My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me… —John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Where to begin with the magnificent “Goodwill”? With its sublimely achy humor, the laughter that scythes through the tears? With its unassuming sweetness, as Joanie (Kathryn Newton) and Haley (Susanna Skaggs) share a moment of sisterhood, or as Joe (Lee Pace) rifles through piles of donated clothing in search of a single sweater? With its quicksilver sorrows, which find Katie (Anna Chlumsky) hunched over at the spot where she found him, grimacing in near-disbelief? With its setting, its structure, its acute compositions, painterly placements of bodies in space that one might hang up on the wall? No, let’s begin at the beginning, when the pilgrims were kids, or near to it: With Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) celebrating her parents’ departure. With the dream of building a machine together. With the frustration of the wife and mother who doesn’t want to stay at home. With the argument that sparks from the embers of romance and the promise that they’ll never grow old. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me: Here is the proof that something of us survives even as everything changes, the raised skin we use to trace our pilgrim’s progress. Here is how we measure a life.
Nestled between the episode’s flashbacks—their sense of perspective, of range—is an ingenious, profoundly moving, often uproariously funny bottle episode, transforming one of death’s most familiar tasks into a metaphor for the work of grief. Packing up Gordon’s house to the tune of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away,” Donna, her daughters, Joe and Cam (Mackenzie Davis) shuffle through flashbacks of their own, the Polaroids, records and electric knives we collect, the mementos mori: What we are doing, bagging clothes and boxing utensils, is sorting out meaning, assessing (sentimental) value; what we are doing is determining worth. Gordon’s sweater means something to Haley, at least until she realizes that solace comes in the seeking, not the finding—and then it means something to Joe, so intent on not disappointing her. (He’ll be a fine father.) The photograph means something to Katie, so much, in fact, that it sends her spinning—and then it means something to Donna, reminded that she “already had so much of him,” a fact that she’d long since started to doubt. “Goodwill,” named for both the gesture of compassion and the place our cast-off things wash up, is a series of smaller metaphors sewn into a large one, a quilt of reminiscences: In every item that passes through the characters’ hands, in every exchange and embrace and fight, there is something of the “him” in that sentence. “There’s too much Gordon everywhere here,” as Katie points out. He is the episode’s shadow protagonist, omnipresent though he’s gone.
And through Gordon, the living touch their marks and scars, pleading for a witness: The hour’s extraordinary epicenter is the series of conversations that flows from Joanie’s moment, when her mother turns her father’s memory against her. “Let them see what a mess we’ve been,” she snarls, the argument over the college applications suddenly turning ugly. “And we have been.” As written by Zack Whedon and directed by series co-creator Christopher Cantwell, “Goodwill” renders the fracture—and, ultimately, the repair—with remarkable precision; it’s fitting that an episode about the meaning of things should be such a gorgeous thing in its own right. As Cam tries to explain Joanie’s upset to Donna, for instance, the camera hangs back, framing both parties alone in the door throughout the conversation. When Cam sinks to the bedroom floor for her tête-à-tête with Joanie, though, the two come together at the center of a lovely composition: It’s a moment of understanding, a gesture of compassion, by which Cam hopes to save Joanie from making the same mistakes she did. (As an aside, this and “Queen Big Dick” are worthy of spit takes, merciful moments of levity in an emotional episode: “Did you know she irons her jeans?” Joanie says. “OK,” Cam replies. “Don’t say things you can’t take back.”) And then Cam returns to the kitchen, framed together with Donna as she hands over the cigarettes she swiped from Joanie. They’re still half-obscured by the wall—this is just the beginning of making amends—but in the episode’s careful construction, the image is suffused with promise.
The subsequent scene, in an episode so full with the gut-work of living and dying I’m sort of incredulous it even exists, is the one I can’t shake, the one that sums up the something that Halt and Catch Fire means to me. In its juxtaposition of Gordon’s grandmother’s china and Donna’s completion of Pilgrim, it underscores the series’ central thrust, which is to suggest that analog and digital alike contain the same human purpose, the filaments from which a connection is made. Maybe generations of Clark women will pass down that box of plates unopened, but isn’t that still a way of tracing all the lives that touched it before? And isn’t that the same feeling Donna and Cam find in Pilgrim, reaching out into the ether and drawing in some comfort, some sustenance, from having known, however briefly, the life of someone else? When “Goodwill” cuts to Donna’s beatific face, Halt and Catch Fire brings me to pieces, because the work of grief is, in the end, a kind of sewing lesson—it rips us to shreds and then sutures us up. Through Gordon, through Gordon’s stuff, two people who truly mean something to each other rebuild their connection. “Yeah,” Cam confirms (I’m crying as I type this), “I made it for people like you.”
There’s so much more to say about the way “Goodwill” fits its fragments together, about all the ways Gordon’s death reminds us of the importance of other people. Bos (Toby Huss) makes chili and cracks wise; Katie flees; Joanie and Haley laugh again; Cam and Donna begin to fix their friendship; Joe, bereft, waits for the time when he’ll be “ready to do that,” though his relationship with Gordon—the series’ most enduring marriage—may mean it never comes. There’s so much more to say about how brilliantly Halt and Catch Fire, in its final hours, has reinvented itself yet again, this time as a sort of family drama, so intimate it could fit in a box and so universal it consumes the world. Maybe I’m being too breathless about it. Maybe I’m too close. But the only hour-long episode this year that holds a candle to it is another mournful masterpiece, The Leftovers’ “Certified”—both take the measure of life, holding it up, weighing it, testing its edges, and both conclude that its worth is beyond reckoning. What we have instead are marks and scars, blackening shiners, Polaroids, records and electric knives, mementos mori that stand in for other people, and thereby for ourselves. They bear witness for us—they bear witness to us—and in that they’re not “just things” after all.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.