastiness midway through season three, make their first real, tentative strides toward reconciliation in the episode’s latter half, the absence of Gordon giving them something to talk about — really talk about — for the first time.
But the hour is characterized, mostly, by the sense that Gordon’s death marks the end of this particular permutation of friendships and the beginning of something new. If Donna and Cameron are coming back together, then Joe and Cameron are slowly but surely falling apart. And unlike in earlier seasons, when their breakups would come complete with bitter recriminations and angry arguments, this one seems to simply be an unraveling in progress, based on a very real divide between them. He wants kids; she doesn’t. And she knows that’s only going to lead to pain somewhere along the line. The episode ends with them together — but viewers will surely know where this is headed.
The big idea of Halt and Catch Fire is that we keep repeating our mistakes, but each time we do, we get a little better at living through them. Life builds callouses on you, and a computer program might have bugs, but you get better and better at stamping them out. When the series began, the characters were young and fresh and filled with deep reservoirs of feeling. Now they’re older, better able to understand each other but maybe still unable to overcome the real issues that push them apart.
This, I think, is what episode writer Zack Whedon and director Christopher Cantwell (the series’ co-creator and co-showrunner) mean by the inclusion of the flashback framing device. Gordon was once an irresponsible young husband, who walked out on his wife and baby daughter after an argument about moving from the Bay Area back to Texas (an argument viewers know he will lose, as he’s living in Texas when the series begins in the early ’80s). He died a beloved friend and family man — but he was still not a terribly good husband. We get better at some things but can never fix others. Such is life.
Gordon will be missed, yes, but being alive also means moving on. In the episode’s most significant shot, Cantwell takes in this little ad hoc family (including Toby Huss’s Bos, who’s brought over his famous chili in lieu of anything else to do) starting to knit back together, to remember the man they’ve lost, and then his camera drifts from them to Gordon’s empty chair, no one sitting there. Here, then, is our ghost, unseen but always present, sometimes a memory and sometimes just a leftover remnant, visible only in his absence.