“With everything he’s lost, it’d be a shame if that went too.”
“Goodwill” examines how a death presses pause. Assembling to begin the task of clearing out Gordon’s house, Donna, Cameron, Joe, Haley, and Joanie all confront the mourner’s dilemma of processing unimaginable mountains of grief and pain while surveying the dauntingly mundane ordeal that is disassembling the remnants of a life. Everyone is shown, in an early episode packing montage scored to Gordon’s record of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away,” pausing in their individual efforts to ruminate on something they’ve found. Donna lingers over a box of photographs, and later we see Cameron doing the same—and hiding away a few of her favorite Polaroids in the waistband of her jeans. Joe finds a half-read paperback in one of the shirts he’s been sent to pack up for donation and sits unseen in a darkened hallway, thumbing through it before staring off blankly into the gloom. Haley carefully rolls up her bedroom posters, the model rocket she and Gordon flew together on the sunny afternoon soon before he died conspicuous in the background, and welcomes Donna into her room for a gracefully wordless embrace. “Goodwill” shows how the aftermath of grief is all the worse for how horribly ordinary life remains.
There’s an echo in Zack Whedon’s script here of another TV episode that’s long served as a landmark examination of this oft-overlooked side of mourning. That Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “The Body” happens to have been written by Whedon’s brother Joss is a coincidence, of course. But both mine this specific nature of coping with sudden loss to especially affecting purpose, focusing as they do on the shared, helpless humanity of people bewildered by the mess left behind when a huge piece of life is torn away. Sure, there’s no naked morgue vampire here to remind the characters that their problems haven’t magically disappeared in the face of this seemingly transformative tragedy, but everyone is forced to face up to the fact that all their pressing issues have only been paused.
Donna takes charge, sending everyone on their assigned chores with businesslike efficiency. The arriving Joe and Cameron are taken aback by her blunt request that Joe stuff Gordon’s clothes in garbage bags to be brought to Goodwill, but they hop to, dutifully. (We see Joe in Gordon’s bedroom, carefully folding and stacking Gordon’s shirts.) There’s a forced politeness to everyone’s interactions, the meaningless, well-intentioned chitchat of people who know there’s too much to get done to fall apart, and that there’s too much to say about buried topics unrelated to their shared sorrow. So they get to work, Joanie and Haley handed red and green stickers to label what’s to go and what’s to stay.
“Goodwill” is about the process of moving on, both for the characters, and for us, and Whedon starts the episode off with the canny double gut-punch of a flashback. There, the Joni Mitchell-haired Donna and sideburn-ed Gordon exhibit both the deep love and fundamental conflicts that marked their marriage. First we see them whispering their shared jokes at the expense of Donna’s just-departed parents. (“Promise me we’ll never look at each other the way they do,” begs Donna playfully, the first little heartbreak of the episode.) Then things gradually devolve into a fight born of Gordon’s insecurity, Donna’s skepticism, and the simmering resentment about the gap between Gordon’s dream of building Symphonic together, and the harsh reality that Donna is bearing more than her share of the parenting of baby Joanie. Gordon eventually storms out while Donna shuts herself off to care for the now-crying infant. After contemplating a gas station pay phone, we see Gordon toss away his food wrapper in a nearby garbage can instead, and then drive off into the night, away from his family.
It’s a complicated way to start the episode, and a canny one. Gordon’s death was such a shock to everyone involved—and to the dynamic of Halt And Catch Fire—that an episode dedicated to its aftermath is expected, even if “Goodwill” consistently avoids being predictable itself. We have seen Donna interpret her hard-won independence as crisp, unsentimental decisiveness, and even as the episode allows us tiny glimpses behind her facade, it allows her to maintain it because it’s not just a front. Donna broke away from the others because she’d learned that, to an inescapable extent, life as Gordon’s wife (and Cameron’s partner) meant stifling herself. Here, it’s almost unbearably touching when she and Joe share a weary laugh of connection, and when she takes up Cameron’s offer of help in dealing with the resentful Joanie’s acting out. But the episode draws out the big moment we’ve been expecting (and dying for), with Donna coming upon the weeping Cameron in Gordon’s dark back yard. Among the strings of lights Gordon had woven through the trellises there, the two women find the space and time to talk like the best friends they once were. We were primed for this when Donna almost succumbed to her need for someone to talk to following her drunk driving arrest (we see she’s still not drinking), but even here, “Goodwill” gives us just enough of what we wish for to underscore the theme that this shared pain can’t completely erase the years of hurt that the two have built up.
Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé are both pitch-perfect as Cameron and Donna reach out to each other with the tentative, fumbling love of two people who know each other and themselves too well to expect that one gesture can repair everything. When Joe first came to Gordon’s house, he endearingly gabbled through a one-sided conversation about the futility of words. (“How are the girls doing? That’s a stupid question. They’re doing terrible. We’re all doing terrible.”) Here, Donna and Cameron do a nimble dance around that fact, knowingly repeating all the platitudes they’ve been handing each other well-meaningly since Gordon’s death. (“Because to answer honestly, you’d have to talk incessantly for days, and who wants that, right?”) Cameron’s stuck between her profound sadness at losing her unlikely friend Gordon even as she says helplessly to Donna, “I don’t mean to make this about me.” Donna, relieved that the polite conversational veneer has dropped in this twinkling little oasis, reaches out to Cameron about her feelings, about her relationship with Joe, and how Gordon’s death has only exacerbated their seemingly intractable positions about their future—and about having children. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way,” advises Donna finally, a moment of selfless friendship that recalls so much of what Donna and Cameron have been through together. “I miss him,” says Donna simply. “So do I,” is Cameron’s equally eloquent reply.
Different families grieve differently. That this group essentially isolates themselves from each other testifies to the various weights they’re under. “Where is everyone?,” asks Joe, returning from the first of many planned trips to Goodwill. “Oh, scattered to the far corners of the house,” says Donna wryly, her head on her arms at Gordon’s living room table, “Some avoiding me. Others… avoiding me.” She and Joe have their moment there, and Donna’s partly right. She and Joanie have had it out upon Donna’s discovery of Joanie’s unsent college applications in her dresser drawer, setting off the sort of bitter recriminations that only a resentful, grieving teenager can muster. Cameron, noting that Joanie is essentially her younger self, has gone off to broker a peace. When Bos comes through with a pot of his world famous chili, he brings his own form of sly peace, too, tricking the near-catatonic Joe into actually eating something on the pretense of making sure the Texas concoction isn’t too spicy for the girls, and spinning his signature brand of folksy bonhomie on everyone in the house. (Another testament to the delicacy of Whedon’s script is that it’s never referenced that Bos’ recent heart ailment is the reason why he’s on dinner duty rather than helping with the heavy lifting.)
Joe is turned inward, which illuminates how well the series has maintained the core of Joe MacMillan’s character while allowing him to grow past his glib initial persona. We see how helpless he is as, like Donna, he masks emotion with action, making himself sweatily, busily useful. Even there, though, there’s no real sanctuary, as he and Donna discover that Joe’s first load of donations contained the green sweater that Haley wanted as a remembrance of her dad. Joe, snapping into action mode once again, whisks Haley off to Goodwill, where he demands that the bewilderingly dedicated loading dock worker break company policy and let him dig through his just-donated bags, but is stonewalled even after Joe explains about Gordon. Halt And Catch Fire has never quite settled on who Joe MacMillan is, the slick manipulator he was introduced as going through various permutations over the years. But Lee Pace has sold Joe’s lurching transformation so dedicatedly that, here, when he tosses Haley the keys to his truck (asking, “ You have your learner’s permit, right?”), his plan to heist the one remaining unsearched bag comes off as a lovely, triumphant, and satisfyingly ridiculous version of the old Joe’s high-risk grifter’s gambits. Tearing open the bag in front of the delightedly shocked Haley, he holds up a garish dress and, realizing they’d gone through it all for the wrong bag, laugh in spite of it all, at least for a moment.
Everyone’s insular grieving is interrupted by one other person beside Bos, as Katie shows up sheepishly to say goodbye. Anna Chlumsky has made Dr. Katie Herman a lot more than just a new character this season, or “Gordon’s new girlfriend.” A new addition to the personal and professional mix is standard narrative development in a fourth season, but Chlumsky’s Katie walked into Comet a fully formed character. She was great for Comet, and a great, goofy match for Gordon, and here, when she can’t bring herself to say goodbye to Haley and Joanie after Cameron finds her rooted to the spot where’d she’d discovered Gordon’s body, her loss hits hard. With her expertise, her kindness, and her humor (and Chlumsky’s always bright, alert presence), Katie fit, and promised good things. When she, shattered, drives off to an uncertain future alone in Seattle, it’s wrenching because of how much of that hope she takes with her.
