[No one who reads reviews before watching an episode of TV deserves a spoiler warning, but SPOILERS.]
As Halt And Catch Fire has found the balance between plot and character, it’s become especially good at breaking our hearts. Born in the post-Mad Men lull where AMC was plugging would-be prestige dramas and watching them sputter out under the weight of high concepts and iffy execution (Low Winter Sun, anyone? Seriously, anyone?), Halt came roaring out of the gate on the backs of a hook, some under-realized character types, and a lot of effortful style. But it’s not that now.
“Who Needs A Guy,” right up until it drops the hammer, is the most affectingly human episode of the series. With only four episodes left to bring its characters’ stories to their conclusions, this seventh installment sees all the series’ simmering interpersonal conflicts and coming conflicts being, if not resolved, then enriched by quiet moments of tentative but genuine rapprochement. Opening on Cameron feverishly working on her new game in the Airstream thanks to the largesses of new benefactor Alexa (Molly Ephraim), a phone call from Bos brings her reluctantly to an address in Palo Alto—where Cameron, in her jeans and t-shirt, finds herself acting as a witness at Bos and Diane’s wedding. Toby Huss and Mackenzie Davis’ relationship has always been movingly familial, and Bos codifies that here, telling the shocked and touched Cameron, “We need witnesses, and since she brought her daughter...”
Gordon is greeted at the breakfast table by the sight of Haley’s new, hastily-hacked haircut (“Holy shit,” gawps Joanie), an act of teen expression and defiance that only stokes Gordon’s suspicions that what Joe was hinting about his daughter’s sexuality might be on target. Squabbling over Haley’s grades—she’s resentful that Gordon wants to see the test she claims to have aced—Haley spitefully informs her father that she doesn’t want to come back to Comet, grades or no. “We said that I would keep working there as long as it was fun,” snipes Haley, airily, “and it’s not fun any more.” Gordon’s intuition about his daughter’s emerging sexuality was played as something deeply unsettling to him—not that Gordon’s a bigot, but he was certainly taken aback. Finding Haley’s test left accusingly on the table after the girls go to school (she did, in fact ace it), Gordon walks silently through his daughter’s room, taking in the cluttered mix of youthful and teenage artifacts before taking a handful of her chopped-off hair from her wastebasket and sitting on the edge of her bed. Talking around the issue with Joe at Comet later, Gordon never says the words, but tells Joe, “Apparently I shouldn’t have barked at you the other day,” referring to Joe’s attempt to gently broach the subject of Haley’s crush on her favorite fast food waitress.
Joe, the series initial avatar of the mysterious, driven alpha-protagonist, has mellowed into a much wiser, more empathetic person than his initial portrayal ever suggested possible. Here with Gordon, he, too, doesn’t prod his friend on the subject they both know they’re dealing with, but, instead, lets their shared history inform his respectful advice. “Can I make one suggestion?,” Joe asks, before proceeding, “It’s really important for Haley not to feel isolated right now.” Joe’s own bisexuality—after being distastefully sprung on us as a stunt initially—has settled into a simple fact, both on the show, and between Joe and Gordon. (In the first episode this season, Gordon asked Joe about “Ozzie” with practiced nonchalance, only to find out that Joe and Ozzie had broken up.) Through Lee Pace’s performance, Halt And Catch Fire has redeemed Joe MacMillan as a character, his melodramatically unveiled past incorporated into a more complete, if still complicated person.
We see it in his relationship with Cameron, too, with Joe accepting the troublesome differences between them with an almost amused equanimity. At the Airstream, he sits on the step with his coffee, making cracks about the hike that Cameron is clearly not going to go on, Pace giving a lovely little running monologue about how beautiful Cameron’s plot of land is, and how he’d design a house for them. Like the scenes later where Cameron’s enthusiasm for her new project with Alexa sees her breezing past Joe’s concerns and blowing him off for dinner, Joe seems resigned not to their infamously fraught relationship failing, but to the fact that letting go of certain expectations isn’t the deal-breaker it would have been for the old Joe MacMillan.
