Halt and Catch Fire is an interesting way to take the temperature of our current television climate. It is a very, very good show, with all of the hallmarks of a prestige cable drama, and yet it’s nobody’s favorite. Still, we’ve been covering Halt and Catch Fire since the first season, and Marisa has always found something about it that spoke to her personally, so she decided to write about the individual episodes as it heads into its final stretch. Read her reaction to the previous episode, “Who Needs a Guy?” here.
In the very first season of Halt and Catch Fire, we learn that Joe took notice of Gordon because of something he’d written in Byte magazine: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” (Now, having spent four seasons with Gordon, I can picture his exact tone as he wrote that.) The series mirrors Gordon’s quote, in that it’s also not necessarily interested in The Thing. As I said before, it’s more likely to skip over The Thing entirely in favor of what emotional work has to be done after The Thing in order to get through it and go onto the next Thing.
The Thing here, of course, is Gordon’s death. We don’t see the moment his body strikes the ground. We don’t even see the funeral, which everyone makes a point of saying was a “beautiful ceremony” whenever there’s an awkward lull in conversation. Instead, we pick up as the characters convene to clean out Gordon’s house, a task that is at once mundane and impossible. Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t care what someone can say about Gordon in a eulogy. It wants to know what someone will do when they come across a novel he was reading when he died, with his bookmark still marking his place. How do you process something cut off in the middle?
And this is how we arrive at Halt and Catch Fire‘s version of August: Osage County. (Not as much yelling, tough to watch at parts.) The task of cleaning out Gordon’s big, tackily decorated house (notice the impeachment sticker?) is more than Donna can handle alone, so she enlists help—the help of almost all of the characters we’ve grown to love over the course of this season. It’s Gordon’s death that brings them all under one roof for the first time since their big blow-up in the pre-browser era. It’s not quite a bottle episode, but it’s just as claustrophobic.
At first, everyone disperses into different, metaphorically appropriate corners of the house: Donna in the kitchen, Cameron with the electronics, Joe in his car, Joanie in her bedroom, which she’s unable to pack up or move on from. Series creator Christopher Cantwell directed this one himself, and he takes a page from the Mr. Robot school of framing, with everyone tightly squeezed into boxes—door frames, car windows—that keep them separate from the rest of the characters, even when they’re talking to each other.
The episode gets more interesting when they start to break out and really make contact with each other. None of it goes smoothly. Halt and Catch Fire is not about to let any of its characters off the hook so easily. Donna, for example, reveals to Cameron that she stuck with Pilgrim long enough to beat it. She’s the only one to do so. They have a nice moment about it, but it doesn’t end with tears, hugs, and forgiveness. Instead, when Donna tries to vent about Joanie to Cameron, Cameron gets uncomfortable and leaves.
The whole episode is a series of these overtures and retreats. They all cry, flip through old photographs (some from the first season, as if to remind us that Halt and Catch Fire is not around forever, either), try to console each other, then wind up needing consolation themselves. “I didn’t mean to make this about myself,” Cameron tells Donna. “Please do,” she responds. “I feel like everyone has been trying to manage me.” Even in grief, these relationships are transactional. But they can be pleasant, too.
As the show runs out of runway, it’s one last chance for the characters to show off what we love about them: the way Bos sells Joe on trying his chili (first with folksy charm, then relentless tenacity), the way Joe will resort to antics to try and make Haley smile, how Cameron can use her rebel-girl status to connect with Joanie, the way Katie and Cameron talk about their lack of roots. And then each little confection of a scene is paired with something devastating, like Katie telling Donna she was jealous that Donna got “so much” of Gordon (including the Sideburn Years), or Cameron realizing that it’s really the end of the road for her and Joe because she really doesn’t want kids.
In a way, it feels inevitable that Cameron would make that admission to Donna. Throughout her many changes, Donna’s one constant characterization is that of “mother.” Even at Mutiny, she was more like the company mom than the boss. That’s why it’s quietly revolutionary that Donna tells Cameron not to have kids. “It’s hard,” she says. “You have to really want it to be halfway decent at it.” She says “halfway decent” with a shrug, acknowledging that, as they speak, she’s fighting with Joanie.
In an episode full of great moments, this one is my favorite. We never see women in pop culture telling each other not to have kids. More likely, it’s the other way around: The Jurassic World model of a woman putting her career first, only to have a hectoring family member tell her that her life will never be complete without passing along some genetic material. But Donna’s right—you can’t kindasorta dabble in having kids, and you can have a totally fulfilling life without them—and it’s about time women on screen start telling each other the truth.
It’s still too early to know if this means it’s splitsville for Joe and Cameron (which would be sad), or if they’re going to give Cameron an eleventh-hour biological clock (which would be disappointing). When the episode ends, it’s enough that everyone was able to set aside their life dilemmas and goals, escape their boxes, and all sit around the same table to eat (with even an on-the-nose pan to an empty desk chair reserved for Gordon). I guess the Bosworth family chili recipe really does have some magic in it.