HALT AND CATCH FIRE: “Heaven is a Place”

If the tech drama is finished, it went out on a high note.

Screw the dance. I want to change the music.

–Cameron

There’s one harsh truth about “Heaven is a Place” that’s unescapable: I think we’re all Camerons, really.

As the Mutiny team all crowded into an airliner together with their dreams set on a new beginning in California, it was hard to imagine that this show ever struggled. So much of what seemed like a promise of greatness in the show’s first season finally snapped into place and became just that. The writing clicked. The performances were top notch. Several incredibly talented directors worked their magic. If television shows are renewed based on merit, then ending the season in an airplane is the appropriate metaphor: the only place to go is up.

That’s how things feel for Halt and Catch Fire. Cameron and Donna’s decision to move the company to California just feels like the right one. The Texan Silicon Prairie was an interesting starting place for a show’s beginning, and it offered viewers an alternate landscape for the a technology-based show that we rarely get a chance to see, but in our hearts we all know that Silicon Valley is the Mecca of technological innovation. Mutiny has grown into a successful company just as Halt has grown into a successful show, and it’s time to build on that success and head for the big leagues.

The move also provides another chance to utilize the show’s female characters as the plot drivers. Cameron wants Mutiny to escape from the rat race of making enough money to afford server time, just for the company to need the server time to keep customers online. It’s a vicious cycle, and as Cameron says, “Screw the dance. I want to change the music.” The purchase of a discounted used server in California would change all that, but the real magic the West Coast has to offer is in the ability to control their own destiny. Likewise, Donna uses the relocation as a chance to take the lead role in her family, setting California and the server as the price for Gordon to buy his way back into their marriage after he reveals his affair.

So many programs struggle with their female characters, even as we like to preach about how evolved we are in 2015. Think about the prestige dramas of the recent TV golden age, and you’ll find yourself remembering a lot of women who always took a secondary role to their husbands. Carmela and Skyler largely languished at home while Tony Soprano and Walter White were out making their reputations in the world. It’s not universally true, of course, but it’s undeniably refreshing to see Halt so capably blur the business and home words. The show investigates the complex relationship between family and work life as well as any drama, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of cheap “can a woman survive in a man’s world” storylines. Mutiny is an indivisible part of Cameron and Donna’s characters, and that’s the best part of what makes Halt work.

The best scene in “Heaven is a Place” is these two women’s’ decision to actually make the move. The camera slowly zooms in on our two stars as Cameron pitches her plan, offering them both a fresh start and renewed agency. It’s simple, relying on Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis’s talents. The actresses carry the scene with surprising grace. Over the uninterrupted three-minute shot, Cameron moves in to console Donna, the two characters coming together as Cameron bridges both the literal and emotional space between them. For all the problems in their lives, they find comfort in companionship and the company that they’ve built together.

Of course this is still a drama, and not everything will be greener in the Golden State. Joe is still out there, now with a new anti-virus company. It’s easy to see the move as Joe simply utilizing one of Gordon’s inventions for his own gain, but Joe did try to get Gordon to join him in his new venture. Gordon won’t see it that way, and the final shot of the season with Joe looking out at the San Francisco skyline from his new office speaks to future turmoil between the two men. All of our characters are on the West Coast, and it’s impossible to imagine that they won’t cross paths again.

Even Donna and Cameron aren’t pain-free despite all their successes. The plane may be a joyous zone for many of the Mutiny employees, but Cameron and Donna brought their baggage aboard. It’s foolish to imagine that a relocation can solve all of Gordon and Donna’s problems even if she’s managed to seize the reins of their relationship. Their problems are much deeper than Gordon’s admission of his affair, and it’s too simple to write off Donna’s pain as such. The Clarks are in big trouble, and it’s this realization more than the confession of any single action that’s really gnawing at Donna. Gordon isn’t the only one with secrets. After all, she still has yet to admit her abortion or her own near-affair to him. The move west is about Mutiny, but it’s also a last chance to reboot the things that once made their marriage work. Maybe Gordon’s employment with Mutiny will rekindle the sparks that once brought them together when they first worked in close proximity, but there’s turbulence ahead. It’s much more than physical space that separates them.

Cameron is no better, and we see the tears well up in her eyes as the aircraft’s door closes and Tom is not aboard. That emotion isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. So much of what has made Cameron work this season is the revelation of her softer side though her relationship with Tom. Again, it’s good to see her tears instead of the flippant, pissed off, reactionary Cameron of Season One, but those tears are painful. They’re the real indicator of growth. Characters cried last year, but we never really cared. Davis and the rest of the cast and crew have done so much to make us care now for these people that the pain of this penultimate scene really hits home, largely due to the show’s meta-narrative. It’s Donna and Cameron’s tears and Talking Heads’ “Heaven” on the soundtrack that belie the party atmosphere on the place. This is a bittersweet moment.

There’s no escaping the facts: even as the show is riding high, this is probably the last time we’ll see it. It was a shock when AMC renewed it for a second season despite its poor reception and ratings, but even as critical reception has improved, ratings have not. Halt averages around a half million viewers per episode. Even the lambasted second season of True Detective still manages a couple million. The viewership is dismal, and it’s incredibly doubtful that Halt and Catch Fire will see a third season no matter how much it deserves one. Can’t two insanely successful Walking Deads act as a tentpole for Halt? That’s the small hope I’ll cling to until AMC makes an official announcement about the show’s future.

It’s so ironic how sad I am about the show’s seeming demise considering how down I was on it at this time last year. (I said it should be cancelled!) That’s a testament to the miracle that Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers, and their crew have worked — Halt is now something that I would deeply miss. I feel like I love the show more for having watched it struggle, learn, and rise again. AMC rolled the show out with the bluster that this was the show to carry the network’s proud banner of excellence after the end of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. What hurts the most is that those predictions, after that poor start, have finally come true. Halt is finally a great show, and it pains me know that it’s probably over just as it reaches its greatest heights. That’s why “Heaven is a Place” makes its loyal viewers just like Cameron, with her bittersweet combination of greatness and pain. But if this has to be the end, it’s some comfort to know that the show went out on top. “Heaven is a Place” was the powerful finale that Halt and Catch Fire deserved even if we want so much more.

Season Grade: A

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