Thankfully, Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t have to go out on this beautiful high note.
Once you stop defending yourself, you can be all these other things.
Each season of Halt and Catch Fire has ended on an incredible note of finality, and that’s not an accident. Any of those episodes could easily serve as the show’s series endpoint, not simply out of artistic decision, but because Halt has always faced season-to-season cancelation. Season Three’s “NIM/NeXT” is no different. Coming just a week after Ryan’s heartbreaking suicide and Mutiny’s disastrous IPO, a sense of loss and sadness was already hanging in the air.
And then the show threw us all a curveball.
“NIM’s” pre-credits sequence was magnificent, revealing a four-year time jump forward to the year 1990 in painfully beautiful layers. Donna is a partner at Diane Gould’s venture capital firm, and back to using her maiden name after divorcing Gordon. Joe is working from a bunker-like apartment as a day trader, and barely staying in physical contact with anyone. Cameron and Tom are unseen and still living in Tokyo.
It’s a huge compliment to say how much I hated seeing Donna and Gordon apart. It was great television, but it certainly hurt after seeing them battle to stay together for the last 28 episodes. Gordon, clean shaven and ever a schlub, has moved on to video tape-exchange dating while Donna has risen to prominence as a businesswoman. They’re still on friendly terms, but the cracks in their marriage apparently became too much to overcome.
The impetus for rejoining these characters’ lives at this specific moment is Donna’s desire to speak to Cameron again after years of stonewalling. Cameron, now an Atari designer, is returning to the United States for the COMDEX convention and the release of her fourth Space Bike installment. Donna has a project that Cameron would be perfect for, but knowing she can’t reach out to her former partner herself, she asks Joe to make the proposition in her stead.
Joe refuses, but he does attend the conference hoping to reconnect with Cameron. When the two finally reunite it’s as old friends, and some of the episode’s best sequences are of them reminiscing and walking the convention floor. They party the night away together in a hotel suite until Donna arrives to offer Cameron her proposition, but Cameron is having none of it. The scars of Mutiny’s demise are still too fresh even four years later.
She and Joe end up sleeping together just as they did the first time they met. It seems the allure of video games and business is just too much to overcome. It’s just one of the show’s many references to its own past, as the first time we ever met them they were slipping into an arcade back room together in Halt’s pilot. But Joe does finally convince Cameron to meet with Donna, allowing the episode to shift focus to its real target: the creation of the world wide web.
Halt’s second hour, “NeXT,” is a chamber piece, taking place almost entirely in the old Mutiny headquarters as Joe, Donna, Cameron, Gordon, and Tom convene a month or so later to discuss the business opportunities the nascent internet offers them. With all apologies to the show’s high-wire surprise of a first act, this is the heart of the show as “NeXT’s” technological discussions offer avenues for the characters to discuss their lives, their problems, and their futures.
I remain convinced that Lee Pace was scientifically designed in a lab for the sole purpose of delivering remarkable speeches, and this episode is an exquisite example of that facet of his ability. Season Three is when Halt’s writers finally cracked Joe MacMillian, removing his business suits of armor and mystery in favor of real, human empathy. In short, Joe finally became a human being instead of a problem to solve. Due to Joe’s destructive personality, it’s easy to view him as a technological grifter, but that’s wrong. For all his faults, Joe has always been a true believer in technology’s possibilities. Despite his lack of specific programming knowledge, he’s the man you want making your board room pitches.
Now he’s an endless fount of the web’s possibilities, referring to it as a door, a tunnel, and a Rosetta stone for the future. Huge props to writers and showrunners Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers for distilling the internet down into terms that, if not completely understandable to the layman, at least sound full of vibrant possibility.
Of course, the abstract “future” is what Halt has always been about. Cameron knows that, calling out Joe’s pie-in-the-sky notions of being the people that make the future happen. She’s seen her plans for the future go up in smoke twice before with the Giant and Mutiny. “The future is just another crappy version of the present,” she says. “A bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want.” She’s not wholly wrong.
Halt’s greatest strength has been the allure of possibility. Rather than just playing the hits of the past (“We just created the Mac! Now we’ve designed Windows! Now we’re profiting from Duck Hunt!”), the show has captured the feel of geniuses standing on the bleeding edge of the future. But Halt has always existed in the “real” world and not some fictional timeline. Steve Jobs exists in the show. So does IBM. And have you ever used a Cardiff Giant computer or played games on Mutiny? No, you haven’t. Cameron knows the truth. You can be a genius. You can be a visionary about the future. And you can still fail miserably. We’re unlikely to ever see Cameron, Joe, Donna, and Gordon become tech millionaires unless the series takes a lesson from Mad Men’s book and grafts these fictional characters onto a real-life project. It’s that bittersweet combination of possibility and reality that makes Halt a great drama.
Cameron can’t resist the pull of possibility for long, though, and she finally is on board when Joe theorizes that the browser is the correct project to work on, that metaphorical doorway to the internet. She’s prepared to put her past issues with Joe aside and join this group project, finally realizing that she’s as much a part of their past business and romantic failures as he is. Halt has even managed to realistically revive the frustrating Cameron and Joe relationship. Cameron’s catharsis poises them as failed, damaged equals who see each other as their complementary pieces, however messy that might be.
The one person she can’t work with, though, is Donna. Those wounds may never heal, and she’s not willing to attempt recapturing the past. Faced with that blunt assessment, Donna leaves in a shower of tears and with an iron will to show Cameron that she’s capable of her own, independent greatness.
Thus, Season 3 of Halt and Catch Fire ends with Cameron, Joe, and Gordon huddled around a computer as they access the web for the first time. It’s just the right note of possibility, the same way that the show refused to reunite Gordon and Donna or Joe and Cameron despite their obvious romantic feelings for each other. That’s too much for this moment. Cameron is still married to Tom, and Gordon and Donna had their reasons for splitting up. The past is still a bramble of complexity, but the gang is back together with the feeling of opportunity in the air.
Thankfully, we know that this isn’t the end. Halt and Catch Fire has improbably been renewed for a fourth and final season, giving our protagonists one more chance the explore both their futures and their innermost selves. Once more, with feelings.
Season Grade: A