The events of the last episode looked like the end of Halt And Catch Fire, partly because the prospect of watching the main characters deal with the wreckage of their personal and professional lives was almost too much to imagine. As it turns out, the final two episodes of this third season recognize that fact. Donna, Gordon, Cameron, and Joe all crashed, hard. “NIM” shows that the process of putting themselves back together split them all apart, seemingly for good.
A time-jump—like Ryan’s suicide last episode—would be a hoary TV gimmick if it weren’t so justified, and introduced so elegantly here. The pre-credits sequence is a little masterpiece of exposition, as we’re reintroduced to Donna, watching workmen take down the partners sign at Diane’s firm. The initial thought is that the Mutiny debacle has cost Diane her job, until we see there’s a name added on the new sign—and then the realization hits once you remember what Donna’s maiden name is. Donna’s a new partner, looking elegant—and no longer married to Gordon. When Bos shows up with congratulations (and a bottle of Wild Turkey), we see Joe and Cameron’s phone numbers on a notepad, learn that Bos and Diane are still together, and then—via the Windows 3.0 on Donna’s computer—that four years have passed. Cue credits.
Halt has played the “get the band back together” narrative effectively in the past, but this time Donna’s plan to lure Cameron back into her life with a mysterious memo looks nearly impossible. Joe, holed up in a much more modest apartment (although his bank of three TVs stay silently on all day) refuses Donna’s request that he bring the memo to Cameron at the COMDEX trade show, his financial dealing seeing him scarfing Chinese food and snapping orders over the phone. While it’s clear he’s successful, he’s also sealed himself off from the world (“You shouldn’t have this number,” he tells Donna when she calls), his guilt and grief about Ryan’s death still haunting him. Gordon’s a part-time single dad, awkwardly meeting women through video dating and boring them with his newfound enthusiasm for home cooking. Daughter Joanie is 14, and expertly resentful, sullenly lecturing her dad and his date about her vegetarianism and trying the flustered Gordon’s patience. Cameron’s influence clearly lingering in her snottiness and her ragged clothes, Joanie nonetheless tenderly helps her dad up the stairs to his bedroom the next day, another deft reveal of how the skip forward means Gordon’s condition has only worsened.
And Cameron is a video game rock star, Space Bike having become a huge hit (she’s at COMDEX to promote Space Bike IV), even as her pinched, conservative attire and demeanor clash with the punked-out model hired to portray her video game alter ego. Luckily, she’s still Cameron, relishing a real burrito after four years in Tokyo with Tom and telling a pair of fawning female autograph seekers, “Don’t let boys like that push their way in front of you.”
When Joe tosses his Mutiny disc on her table and meets her shocked look with a lovely smile, their connection is warm and immediate, Cameron ditching her booth and the two strolling through the convention, amiably goofing on all the tech hopefuls while she stuffs her purse with swag. Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis find an easier chemistry than ever here. Cameron’s success no doubt allows her to drop her guard, but, as the two dump out her purse and play Cameron’s puzzle game on the floor with purloined lighters, she reveals a tenderness born of experience. Space Bike, her first project after being ousted from Mutiny, saw her recognizing her need for perspective, and she’s found some. “Hey, I knew what I was doing, you know, when we worked together. And Mutiny took a nosedive all on our own, we didn’t need you to screw that one up for us,” Cameron tells Joe, before urging him to forgive himself for what Ryan did. “You’re not that powerful.”
When the two wind up dancing (to The Pixies’ just-released “Velouria”) and swilling beer from plastic cups, it’s liberating and joyous, their relationship seemingly shed of old resentments. (When another female fan gushes about how much she loves Space Bike, Cameron’s “Oh! I love you!” is adorable.) So when Donna shows up, Davis registers Cameron’s shock and anger like she’s just turned to ice. Cameron soothed Joe earlier, telling him “I don’t think you should deprive the world of what you do… You bring people together. You create change. I think that that’s really great.” But for Donna, all she has to offer her former friend is, “I think about Mutiny every day. And it makes me furious,” before she grabs Joe and flees to the hotel roof.
When Donna forced Cameron out of Mutiny, it would have been easy to see her as a villain if there weren’t truth in her anger at Cameron’s stubbornness, and at how Cameron (and everyone, really) has slighted her contributions. In both “NIM” and “NeXT” tonight, Donna isn’t shunted off to the side any more, and it’s her turn to be the Joe MacMillan, manipulating Joe to get to Cameron, and then showing up herself when she intuits that Joe won’t deliver her message. She’s right, as Joe confesses to Cameron on the roof, swilling bad champagne. He’s only come to see her, leading to a one-night encounter that’s far more compelling and touching than it seemed such an outcome would be when the show started teasing it earlier in the season.