That’s how Donna refers to Joe when he confronts her later in the episode, his suspicions about her motives in sharing information about Rover with Gordon seeing him venting a lot of old grudges. “Wow, the old Joe MacMillan ego... You think I sit around and plot against you,” sputters the furious Donna at Joe’s insinuation. But when this Joe responds, it comes from a much more human place, not only because of his concern for Haley (who, as everyone keeps reminding Donna, is “her direct competitor”), but because of the genuine hurt he shows when calling Donna out for working against him in the past. Talking about his and Gordon’s plan to redesign (or “re-launch,” as Joe insists they brand it) Comet, Joe appeals to Donna for reassurance, “human to human.” The old Joe isn’t gone, as he, showing up unannounced on Donna’s lawn and looming over the nonplussed and angry Donna as he presses the issue, follows her retreat all the way to her door—where her final, furious goodbye winds up with Joe’s fingers slammed in her front door.
Nursing his smarting hand with ice from Donna’s fridge, Joe and Donna reluctantly warm up in their enforced time out, the real world shock of something unexpectedly personal and painful superseding their long-nurtured rivalry, at least enough for them to revisit their argument in a more subdued tone. Joe apologizes for getting in Donna’s face before half-joking that he didn’t deserve Donna’s hand-smashing. When Donna pleads that he understand she didn’t do it on purpose, Pace makes Joe’s “Donna, come on, of course I do” the truest moment of connection the two have ever had. And when Donna follows up by exclaiming that, even if Haley weren’t involved, she would never intentionally feed Comet false information, Joe doubles down, telling her truthfully, “Donna, I get it. It hurts to be thought of that way. I’ve been there.”
And Cameron, immersed in the design for a new game incorporating yet another intuitive leap forward (“self-learning AI,” nods Alexa in Cameron’s trailer), manages to handle something like defeat with something like aplomb. After Alexa is underwhelmed by Cameron’s pitch, she urges Cameron to think bigger. (She mentions both aerospace and medical applications for Cameron’s genius, pointing out how sketched out—and possibly sketchy—Cameron’s angel investor is at this point.) Telling Joe later (as she breaks their dinner date in favor of one with Alexa and a “human-computer interaction” guy from Stanford) that Alexa had said she’s “thinking small,” Cameron responds to Joe’s teasing question, “When was the last time you heard that?” with a sheepish smile. Tagging on a rushed, call-concluding “You’re great” to Joe, she pauses to tell him, “And for the record, I have thought about building a place out here.” Earlier, it seemed like her absorption in her work meant she wasn’t listening to Joe’s fantasy of setting up a life together. That she reveals she was listening the whole time hints that, for all their chafing individuality, Joe and Cameron may just have a shot.
Throughout the episode, the AC at Comet has been out, either going arctic or tropical, while Gordon repeatedly tries to put his gearhead skills to good use repairing it. While doing so, he’s talked Haley and business strategy with Joe (and made a date with the clearly adoring and adorable Katie), the signature Gordon Clark m.o. of tinkering on the fly meeting with alternating inspiration and blown fuses. By the time he and Joe are having it out over the company’s direction on the roof while Gordon splices wires in the bulky air conditioning unit, it seems that inspiration has won the day. Envisioning a way of fighting Rover’s superior (thanks to Cameron) speed and accuracy, he and Joe together brainstorm Comet as a site that uniquely combines the technical and the personal. Joe mentions the then-recent death of Kurt Cobain, and imagines that the Comet search page could not only steer users to the outside information they want, but also curate information tailored to each user’s needs right there on the site. The two friends get excited in the way that happens when you realize that the person you’re talking to is on the same page. Joe’s been conducting on-camera interviews with people about their web use and concludes that the average internet user is “mostly just scared of the web.” Gordon, firing the AC back to life with a satisfied smile and a vanquishing hand-slap, chimes in, “I know, that’s why we’ll give them shelter.” A home for people lost in the dizzyingly complicated, overwhelmingly huge, seemingly unlimited world that exponentially expanding technology is creating all around them. Halt And Catch Fire, in “Who Needs A Guy,” sees every one of its characters edging toward that place, now that its own human-computer balance has found its own satisfying, recognizably human sweet spot.
