“Goodwill” mostly takes place in the immediate aftermath of Gordon’s death, but the episode is framed by visits to the past. It opens with Donna and Gordon in their apartment in California. Joanie is just a baby, Haley hasn’t been born yet, and in the emotionally vulnerable moments after a visit from Donna’s parents, they get into an argument about who they want to be, about responsibility and practicality and vision and choices. Gordon wants to stay; Donna thinks they should maybe move back to Texas. Gordon is filled with the idea of “building a machine”; all Donna can see is the depths of babydom and how lonely she feels. Joanie wakes up crying, and Gordon leaves in a furious fit.
He’s gone and Donna is left behind trying to soothe their crying baby. Then, about 18 years later, Gordon is gone forever and Donna is left with the girls once more, trying to hold everything together.
“Goodwill” is a gorgeous episode of television. It’s elegiac and gutting and stonily unflinching about the hollow feeling of recent loss. Most of that comes out of the 1994 story, but the foundation comes from Halt and Catch Fire’s refusal to retroactively turn Gordon into a perfect, faultless being, or to encapsulate him in some comforting anecdote. The first big piece of storytelling we get after his death shows us Gordon slamming the door on his wife and baby daughter and driving away into the night without a word. He’s too complicated and flawed to be easily summarized as any one thing, and “Goodwill” starts by reminding us of that.
Most of the episode is about the process of loss; it’s an episode about the horrible, unavoidably practical things that happen after someone dies suddenly. It doesn’t begin with the funeral, which often feels like the closure point in many TV stories about death. It starts right afterward, with the necessity of processing the sheer physical mass of his life: his clothes, his dishes, his furniture, his weird priest statues. Everyone shuffles around the house unsure of how to even start. Donna has the brittle, edgy energy of someone who knows she can’t let herself stop moving. Joe walks around looking like he’s being buried alive.
In the first few episodes of season four, Halt and Catch Fire played with images and ideas related to boxes. We saw Joe and Cameron, boxed into their separate spaces, trying to figure out how to bridge the gap. Cam’s box of stuff followed her back from Japan, only to be run over by a truck. Over and over again, the show has played with images of boxes and doors, with people framed inside doorways and crossing over thresholds and staring at the electronic boxes they use as portals and time machines and ways to connect. Now the boxes are back, as Joe hauls them into Gordon’s house to try to pack up his belongings. It’s a necessary task that’s also completely impossible. How can you fit an entire life inside cardboard boxes? How could you try to pack up Gordon so neatly?
But what else can they do?
Barring the brief, failed, futile excursion to Goodwill to try to retrieve Gordon’s sweater for Haley, the hour is built like a bottle episode. Everyone gathers together in this home that belongs to none of them anymore, and they find themselves in various rooms having all these devastated moments. Donna’s discovery of Joanie’s un-mailed college applications is the biggest, loudest, and worst of these moments, though each of them spit their hurt and fear at the others. Not long ago, Donna told Joanie to always be brave, but it’s hard to have that kind of confidence now. Joe stares at Haley, identifying with her too strongly and feeling utterly inadequate. Cameron tries to talk Joanie off a ledge, and cigarette smoke drifts through the house.
These are the circumstances that finally bring Cameron and Donna back together again. It’s the last one-on-one conversation in an episode full of them, and it’s an unbelievable, absolutely astonishing scene. They can’t talk about Rover and Comet, and they absolutely cannot talk about Mutiny, but they talk around the edges of their estrangement by centering their feelings on Gordon. “There’s just not a lot of people in my life,” Cameron tells Donna. “Me neither,” Donna replies. They talk through Cameron and Joe’s diverging feelings about having kids, and Donna’s deep desire for children echo back to flashback that started the episode. And finally, their conversation about Gordon, loss, regret, and friendship merges with the undercurrent they’ve been tiptoeing around: They miss each other. Gordon is gone, but they’re both still here. Cameron made Pilgrim for people like Donna, except they’ve both admitted there aren’t a lot of “people” in their lives. Just each other.
Earlier, Bos begins to tell a funny Gordon story and Joe waves him off, telling him, “I’m not ready to do that.” Joe just isn’t ready for a Gordon short story, for an anecdote that encapsulates and gives Gordon’s life a retroactive shape, a story that neatly packages the person into the digestible narrative. Joe isn’t ready to put Gordon in a box.
But what else can they do? At the end of the episode’s main story, these people who’ve been holed up in their own spaces finally gather around the table to eat dinner together. He may not feel ready, but Joe sits and listens as they talk about Gordon claiming to have won a hot-dog-eating contest in Kalamazoo — another perfectly silly, neatly packaged little story — and he tries to pull himself together.
The episode’s final scene isn’t a lovely, poignant gathering. Like so much of this season, the last scene is another trip through time, back once again to the incident early in Donna and Gordon’s marriage when he left in the middle of the night. He drives out to the middle of nowhere, strips down to his underwear, and hurtles himself over a cliff and into the water below.
In “A Connection Is Made” earlier this season, Donna told Joanie about a time she did something really reckless: She and Gordon had gone camping and although they had no idea how deep the water was, or where the rocks might have been, she took a running leap off the cliff. The message of Donna’s anecdote is that Joanie should stay brave; she should never be afraid of doing something exciting. But there were two other messages buried there as well. “I just didn’t believe I could get hurt,” Donna told Joanie at the time. Now, in 1994, she knows that isn’t true. She could and would get hurt, and it happens whether she’s careful or not. Gordon’s death was sudden and it was no one’s fault; loss, pain, change, and life will happen no matter what you do. So maybe you might as well be reckless.
The other thing Donna said in that story was that Gordon “wouldn’t jump in […] It was too high.” Donna was wrong. Alone, with no one else to see him, with no one to goad him or to stop him, Gordon takes the plunge. And then he drives home to his family, to the same scene we saw him return to in the moment before his death. Gordon is brave, on his own terms, in his own time. Afterward, he comes home to his wife and hugs her. “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” Donna tells him. “I won’t,” he promises.
• Anna Chlumsky has done a beautiful, relatively quiet little turn as Punk Librarian Katie, and the conversation she has with Donna in this episode is yet another of this episode’s knock-out moments. Her description of the photograph, her jealousy, and ultimately her self-awareness about where she fit into Gordon’s life is all great stuff, and it’s made even more so when played alongside Kerry Bishé’s reactions.
• This episode gives a little more time to Joanie, but Haley also has two really stand-out scenes. In the first, Joe goads Haley into playing her music on the car radio and then they both sit there listening to “The Fish Head Song.” In the second, Joanie tells Haley that at least their parents have one daughter who’s “exactly what they want in every way.” “Well … not every way,” says Haley. They hug, and it’s the most heartrending thing except for the other most heartrending thing — that they’re both still talking about Gordon in the present tense.
• How many times did you cry watching this episode? I lost count, myself. But one bit that definitely got me was Bos and his chili. “Just check the damn spice level on that if you could,” he keeps chiding Joe, knowing that the only thing Joe wants to do is help, and that this will be the only appeal that might get Joe to eat. Bos’s chili: “The secret’s in the cinnamon … see what you do is you take that cinnamon, and you put it in the cupboard and keep it away from your chili because it’s got no damn business being there in the first place.”
• The hardest moment of the episode, for me, is when Donna’s pulled-together, just-push-through-it façade cracks just once, just a little bit. “I spent so much time telling him everything he did wrong,” she tells Cameron, wavering on the edge of exhaustion and collapse. “… He did a ton wrong,” Cameron replies. They laugh and cry, together.