So Donna takes it upon herself to be the mover, her confidence and power having only grown in her four years. And, like previous incarnations of Joe, it edges her even further into the role of well-meaning antagonist. It’s a delicate balance Kerry Bishé must strike, making both Donna’s good intentions and her egotistical desire to control people true to who Donna Emerson (née Clark) has been. Bishé is such a warm, inviting actress, and her scenes with Gordon throughout the episodes tonight show how Donna can still be generous and funny. But she’s also carried her resentments at being sidelined (as a wife, as a businessperson) for so long that she’s hardened herself in order to become who she wants to be. After Joe initially turns her down, his fax machine squeals to life, Donna’s memo—about something called the World Wide Web, as we find out once Joe returns alone from COMDEX and finally reads it—physically forcing itself into his space.
When Cameron goes to Donna’s room after leaving Joe sleeping, she confesses, “Working with you was the most fun I ever had in my whole life. Okay?” It’s a miniature, real-life version of the rapprochement Donna imagined in her drug-fueled fantasy earlier, but Davis holds Cameron back from thawing completely. As we see in “NeXT,” some things are more easily forgiven than others.
“NeXT” is the band back together, as Donna, having successfully gotten Cameron to listen to her pitch, invites Joe and Gordon to the vacant old Mutiny offices to brainstorm. Tom tags along, too, clearly suspicious of what happened at COMDEX and seething with resentment that Joe MacMillan is back in his wife’s life. At first, Tom’s naysaying presence looks to be the only obstacle to the group coming up with a way to exploit this new World Wide Web idea. “You can’t even settle on a metaphor!,” Tom grouses at Joe’s mounting enthusiasm for the project, a narrative device that seems contrived and unsatisfying—until, after Tom and Joe’s conflict turns physical, sending Joe crashing through Mutiny’s always-rickety floor into the basement, it’s revealed that he’s not the problem.
First, though, Halt And Catch Fire shows just how thrilling it is to watch intelligent people argue about something that’s important to them. It’s especially compelling here, since, for the first time, all four protagonists are independent agents. Gordon apologizes afterward for lumping Donna in with Joe as “the money people,” but all four are unattached to each other and successful enough that they’re all playing at the same level for the first time. And all the jargon about the promise of HTML and the immeasurable promise of the web whizzes through the cavernous space of the dusty office like the ideal vision of invention and collaboration. Apart from Tom’s petty griping (Gordon and Donna joke about pitching him a video game where you have to shit on light bulbs before they turn on), the arguments and rebuttals fly in contentious harmony, as if everyone were, for once, of one mind.
They’re not, of course, and, as the scene zips along on shared visions of the unimaginable possibilities (and money) inherent in their idea of turning a tiny, European scholastic network into a globe-spanning one, cracks begin to show. Joe, returning energized after a quick trip to have a cast put on his broken wrist, starts taking over, his old, messianic patter seeping into his pitch to the others. Gordon sees the potential but urges caution, saying that bad timing is what killed Mutiny. That might be partly true, but it brings Cameron’s resentment bubbling up. To Joe’s excited “We can be the people that can make that future happen,” the composed, forgiving Cameron gives way to bitterness, snapping, “The future is just another crappy version of the present. A bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want.”
Still, Cameron has changed. While a visit to Bos sees him bucking her up by telling her, “Aw, hell, Cameron—you were all grown up when I met you,” Cameron’s found that perspective. When Donna tries to convince her to stay with the project, Cameron finds a way to brush aside the past, it seems.
It’s so easy to make Joe the bad guy. Making him the villain takes the blame away… I deserve some of the blame too. And it’s the same with you. You know, things fell apart and you did what you did, but a lot of it was my fault. This is a really cool idea.
Like their meeting at COMDEX, it’s just the sort of forgiving, restorative exchange we’ve been looking for—only the expected catharsis again doesn’t come. When Donna tells Cameron that they can cut Joe out if it makes Cameron more amenable, Cameron doesn’t say anything, the scene break leaving us wondering what Cameron’s response will be.
When that response comes, it’s a heartbreak. Donna, thinking Cameron’s presence back at Mutiny means all is well, instead finds the clear-eyed Cameron has other ideas.
Donna. I can’t work with you. It’ll never be like it was. It can’t be… You know why I wanted us to meet here? I just didn’t want to forget what happened. How painful that was. When we talked, when it felt good, when I was with my friend again… You reminded me how easily you toss people aside when they’re in your way.
