“Halt and Catch Fire” didn’t stoke many embers ratings-wise, but its second and potentially final season went out, on the show’s understated terms, in a blaze of glory. AMC’s attempt to craft another “Mad Men”-esque period piece from producers behind “Breaking Bad” remained as chilly and emotionally distant as its high-tech setting, but the second-season gambit of dramatically altering the relationships and narrative largely worked, creatively speaking, if not in terms of earning a reboot from the audience. The finale, moreover, deftly left the story open enough to continue while providing appropriate closure if this serves as a full halt.
Blessed with the benefit of hindsight about how computers and digital technology have impacted our world since where this season began 30 years ago, the show remained at its best when exploring those business machinations, and less compelling in its web of relationships. Simply put, watching Gordon (Scoot McNairy) fall apart emotionally while his wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) flourished running the game startup Mutiny had its moments, but never popped as much as this well-informed look into the roots of the tech boom.
For that reason, the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) came around to a reasonable and logical end point, which felt both true to the characters (mostly) and savvy about allowing viewers to mentally plug in the gaps about what the future likely holds for these fictional pioneers. That culminated with the “California, here we come” finish, and the promise of moving this whole act to the fertile fields of Silicon Valley.
Still, the show’s dramatic heart remained the slick-talking visionary/salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), whose adventure trying to settle down personally and professionally – work for an imperious tycoon of a father-in-law (James Cromwell, who tends to class up whatever joint he visits) – seemed doomed from the get-go. Yet the fact that Joe would take what appeared to be his downfall and turn that back into a Phoenix-like rebirth – using Gordon’s genius to embrace the burgeoning possibilities of launching an anti-virus business – reinforced the sense of a guy with nine lives, someone who would always manage to land on his feet, usually at the expense of others.
“Real security is trusting no one,” Joe said, not only tapping into the paranoia that digital technology has unleashed long before the current era of hacking, but also anticipating the slogan for “The X-Files.” The sequence in which he sells the new product by demonstrating what it can do was an example of the show at its very best, displaying Joe’s daredevil streak while exploiting everything we know about computing circa 2015.
As noted, series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers left the door open to proceeding with this story, but that final image of Joe staring out at the glittering landscape spread out before him felt if not like the end, at least an end. And after giving the series a second chance, one could hardly fault AMC — which has renewed Sunday-night companion “Humans” and the ratings-challenged “Turn” — for not beating its head against a wall on another enterprise with passionate but narrow appeal. (AMC has said an official decision on “Halt” will come after the season ends.)
Granted, “Breaking Bad” gradually broke out into an unqualified hit, but despite talk about seeking to broaden “Halt’s” base, even in today’s binge-oriented age that’s a rare exception. On the plus side, the network did provide “Halt” fans a chance to see the series play out long enough to reach a more satisfying finish – on the eve of that digital dawn when the geeks began to inherit the Earth.