And then Gordon dies. As Halt did when handling Ryan’s death last season, what could come off as manipulative is instead rooted so completely in people we’ve come to know and care about, and is all the more devastating because of it. Since Gordon’s diagnosis with a degenerative brain condition (caused, it’s implied, by a lifetime of the very tinkering he’s doing all episode here), Halt has incorporated his illness into the show with the grace that’s characterized its storytelling for the past three seasons. While giving a major character a major illness isn’t done for no payoff, the nature of Gordon’s condition seemed likely to remain a chronic but liveable one, at least until the series ends three episodes from now. It’s difficult sometimes to separate the emotional affect of a fictional death from the craft with which it’s told. Gordon’s death here is unexpected, shocking even. But it’s also handled so with such obvious care by “Who Needs A Guy”’s triumvirate of writer Lisa Albert, director Tricia Brock, and cinematographer Evans Brown that it plays out like the fondest and most affectionate of goodbyes at the same time.
Gordon, fretfully preparing for Katie’s arrival for a date night, sees Donna walk into his house in the mirror behind him. We’d just seen her confrontation with Joe and are left to imagine that she’s come to Gordon, if not to reconcile romantically, then to talk over their still-strong love for each other. Following his former wife to the living room, there are lens flares glowing on the periphery of the frame, unobtrusive enough to suggest mere artistic flourish rather than a visual manifestation of whatever episode is firing off inside Gordon’s head. He tracks her to the kitchen, and sees a younger Donna (season one Donna) lovingly feeding their young daughters breakfast. Then Gordon hears the melody he’s had stuck in his head, the one neither he nor Katie could place, and it turns out to be “Baby Mine” from Dumbo, which, as we see in the last sight Gordon Clark remembers, was a lullaby Donna used to sing to Haley. Scoot McNairy’s slow, haunting walk through Gordon’s empty house in pursuit of his past is achingly sweet, and sad, his last thought as the lights in his peripheral vision blot out that of Donna and Haley of this one, glowing image of mingled regret and love.
The aftermath is so crushing for how much respect the show shows to everyone as they hear the news of Gordon’s death. We see Katie coming in for her date with Gordon, but not the discovery of his body (which we never see). Donna’s voice on the answering machine sees Katie stumble to pick up the phone, where we only hear her say a baffled, weighted “Donna...” Bos is in his garage when Diane calls for him, phone in hand, and Bos’ face freezes, intuiting that something is horribly wrong. Donna waits for the girls to come home from the movies, and we only see her face as she prepares to tell her daughters what’s happened. Later, we see her holding the quietly sobbing Haley in bed, and silently waving Joanie over to join them. Joe, massaging his throbbing fingers in his car in front of Donna’s house, sees Donna walk out her front door and approach. “Gordon’s dead,” she says flatly as Joe walks toward her. Back at Comet, Joe can only stare at the empty whiteboard (apart from Godon’s scrawled “re-launch” at the top) where he and Gordon planned to, once again, partner up in pursuit of a shared dream. Cameron pauses outside the glass doors of Gordon’s office before coming in to where Joe sits, alone and silent.
- Recalling the joyful scene of father-daughter bonding last episode, a model rocket features prominently both in Gordon’s episode-opening tour of the teenage haley’s bedroom and his vision of Donna holding the infant Haley.
- “I feel like I just walked into your brain.” “Oh, my brain is not as tidy as this.”
- “You can’t re-launch something without re-designing it.” “Sure you can, but you wouldn’t.”
- Donna spends her vacation finally finishing Pilgrim, which ends with Cameron’s warrior-hero finally reaching that inviting-looking cabin, and being greeted with an embrace.
- Donna blasts Joe: “Jesus Christ, you won! You got Haley, and Gordon, and Cameron. You got everybody, what more do you want from me?”
- Cameron, excitedly describing her vision for her latest created world: “They’ll have the ability to accrue memory and develop a personal narrative and change over time, and it’s all just feeling really immersive and complete.”