‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Series Finale: Legacy, Hope, and Getting Us to the People

     October 16, 2017

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Halt and Catch Fire has come to a close, as a series that spanned 4 seasons and covered 11 years in the tech industry. Joe MacMillan first inserted himself into the worlds of Cameron, Donna and Gordon as a Don Draper imitation: one with a mysterious past and the ability to just about sell anything. Thankfully, Halt and Catch Fire evolved into something that went beyond a Mad Men retread, and became something that stood on its own, with this final season proving to be leaps and bounds from where it began. It is an achingly beautiful portrayal of four people striving to make something that matters, all the while screwing up relationships and finding a way back to each other. Rebooting, but not erasing, each season improved on the one that came before it.

Ultimately, attempting to be first in a highly competitive industry leads to repeated heartbreak, including in the two-part finale, “Search” and “Ten of Swords,” when the group’s search-engine Comet is beaten to the punch by Yahoo! It isn’t the specific idea that is important, but the connections made as each new technological frontier is crossed. Or as Donna puts it in her speech, recounting her eighteen years in tech, “The one constant is this: It’s you. It’s us. The project gets us to the people, because it’s people that got me where I am.”

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Image via AMC

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that most of their projects have failed, because somehow these relationships have endured ideas being stolen, affairs had, lies told, and work that has gone up in actual flames. Emotional wounds have cut deep, yet despite every hurtful word exchanged they are all drawn into each other’s orbit time and time again. Even in death, Gordon’s presence is felt everywhere; from his appearance in the Comet ad to the way one of his daughter’s feels a connection to him in the roots of a tree halfway across the world, while the other listens to him speak from beyond the grave via cassette as she sits at her computer. (The final season has also portrayed the aching isolation of adolescence in a way that prestige dramas sometimes struggle with when throwing teen girls into the mix. And if they were ever to do a spin-off, then may I suggest following Haley Clark into whatever she does next?)

A beeping watch in Gordon’s locked office is another, two-fold reminder: a reminder for Gordon to take his medication, and a not-so-subtle cue that Joe and Cameron’s relationship isn’t working. Joe doesn’t know where the keys are, and there is a comfort in hearing this beeping while the Comet project is progressing and Cam is on board. As soon as they find out Comet is effectively dead in the water—Yahoo! is on the Netscape toolbar as the chosen search engine—the alarm becomes a harbinger of doom. So Joe does what he did a lot of in Season 1, and smashes shit, this time throwing a chair through the office window so he can break the seal on the Gordon work shrine and turn the alarm off.

Unlike the Joe of Season 1, this act isn’t a clunky way to show the audience that Joe has inner demons and likes to unleash his rage by trashing or burning things down. Instead, the alarm acts as a signifier of things ending, including his relationship with Cam and the final project he worked on with Gordon. Lee Pace demonstrates how wounded Joe is, and how at a loss he is without his work partner. Hope is hard to find in this storm and yet there is something on the horizon. He goes to see a psychic (played by Carol Kane) and while she doesn’t give him too much to work with, it could be considered kismet because when Joe exits he is almost run over, and then runs into former IBM colleague Dale Butler. This puts him on a journey back east.

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Image via AMC

Joe switches out his truck and hoodie for a fancy car and suit—reminiscent of the one we first met him in—which suggests he has returned to the company he originally came from. But, that isn’t Joe’s destiny. Instead he takes everything these last eleven years have taught him and puts it into the next generation. We first encountered Joe in a classroom where he recruited Cameron, but now he is making teaching his vocation. Joe is good at asking questions, and it shows just how much he has evolved; he is no longer inspiring people for selfish gain.

Projects aren’t forever, and the romantic relationships on Halt and Catch Fire also have a cut-off date. They work and then they don’t, but the lesson is that you’ve got to keep on trying. To that end, part of this series finale reminds me Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It doesn’t matter how many times Donna and Cameron fuck things up with each other; they can’t deny the pull of this partnership. No memories are wiped here—with the exception of data files—as this connection cannot be severed so easily.

This is the most evident when Donna and Cam return to their old Mutiny office (that became the Comet workspace) and fondly talk about the people who worked for them, and what these guys are up to now. Karyn Kusama directed the finale hour of the two-part finale, and the standout scene occurs when reminiscing turns into conceptualizing a new company by the name of Phoenix. A neon sign lights up above Donna and Cam’s heads, as they stare out at a now empty office and we hear what their future venture might look like. The pattern of Phoenix is the same as Mutiny, except this time when they go under—the neon sign flickers and turns off—their relationship is saved. That is the heart of Halt and Catch Fire. When Donna stepped out of the kitchen and back into the workspace, it shifted her away from the dreaded nagging wife territory at the end of Season 1. The choice to then pair Donna up with Cameron transformed Halt and Catch Fire from just another show about difficult men and the women who put up with them, and became instead about collaboration and the relationships that fuel it.

It took Gordon dying for Donna and Cam to find their way back to each other, and when Cam comes to say her farewells things keep getting in the way. Like all good love stories, obstacles both help and hinder the big reunion. You get a strong sense of longing to be together again in the performances from both Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé as Cam and Donna, and it was a reminder that some of the most meaningful relationships on TV are often not romantic—and that this is one for the ages.  

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Image via AMC

The emotional payoff culminates with Donna’s speech to the women gathered at her house, who are there to celebrate and network with other women in this male-dominated industry. This speech encapsulates everything Halt and Catch Fire has been saying for four seasons, and through the struggles these characters have endured. Donna says “I’ve won and I’ve lost” before recounting her greatest hits of relationship mistakes and anxiety about juggling work and motherhood. She toasts to the people who she couldn’t have done this without, including her greatest partner. And Cameron stands in the sea of frocks in dungarees and T-shirt, always the style outlier.

Cameron tries to slip out after hearing Donna’s words without fanfare, a quiet wave, but the pool that has been keeping Donna occupied all summer has other ideas, and she falls in. It delays her exit just as Haley’s computer disaster had already done, like fate has conspired to keep her here long enough. (And really, having a swimming pool in the center of a party was always going to be hazardous). In a costume callback, Cam changes out of her wet clothes into a red sweater that is similar to the one she wore throughout Season 1 as the one piece of clothing she deemed office appropriate.

In 1983, Cameron programmed the Giant to ask your name, followed by “What would you like to do?” Fast forward to 1994, and Joe’s Comet ad is wondering “What are you looking for?” The first question is rooted in the individual, the second is much broader, and both could be existential conundrums. Or, the answers could also be as simple as the user wants to make them. The internet is as broad as it is long.  

Everyone has a legacy to pass on: Joe through teaching, Gordon through the people he left behind, and now Bos and Diane are free to undertake global adventures having done all they need to in the workplace with their mentees. Finally, Donna has a new idea, and she’s taking Cameron along for this glorious ride that will no doubt connect even more people together. Halt and Catch Fire took us on a journey that gets us to the thing it always promised it would. “ It’s you. It’s us. The project gets us to the people, because it’s people that got me where I am.” What a destination this turned out to be.

Television