Halt And Catch Fire has transformed itself into one of the most feelingly human shows on television. The tech aspects of the series are still there, and still central to both the narrative and the characters’ lives. But creators Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell (the latter of whom directed “Goodwill”) have subtly re-calibrated as the story has gone on. Gordon’s death has little to do with Comet’s future, or Rover’s, or the past innovations of Mutiny, Community, MacMillan Utility, or any of the other ahead-of-their-time innovations these people have come up with. Like Gordon’s condition, which is diagnosed as a result of his lifetime of exposure to the tools of his trade, the technology is deep in these characters’ bones, and souls. But the show has found itself as it’s recognized that, like them, the real stuff is what Donna, Gordon, Joe, Cameron, Bos, and now Haley are using that technology to find. The stuff that they’re missing.
Earlier in the episode, Donna tells Cameron that she finished the fiendishly difficult Pilgrim. Cameron, shocked but not surprised, shyly tells Donna that she made it “for people like you,” continuing, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many people like you.” Informing their later conversation about children, Donna tells Cameron that she liked the way the game ended, with the eternally questing pilgrim revealed to be a child, the game’s ultimate reward the embrace of a mother in the warm glow of home in a cold world. “Goodwill” ends with everyone—even Joe, who can’t help but momentarily break the warming mood with an abrupt apology to Haley about the sweater—joining in to enjoy Bos’ chili (and cornbread), as the camera slowly pans through Gordon’s house to his now-empty office.
- Twice in the episode, someone asks someone else to “put something on,” calling for music to drown out the agonizingly respectful silence. Cameron can’t decide which of Gordon’s albums to play, but Donna picks Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. Later, in Joe’s truck, Haley plugs the tape she was listening to in her Walkman into Joe’s stereo, and we hear Barnes & Barnes’ deeply absurdist “Fish Heads.”
- The book Joe finds in Gordon’s pocket is Larry McMurtry’s Streets Of Laredo.
- Katie leaving Comet hurts her, too, since she is such a perfect fit, and she knows it. “I pinballed around a bunch,” she tells Cameron outside Gordon’s house, “When I landed at Comet, I thought I was done with all that.”
- After Katie inexplicably asks for an old picture of the young Gordon and Donna, Chlumsky rips out hearts with her baffled, “I don’t know what I’m saying. Goddamn, Gordon, what the hell?”
- Donna: “I spent so much time telling him everything he did wrong.” Cameron: “Well, he did a ton wrong.”
- Cameron, advising Donna about Joanie: “I don’t know if reason’s going to be that helpful to you in this situation.”
- Cameron, however, speaks the language of rebelliously snotty, heartbroken teenagers all too well, telling Joanie, “You’re hard to navigate because you’re a dick.” She does also advise against shutting Donna out of her life, telling Joanie that, despite the fact that her own mother was a whole lot worse than Donna, “It’s time you can’t get back.”
- Joanie and Haley come down to dinner laughing over a “private joke.” We aren’t privy to what it’s about, but in Joanie’s half-demolished room, they’d both shared their fears about disappointing their one remaining parent. Joanie confesses to Haley that she hasn’t sent her applications in because she knows she’ll never get accepted, while Haley, responding to Joanie’s evaluation that, in Haley, Donna and Gordon got the perfect daughter “in every way,” references her closeted sexuality, telling her big sister, “Well, not every way.”
- Katie and Donna break through their own uniquely awkward conversation in Gordon’s kitchen with a shared admission that they both always hated Gordon’s taste in Southwest-style interior decoration. “Was he a vaquero in his past life?”
- We finally see where the young Gordon had fled to. After hinting that he was driving all the way to Texas to take Donna’s father up on his offer to buy them a house (but only in Texas), it turns out he’d driven to the quarry Donna mentioned to Joanie earlier in the season, the one that she’d cartwheeled into while Gordon had chickened out. Here, Gordon strips to his boxers and leaps, exulting at his tardy redemption before coming home to his family. “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” says the relieved and forgiving Donna. “I won’t,” Gordon promises.