Critic's Notebook: 'Halt and Catch Fire' and the Golden Age of Sad TV

'The Leftovers,' 'Better Call Saul,' 'The Americans' and, of course, 'This Is Us' are just a few of the recent shows to effectively mine small-screen stories for tears.
Courtesy of AMC
Mackenzie Davis of 'Halt and Catch Fire'

[This contains spoilers for the Oct. 7 episode of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire.]

Wrapping up the finest final season since all the way back in June when The Leftovers ended, Halt and Catch Fire delivered perhaps its best episode yet on Saturday night.

Titled "Goodwill," Saturday's episode was a deceptively simple, character-driven depiction of grief, a series using its antepenultimate episode to focus exclusively on character relationships and eschewing any forward progression of the season's major plotlines. It was one of the greatest "sad" episodes of television ever made, stripped of anything extraneous and yet relying wholly on the character interactions of the 37 previous episodes. It was also a reminder that whether you think this is the Golden Age of TV or the Platinum Age of TV or some other cliche, it's certainly the Golden Age of Sad TV.

The aforementioned The Leftovers ended this spring, and it was an entire series about grief and rebirth, the need to move on from tragedy and the staggering weight of loss.

Sadness isn't only about death, or it needn't be.

Better Call Saul, which actually began its life thinking it was a dark comedy about the origins of a wacky, unethical lawyer, completed its third and finest season after recognizing that it was actually a tragedy about a moral man's slide into immorality. We began Better Call Saul rooting for Jimmy McGill to become Saul Goodman, but viewers have come to appreciate Jimmy's finer aspirations and seeing his decline has been gripping and miserable (and still sometimes funny).

The Americans, long a dark and troubling show, also steered into sadness in its episodes this spring. Phillip, always grumpy, became almost immobilized by his need to escape his life of espionage, but kept getting caught in the undertow. Meanwhile, Poor Martha (capitalized because "Poor" might as well be her first name) was forced to try finding hope in a new life she never wanted. Like Better Call Saul, this represented a shift in the show's identity and audiences didn't always respond enthusiastically.

It isn't just dramas, obviously. Transparent. Bojack Horseman. Review. Baskets. Fleabag. Catastrophe. Melancholy is a major part of many of our best comedies as well.

One might look and think that these shows, plus The Handmaid's Tale with its perpetual backdrop of societal loss, are Hollywood reflecting on current events through miserablist lenses. Grief is comprehending the incomprehensible, and there's a lot of that going on. One might also look at this list of shows and say, "Wow, that's a lot of critically adored shows that nobody watches, proving that this creative obsession with sadness isn't a passion shared by the audiences," but that would be ignoring that the most popular show on television is This Is Us, which has turned grief into a parlor game and blends honest emotions, spectacular performances and finger-on-the-scale manipulation to turn every episode into a lachrymose orgy of blubbering. As This Is Us remains a show that I still often appreciate, I'll just say that this is one way of approaching catharsis.

For another way, a subtler and more artistic way, I'd point to Saturday's Halt and Catch Fire and the pair of conversations between Kerry Bishe's Donna and Mackenzie Davis' Cameron.

Donna and Cameron may not be the only heart of Halt and Catch Fire — it's a show that, despite only a small ensemble, has made remarkable use of the histories connecting each and every character — but they're certainly one of its hearts, the relationship that triggered the show's growth through its second and third seasons and the separation that has beautifully tinged this season with discomfort and regret. I assume I'm not the only Halt and Catch Fire viewer who has watched every episode this season just waiting for somebody to lock Donna and Cameron in a room and make them hash out their problems.

Saturday's episode didn't lock the characters in a room, but it came close. The entire episode was spent — final spoiler warning — in and around Gordon's house as the characters reflected a little on Gordon's death, but much more on how they were all handling his death. Six Feet Under fans will probably recognize the timing of Gordon's death as Nate Fisher-esque, and I don't think that's unintentional or bad. Amidst the packing of clothes and an ill-fated trip to Goodwill, Cameron and Donna found two opportunities to talk, beautiful tributes to the work of writer Zack Whedon and director (and series co-creator) Christopher Cantwell.

The first thing that's notable about both scenes is that they don't find Donna and Cameron rehashing last season's betrayal or the distrust that has fueled this season. Instead, the first scene is "about" Donna finishing Cameron's impossible-to-complete video game and the second scene is "about" the stress between Cameron and Joe (Lee Pace), who may be at an impasse in their own relationship. They're tentatively re-covering common ground and doing it from a distance.

But the thing that's more interesting is how Cantwell constructs the scenes on a formal level. Through the better part of two multi-minute conversations, Cameron and Donna barely hold the screen at the same time, at least not their faces. In the first scene, they're framed entirely separately other than a couple shots in which the camera is focused on one woman and the other passes through seen only from behind. In the second scene, they're initially framed entirely separately other than an opening shot of Cameron sitting, properly lit and Donna standing across from her, face completely absorbed in darkness. They're establishing shots to indicate the characters are in the same place, but the subsequent conversations are all shot/reverse-shot intercutting, often violating the most basic cinematic conversational grammar. The eyeline doesn't match. The placement in the frame doesn't match. They're together and talking, but they're not really talking to each other, with each other. [A third, much briefer Cam/Donna scene has Cameron looking away from Donna the entire time and, when they share a frame, Donna's out of focus.]

Cantwell knows what the audience craves, but refuses to give it to us. The scenes are built to culminate in a moment in which the camera is positioned on Cameron, sitting and on the verge of tears. Donna sits and joins her and finally the two actresses share a frame, a two-shot. "I miss him," Donna says. "So do I," Cameron agrees. "I miss you, too," Donna says. Cameron nods. "I'm here." The score, which could be forgiven in this moment for going big, is just a simple piano. And it's devastating.

In musical/symphonic terms, this is the equivalent of the tonic or the tonic chord, the harmony on which a symphony or song lets the listener know that resolution has been reached. In an episode that brought me to tears multiple times — the small gesture was then repeated in macro by placing all of the main characters, working in small groups through the whole episode, together around a dining room table — this was the deceptively simple resolution or convergence. What was too long separate is now together. It's a quiet and brief and beautiful moment, more powerful to me than every tissue-pulling extreme This Is Us has aspired to.

Of course, it's not a competition. TV has sadness for all.

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