Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve seen “Ten of Swords,” the series finale of AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.”
You have to hand it to “Halt and Catch Fire”: It never stopped leveling up.
The other day, I watched parts of the show’s pilot (and fans have probably noticed the final season’s many callbacks to those early days). And I remembered why I didn’t really have a lot of time for it when it started out. It felt too derivative of too many other cable dramas about bad boys and guys who felt frustrated by various career setbacks and personal obstacles.
But like a smart entrepreneur, like a diligent engineer, like a coder who is determined to make a game not just work but be a thing of beauty, “Halt and Catch Fire” evolved. It kept upgrading. It got into the guts of its source code and threw out what didn’t work, and doubled and tripled down on what did. The end result is one of the few television dramas that, in the year 2017, truly worked like a dream.
I and others have written a lot about the rise of the half-hour form in the last few years. To over-generalize, 30-minute shows are generally more frisky, experimental and willing to break form and showcase all kinds of tones, worlds and protagonists. With notable exceptions, too many hour-long shows have continued to confuse dourness with seriousness of purpose and a grim atmosphere with compelling storytelling. One of my refrains: Complication is not complexity. A convoluted plot and a story suffused with overwrought negativity is no substitute for clarity of purpose and characters worth following.
“Halt and Catch Fire” deserves to be in the TV course-correction Hall of Fame: It performed the same maneuver “The Leftovers” did over the course of its run. “Halt’s” creative team realized that its most interesting characters were female, and it adjusted accordingly. As Donna Clark and Cameron Howe came to the fore, and as their complicated relationship went through its various ups and downs, the show gained energy, momentum, depth and freshness. I absolutely loved Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) — in fact, I want a silent spin-off titled “Joe MacMillan’s Thinkin’ Face” (this is a million-dollar idea, you’re welcome).
But the creative and personal partnership between those women contained the most potential, and once the show realized that and began mining that bond with grace, humor and wonderfully earned pathos, it became unmissable.
“Halt” eventually became a highly enjoyable pentagon, or a wheel, with Bos as the connector among all these disparate characters, an array of big personalities who were forever convinced they were right and no one sufficiently understood that truth. His heart attack brought them all together, and his recovery, and Gordon’s death, made them realize that life was too short to stay invested in defensiveness. They all learned from their mistakes, but they were always recognizably themselves. The brief mention of recursion gets at one of the show’s core ideas: People remain stubbornly who they are, but they’re capable of evolution and breakthroughs, sometimes when you least expect it.
The tension at the heart of “Halt” was seen in every business failure and even their occasional successes. For any of the gang’s ventures to succeed, they had to put their hearts and souls into them — but they also had to know when to cut their losses so as not to be dragged down by the failures. Comet was a going concern, until it was over, just like that; same with Mutiny, same with just about everything else they tried. Each character was capable of the kind of coldness that would allow him or her to kill off a business that had meant a lot to a lot of people. But the core four were not — could not be — ruled by that kind of unforgiving and brutal logic all the time. Or else how could they put their hearts and souls into the next big idea?
It’s a riddle that could never be resolved, recursion without end. There is no answer; there is no thing that gets you to the final, concluding thing. They were so different, but they all realized that what Donna (Kerry Bishé) said was true: The people remain the constant. And I will miss these characters. I will miss a show that, in so many subtle ways, made it matter so much that Donna actually finished Cameron’s game. People who tried the meditative “Pilgrim” thought it was a repetitive riddle, but Donna understood; she got what Cam was trying to say with this deeply personal work of return and recursion.
It’s easy to identify with the feeling that flitted across Cameron’s face when she found out Donna finished the game: She felt known. Many of us have been there: Maybe only one person understands the thing you made — but if it’s the right person, that can be everything.
Bos’ last scene with Cameron was so grand, so personal, so truthful. This entire cast was phenomenal, it should go without saying. But I’ll say it. And major props to Toby Huss for continually finding the big, generous heart underneath Bos’ good ol’ boy bonhomie. Here’s his speech to Cameron in full:
“You’ve got a lot of love in you. More than anybody I ever met. It’s bursting out of you. You take in the world in these big gulps and you can’t help but to let yourself get drowned in it. It overwhelms you and makes you live like you’re ready to explode at any minute. They don’t see it. I do. It’s a burden you carry.”
