Once a middling Mad Men clone, Halt and Catch Fire showed how much character still matters in the era of Peak TV.
Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.
Halt and Catch Fire’s final season didn’t end with a bang, but neither did it end with a whimper. It ended with something better than both: true catharsis.
Season 4 opened with Donna and Gordon furthering their careers post-divorce with Donna battling for power as a project manager at Diane’s venture capital firm, and Gordon and Joe launching a new venture in internet search after the demise of their internet provider company, CalNect. It’s Joe who first sees the possibilities for internet search in the extracurricular projects of Gordon’s high school-aged daughter, Haley (Susanna Skaggs), and he convinces Gordon to bring her on as a founder and part-time employee, naming the company Comet in her honor. When Donna repurposes a flailing medical directory as a search engine named Rover, she finds herself in direct competition with Gordon and her own daughter, eventually dragging Boz, Cameron, and Gordon’s new girlfriend Katie (Anna Chlumsky) into the fray as well. Thus, with battle lines drawn, the entire cast scrapped for market share, constantly disregarding the maxim to never mix friends or family with business, until one event brought the inanity of their competition into sharp focus: Gordon’s unexpected death from a stroke brought on by his years of battling a mysterious disease that he could never fully grasp.
It’s interesting how much Halt resisted plot denouement in its final episodes in favor of emotional resolution. The show slammed on the brakes when Gordon died, effectively moving Comet’s story to the back burner for the remainder of the series. A lesser show would have saved a main character’s death for the finale, but, by Gordon dying with a third of the season still to go, Halt got the opportunity to plumb the emotional depths of loss in a way that few shows ever have before. The shock wore off, and the audience spent three episodes seeing the emotional fallout among friends and family. Gordon left two children fatherless, Donna a single parent, Katie without her lover, and Comet without one of its two founding leaders – in that order. So a struggling company has to take a backseat to broken children and friends? Welcome to real life.
The writers deserve immense credit for avoiding melodrama and exploitation and also for opening the door for Lee Pace’s best acting of the entire series. Season 4’s standout episode was “Goodwill,” a 70-minute exploration of grief following everyone’s attempts to pack up Gordon’s belongings in the days following his death and funeral. Framed around a flashback to a fight and reconciliation in the early days of Gordon and Donna’s marriage, the episode lets each character grieve in their own way: Joanie with anger, Haley with confusion, Cameron with emptiness, Donna with regret, and Joe with a surprising amount of guilt. When he realizes that he’s accidentally donated a beloved sweater of Gordon’s to Goodwill, he and Haley bond in their attempts to steal the donated clothes back. But when they are chased off the property with bags under their arms, laughing, Joe realizes with dismay that the sweater isn’t among the clothes they’ve stolen, and there’s no second chance at getting it back. It’s in that moment that Gordon’s death finally seems to settle in on him, with Pace’s face conveying the realization of lost opportunity and crushing him with its finality. No second chances. The episode’s final scene of Gordon’s reconciliation with Donna in flashback, promising never to leave her again, is a gut punch.
The show’s final two episodes were more coda than climax, playing out the final days of Comet and Rover which are crushed by Netscape’s inclusion of Yahoo! on its toolbar. In the end, our protagonists didn’t change the world, at least not that we ever got to see. It’s heartbreaking that Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon always lived and worked on the bleeding edge of technological revolution, but just one step behind the real-life companies that dominated the market; Apple, MCI, and Yahoo!. I came to love these characters, and it sucks to constantly see the glory just beyond their grasp.
But as Joe repeats multiple times in the episode, “computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” He means it as a guiding work principle; the Cardiff Giant personal computer from Season One was just an eventual gateway to the internet, and Comet and Mutiny were more important as networks for people than as companies. But the line is also a knowing wink to the series itself. The technological plot doesn’t matter compared to the character journeys, and the emotional resonance that the show so successfully mined.
The finale contained a scene where Donna fixed an old Cardiff Industries AM/FM radio for Boz, soldering it in the kitchen while he watches. It’s a callback to Halt’s pilot when Donna soldered a speak and spell back together for a then toddler-aged Joanie. It was back when she was an underling at Texas Instruments, struggling to be recognized in a male-dominated field. Gordon was a middling coder at Cardiff, Cameron an unknown but brilliant college student, and Joe was known for destructive blazes of glory at every company he touched. How far those characters have come, not just plot-wise as they became notable names in their fields, but as fully-developed characters.
Joe leaves Silicon Valley to return home and teach humanities at a university. Humanities! A character that was once so devoid of emotion and bent on destruction that I described him as a psychopath developed so much that he’s now teaching humanities to the next generation of minds, and it’s completely believable. If you need one marker of how far Halt and Catch Fire came, that’s it.
In the end, the show was able to resist the pull of Joe and Cameron as the one true couple of the series, the two of them realizing that their relationship would always be on and off, fire and ice. The show was too grounded for them to happily ride off into the sunset together, but they parted able to realize that they were always muses for each other, “the thing that gets you to the thing.” It’s bittersweet, and achingly true.
Similarly, Donna and Cameron were finally able to part as friends (even if that means friendly rivals), one of their last scenes together a wistful fantasy about a hypothetical company they would run together if they could do it all again. Appropriately named Phoenix, they’re too cautious to imagine the company being wildly successful, but they imagine their relationship remaining intact: It’s an apt metaphor for what the series excelled at: the excitement of possibility and the potential of anything being better than the actual thing itself. So just when Donna and Cameron are about to part, each heading to their new lives and expressing admiration and nostalgic hope that they might be able to work together again one day, Donna’s struck by a bolt of inspiration. I’m glad that the show never reveals what her idea is, even as she rushes back to Cameron’s side with bright-eyed enthusiasm. It could be anything. The potential is always better than the reality, and Halt is content to leave us there.
For a show that inarguably began as a Mad Men clone, Halt grew over its four seasons to become that show’s only true successor. For all its 1980s and 1990s trappings, Halt and Catch Fire was, itself, a throwback: an anachronistic relic of the golden age of television in the era of Peak TV. Halt carved a character-driven niche for itself in the era of shock deaths and grappling for hype. That is lasted four seasons is a minor miracle. But it saved its best act for last, showing how no shocking character death can rival one that’s deeply felt. Halt and Catch Fire saved itself when it doubled down on character, focusing on the fallout from failure as Gordon, Cameron, Donna, and Joe never managed to change the world. The irony is that’s what saved the show itself. It’s wasn’t the thing. It was the thing that got you to the thing.