Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Episode 8? Read our spoiler-free review of Halt and Catch Fire Season 4’s opening episodes here.
Halt and Catch Fire has spent four seasons carefully building up and crafting an ensemble of richly flawed, deeply sympathetic and wonderfully human characters. With just three episodes to go, it took one of them away from us: Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). While that departure opens up a door to a sensitive exploration of grief and loss, it’s a mark of just how good Halt and Catch Fire is that it manages to mourn Gordon’s goodbye, while still finding a way to spend time with him.
We pick up in the wake of his death, as all those around Gordon come together. Set almost entirely in his house, as they sort out his belongings, it’s a close-knit tale of processing and packaging. Watching them put things in boxes is a melancholic echo of what we’ve seen before this season, as Cameron moved the boxes of her life’s belongings from Japan and into Joe’s place. The message remains the same: fitting someone into neat containers isn’t simple.
The cast are heartbreakingly good, as each person reacts to the challenge of shutting up their memories of Gordon into a tidy compartment. Lee Pace’s Joe is still, quiet and barely active, while Kerry Bishe’s Donna is busy, active and can’t bring herself to stand still and reflect. In between them, Joanie (Kathryn Newton) and Haley (Susanna Skaggs) can’t help but be childlike, one sparking arguments and smoking indoors, the other desperately wanting to cling to a favourite jumper of her dad’s – and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) responds by becoming the wise older sister of the group.
It’s a gorgeously realised, and gut-wrenchingly tragic, balance of feelings, most of them kept barely beneath the surface. But as we learned with the previous episode, this is a show about the strength and importance of connections, of the power of support: one of the best moments here is just seeing Bos (Toby Huss) turn up and quietly cajole Joe into eating something. “Just check the damn spice level on that,” he pleads, as he brings over a bowl of his famous chilli. (“The secret’s in the cinnamon,” he reveals. “You take the cinnamon and put it in the cupboard because it’s got no damn business being in your chilli in the first place.”) Huss’ knowing, careful smile, just enough to encourage, but never enough to become overbearing, is superbly played – a gentle determination to look after his friend, playing upon Joe’s desire to be helpful.
Bos tries to recount an anecdote about Gordon, but Joe interrupts him. And the show follows suit: Halt and Catch Fire isn’t a series that jumps straight to wrapping someone up in a perfect, sentimental box. Halt and Catch Fire is better than that. The episode even opens with a reminder of that, as instead of giving us no Gordon time whatsoever, it flashes back to him and Donna when younger and living in California. Haley hasn’t been born and Joanie is just a baby – and, before you can rejoice in getting spend just one more scene with Scoot McNairy’s family man, the show quickly reminds us how flawed he was.
An argument begins immediately, as both Donna and Gordon disagree over responsibility, plans for the future and how they want their lives to pan out – Donna wants to move to Texas, while Gordon wants to stay in California, talking about building a computer. We know where they’re headed and what happens next, but not before Gordon storms out, leaving Donna to calm down a crying baby Joanie. Another flashback sees her alone once again; Gordon was not a loyal, helpful husband.
It’s a brave thing to do: deliberately de-mythologise someone in the wake of their death. It’s brave, because it’s honest. And Halt and Catch Fire takes the same approach to Gordon’s grieving family, who can’t move towards peace until they’ve fallen out first. The cause of that falling out is Donna’s apparent decision not to apply to college, instead piling up her applications in her room. She refuses to talk to Donna about it and they begin shouting in the kitchen – and so in steps Cameron to talk to her. She doesn’t open up to Cameron much more, but it’s a beautiful moment, as Davis’ lost-child coder adds yet another layer to her personality, as she identifies with Joanie’s need to rebel, while secretly pocketing her pack of cigarettes so she can’t keep lighting up.
The show subtly splits the group up into their most natural pairings – and so, while Joanie and Cameron talk, Haley journeys with Joe to find Gordon’s green jumper, after he dropped all the bin bags of clothes at Goodwill without realising she wanted to keep it. The Goodwill charity worker isn’t much help, refusing to let them look through the bags, so Joe steals one back and runs away with Haley. It’s the wrong bag, of course, but it gives us something deeper: a brief moment of joint excitement and rule-breaking, fuelled by their shared affection for Gordon. Haley, later, admits to Joanie that she might be a lesbian – a confession that reinforces the connection between Joe and Haley, as well as between the two sisters, who both feel like perpetual outsiders.
In all of these tiny moments of intimate revelations, newcomer to the group Katie really shouldn’t fit in, but it’s testament to Anna Chlumsky’s sterling work as Comet’s librarian that she really, really does: she arrives awkwardly on Gordon’s doorstep, telling Cameron that she has resigned from Comet and will move to Seattle, hoping to start a fresh slate. Before then, though, she shares a moment with Donna, as they reminisce about Gordon, and Katie confesses just how aware she is of her role in Gordon’s life – a brief part in a much longer story, but in a way that doesn’t render her feeling relationship redundant.
That profound exchange is topped only by the one conversation we’ve been waiting to happen for two seasons: the start of a reconciliation between Cameron and Donna. The two friends have met repeatedly this season, not talking about Rover and Comet, as Cameron was afraid to mention her help with the search engine. Now, that admission out of the way in a brusque, aggressive fashion, they continue not to talk about it – not because it’s important, but because it isn’t. Not really. Donna reveals that she completed Pilgrim, cementing the empathy and similarities between the women – and, with Pilgrim culminating in a warm embrace, it’s especially poignant when both admit that they simply don’t have a lot of people in their life right now. Underneath the talk about whether or not Cameron and Joe will have kids (Joe wants to, Cameron is not so sure), it’s clear that they both miss each other. How painful it is that it should take Gordon’s death to bring them back together.
But bringing people together is exactly what Halt and Catch Fire offers, as the gang sit down to eat Bos’ chilli, and they finally get to recount an anecdote about Gordon’s claim of winning a hot-dog-eating contest. It’s offset by one final flashback, after Gordon drives to a cliff and jumps off and into the water – a call back to the conversation Donna and Joanie recently had about being fearless, saying that Gordon was too afraid to jump in the cliff. He wasn’t: it just took him a little longer to build up the courage, going back when nobody was watching. Wet, invigorated and brimming with conviction, he drives to see Donna. “Don’t do that to me again,” she tells him, after he left her. “I won’t,” he says. And while that wasn’t a promise he could ultimate keep, the reassuring warmth of knowing that everyone else sitting in his house won’t either is Halt and Catch Fire operating at the peak of its powers. With a final double-bill to go, the stage is set for a hugely moving conclusion.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes arrive every Monday, within 48 hours of their US broadcast. A subscription costs £5.99 a month, or, if you want next-day delivery on Amazon products too, is included with a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.