As Cameron, Mackenzie Davis was a continual revelation; the character’s emotions were always an open book, and yet her guarded, wounded core was protected by a certain prickliness. But Bos was right: Sometimes the people who love the hardest are the most difficult to pin down, because they’re so afraid of being let down and having that disappointment overwhelm them.
This show was never about technology. Well, it was: I’ve decided that the idea Donna had in that coffee shop was wifi. But even if Cam and Donna didn’t create that incredibly consequential innovation, no doubt they came up with something else amazing. They gave the world a thing that got them to the thing. (It was love. The thing was always love.)
“Halt and Catch Fire” was the story of four people who wanted to keep the world at bay, for different reasons, and who did that in different ways. Gordon could be impatient and brusque, intent on his next breakthrough. Joe could be arrogant and dictatorial, annoyed with with those who didn’t understand his next-level vision of the future. Cameron, as noted, could only ever give her all to anything, which meant that she could be oblivious and angry with anyone who put obstacles in her path. Donna was pragmatic and considered, but she also could be dismissive and a control freak, unwilling to truly listen to those around her.
And yet they were all so similar: In love with possibility and obsessive about their latest inspiration. They were united by a love of technology that was about connecting people and spreading ideas. The gleeful spirit of the Comet offices this season (and Mutiny back in the day) made me so nostalgic. Those scenes and relationships reminded me of getting online in the early ‘90s and being giddily in love with the fact that I could share gossip and stories and pop culture with people halfway around the world. That time felt so hopeful, before we all realized that maybe, just maybe, the Internet could be used for evil. Sigh.
Still, this is a celebration of a show that made itself indispensable. Kudos to “Halt and Catch Fire” for being willing to rewire itself as it moved through the television landscape, and it remains a miracle that it got four seasons. One thing I have needed more than ever this year is a character-based drama that is not difficult to watch, that not unduly enamored with pessimism, or that defaults to cliched forms of “darkness.” “Halt” was a funny, bracing, well-paced joy, even when it was ripping my heart out.
It did that with “Goodwill,” one of the most incredible episodes of TV of the year. That hour was like “The Suitcase” or “Ozymandias,” in that you had to have been invested with these characters for years for every emotional beat to land with devastating force. All of them did.
“Goodwill” compassionately and expertly depicted all the ways in which grief and loss wash over people. There was slightly unhinged laughter, lashing out, people distracting themselves with logistical tasks, hurting adults and kids pursuing anger or irritation as a way to avoid their deep sense of dislocation and turmoil. In a masterful episode full of quietly heart-rending moments, the most affecting scene took place around the dinner table, where each character brought his or her collection of emotions under control long enough to sample Bos’ chili.
Unable to put up a brave front was Joe, of all people; Joe, who at first presented himself as a slick, arrogant, self-assured genius whose facade would never crack. At the dinner table, his face was a mask of devastation. Without words, the immensity of his loss was made clear. Lee Pace’s performance, again, was pitch-perfect and deeply affecting.
Did anyone around the table notice Joe’s face? Maybe not; they were all just trying to keep their heads above water. Even if they did see his pain, what could they say? There was nothing to say. In so many silent moments this season, “Halt and Catch Fire’s” writers recognized that truth. Sometimes the only answer is silent recognition, or quiet camaraderie. There was no way to replace the Gordon-sized hole in their lives, but they were all around that table together.
(Like many of “The Leftovers’” finest moments, “Goodwill” made me cry a lot. This is a compliment.)
The series finale of “Halt and Catch Fire” recalled the finale of another fine drama with Texas connections, that of “Friday Night Lights.” We got two hours that checked in on every major character, brought them to places that made sense, and opened up new, exciting possibilities for the next chapters in their lives. It was a warm, generous, moving feast, and it made me miss this world before the last scene even began.
And what a last scene. Joe’s a teacher now, echoing his entry in the series premiere. In one of his first scenes, he spoke to a class of college engineers and met the sarcastic, brilliant Cameron Howe. His opening line to students, then and now: “Let me start by asking a question.”
Joe’s new life looked very settled, if not a little safe. Will it stick? He is a generally restless guy who took all kinds of risks — some stupid, some brilliant — throughout his career. But maybe one too many heartbreaks in his personal and professional lives had set him on a more conventional path. At least for now.
But he still drives that fast sportscar and undoubtedly still enjoys questioning anyone in authority. One of these days Joe will get an Idea, and probably spur some of his students into inventing or creating something pretty great. Or not. Maybe he’ll take that Tarot card he uses it as bookmark and think about his old, dearly missed friend Gordon every single day, and continue to teach and think and subvert authority. And he’ll occasionally visit the Clarks and act as Haley and Joanie’s corny but cool Uncle Joe. That would be a good, real, connected life.
Every step of the Donna-Cameron reconciliation was so smartly and thoughtfully earned throughout the season, especially in the finale. Both were old enough and mature enough now to know they’d both messed up. Nobody was definitively right or wrong; they both could have done better. Their scenes contained realistic measures of both wariness and tentative hope, and watching their faith in each other slowly blossom once again was quietly delightful.
The thing about being creative is, having a fantastic idea is fun, scary and exciting. But not having anyone to share that idea with can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. Re-watching the pilot, I came across the show’s explanation of the title: It’s a computer instruction that causes commands to compete with each other and “control of the computer could not be regained.”
Everyone on “Halt” is deeply competitive, but the show constantly highlighted the fact that collaboration is what so often drew them together. That’s why the loss of Gordon hurt Joe so deeply: Sharing and building on ideas together was something that brought them closer, every time, despite all their disagreements and setbacks. Few shows simply watch people enjoying the fact that they’re good at their jobs, but time and again, we got fabulous sequences about that on “Halt.” Just one example: Joe and Gordon excitedly discussing the relaunch of Comet. And of course, Donna saying to Cameron these wonderful words: “I have an idea.”
All four seasons, it was a balm to watch a story about two very different women who disagreed now and then, but whose professional alliance brought both of them not just satisfaction but deep joy. So few ambitious dramas give us anything approaching that, frankly. But through them, “Halt” brought attention to an eternal truth: Much of the enjoyment of an idea come from being able to share it with someone who recognizes its potential, and finds new possibilities in it as well.
Joe lost that connection, and he’ll never be the same. But Cam and Donna will build on that kind of bond, I think, at least one more time.
Here’s what I think happened after the last frame of the lovely and wonderful “Halt” story ended: Donna asked Diane to return to the venture capital firm, at least part time, or asked her to find someone else to take over Donna’s job, permanently or temporarily. Donna and Cameron took over the old Mutiny/Comet space again, and perhaps their new venture followed exactly the arc that the women ruminated on when they visited that office in the finale. But they would have a blast along the way, when they weren’t arguing or fending off idiots and naysayers, that is.
Maybe it’s “a burden” to be unable to resist the pull of an industry that, as they know, doesn’t really reward visionaries or artists (so much of “Halt” is, of course, a series of analogies for the realms of TV and film).
Maybe it’s scary to feel the need to jump off that entrepreneurial cliff again. But it’s also exciting. And they’d be jumping together.
A few other thoughts:
- A note scribbled down before I sat down to watch the finale: “If anyone dies, I will die.” No one died! Whew.
- It was fun to see Donna getting her hands dirty with an old Cardiff radio. And I noticed that she has not been drinking in the last few episodes. Again, the show is very subtle about certain things, and it doesn’t bang you over the head with expository dialogue. Long may others learn from this.
- When it comes to nearly dialogue-free scenes, more masterful examples: Cameron and Joe finding each other in bed after a bad day; also their break-up scene. Despite knowing they’d be a disaster as a couple, the show almost convinced me their relationship could work. I get why it didn’t, but boy, that parting hurt.
- I’m so glad the show left us with Joanie and Donna on good terms, and with Haley quite probably coming to terms with being a lesbian. Watching her listen to her dad’s tape, as she stared at a blinking cursor — how great was that? Haley is the future — and in 2017, she would be around the age I am now. So I’ll log off to go find her on Twitter. It’s one of the flawed, sometimes awesome, frustrating things I use — because I’m always looking for the thing that will get me to the thing.