Again, Donna resists being cast as the outright villain here, but, upon reflection, Cameron’s words reframe her actions all through the series. Donna’s baffled response here, “All I was ever trying to do was help you” is telling. Donna’s been put-upon and slighted, one suspects, her whole life. (“My name, your dad’s name, what’s the difference?,” teases Gordon about Donna’s name change.) So has Cameron. They channeled their justifiable anger in different ways—Cameron the rebellious punk, Donna the sensible wife and mother. As they fought their way—individually and together—up to the level of success they enjoy now, however, Cameron’s found a way to both remain true to herself and extend understanding to others. Speaking to Joe at COMDEX:
You go through life and you have this idea of who you are and what you do. And then you decide it’s all bullshit, it’s a defense mechanism. And once you stop defending yourself you can be all these other things.
For Donna, becoming successful and recognized has meant protecting herself by shedding people and things that threaten her vision of herself. And so she leaves Mutiny, and her friend. She starts her car, stops it, and weeps. (Bishé is wrenching.) Then she pulls herself together, looks herself in the eyes in the rearview mirror, and dials the office, ordering someone to book her a trip to Switzerland, where the embryonic web is waiting.
Meanwhile, it’s Joe, Cameron, and Gordon in the basement, huddled around Gordon’s computer, planning their next move. Joe’s confided to Gordon that he’s in love with Cameron. Cameron tells them simply, “She left” when Gordon asks about Donna. Joe talked earlier about how the concept of building the first web browser meant building a door or a tunnel representing “the amazing possibility to be able to go anywhere within something that is magnificent and never-ending,” but for now, they’re just three smart people with an idea, in a dusty basement with a hole in the ceiling. “All right,” says Joe, “Let’s do this.”
- In case anyone missed it, just yesterday, AMC announced that they were—in spite of ratings and all commercial sense, no doubt—renewing Halt And Catch Fire for a fourth and final season. I’ve been with this show from the start and if you’d told me that, mired in the often melodramatic mess of season one, I’d be absolutely thrilled at that news, I’d have been skeptical. But Halt has grown into one of the best shows on TV, and I am thrilled, and thankful. This show could have ended here—or ended with “You Are Not Safe”—and it would have made sense as well. But here’s to a network sticking with something worthwhile when conventional wisdom suggests otherwise. That’s some outside the box, Mutiny-style thinking.
- One complaint about these episodes—too little of Toby Huss’ John Bosworth. It makes sense that he’d be sidelined (he’s retired, and has gotten into sailing), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. His scene with Cameron fairly glows with love, as ever.
- Even with the name change, I thought (perhaps hopefully) that Donna and Gordon’s bar banter was them playing some sort of flirty game.
- Gordon’s still Gordon, but he’s changed, too, mostly for the better. He’s calmer in raising objections to Donna’s plan, and manages Joanie’s A+ teenage pissiness without flying into an understandable rage. And his adjustment to his condition shows he’s found a way to stem the self-pity that often made him pitiable/infuriating. (He’s also doing well financially with the NSFNET deal, although not as well as Joe or Donna.)
- Cameron’s puzzle game is a variation on Nim, which, as she says, can be mastered by knowing the right mathematical trick. (I’ve had this shown to me several times and still have never won, however.)
- Kathryn Newton channels the teenage Joanie’s bratty resentments perfectly, meaning you want to strangle her most of the time. Still, it’s clear she’s also sticking up for Gordon by sabotaging his date with the pleasantly dull Michelle (especially after Michelle makes fun of Gordon’s long-winded cooking advice behind his back). Her line, “You can do better. You already did once” carries love and anger in equal proportion.
- Both episodes are exceptionally shot. The cloudy suburban peacefulness of Bos’ boat, the immediacy of the closeups during the heated Mutiny meeting—I especially liked the way “NIM” director Christopher Cantwell frames Joe and Cameron’s rooftop conversation. Considering the manner of Ryan’s death and Cam’s agitated state of mind, Joe popping that champagne cork made me jump, just as it did Cameron.
- NeXT was a Steve Jobs-founded company that did something similar to what the Mutiny group is planning here. Also, the fact that, out of the four letters in its name, only one isn’t capitalized presages Donna’s fate as the one ultimately left out.
- Tom eventually apologizes for being such a prick, but Joe wasn’t helping matters, needling him by saying “Lucky for us, wives don’t get a vote,” and telling him pointedly, “It was difficult. For a long time. But I’m doing so much better since I’ve reconnected with your wife.”
- Joe: “This future can be different.” Tom: “Jesus, that should be on your business card. how many times are you people going to fall for this?”
- Donna compares their plan to a “universal language.” Cameron: “Like Esperanto?” Tom: “What’s Esperanto?” Cameron: “A language for idiots that failed.”
- Bos, on Space Bike: “It’s like you can’t even win.” “Nope. No you can’t.”
- That’s season three, gang. Thanks for reading as ever. And if this extra-long review wasn’t enough for you, check out Erik Adams’ interview with Halt And Catch Fire creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers.