If there’s a lingering criticism to be made of Halt And Catch Fire’s storytelling going into this fourth and final season, it’s that the show’s underlying schematics aren’t always gracefully integrated into the drama. I’d say it’s “programmatic,” if you’d allow a computer pun this early in the season. Still, in telling the interconnected stories of four characters who forge their identities through technology, perhaps that’s less a bug than a feature. (Last pun, I promise.)
Cameron Howe, explaining why she won’t allow the company to include instructions with her newest game, the immersive, enigmatic Pilgrim, exclaims, “This isn’t a game you play. It’s a game you live.” Back in California after nearly three years working on the game in Japan, she can’t hide her contempt that all the recruited game-testers care about are the then-new blood and guts of Mortal Kombat. “You can’t even kill anything,” whines one, frustrated at Pilgrim’s open-world exploration. (To be fair, the fact that solving one random puzzle sends you back to the beginning of the game is an example of Cameron pushing her “game as life” metaphor to the limits of gamers’ patience.) Cameron loves all kinds of games (“Battle mode?,” she asks Gordon after waking up to the sounds of him playing Mario Kart after sleeping on his living room floor), but her own games (Space Bike, Pilgrim) are acts of self-expression, and self-exploration.
Donna Emerson (née Clark, now comfortably sharing custody with ex-husband Gordon while relishing the freedom of being in the driver’s seat of an on-demand affair with a handsome lover) has solidified her corporate position, doling out (and cutting off) funding for teams of techies desperate for her largesse. Donna sought to break out of her traditional role as supportive wife and mother—and den mother to Cameron and the unruly gang at now-defunct Mutiny. And she has, patterning her career path after successful friend-turned-peer Diane. We see the two women secretly mocking the new (male) hire promoted above them, and Donna, her morning smoothies concocted and served up by her eager and overqualified assistant Tanya (new cast addition Sasha Morfaw), crisply insists that those seeking funding wow her with the next big idea. “I was really rooting for you guys,” she says offhandedly before walking out of one meeting, leaving the flustered underachievers wondering if they’ve just been cut off. (They have.) Donna was shunted into the responsible (or killjoy) role much of the time at Mutiny, but now she has the power to turn the faucet on or off. After they’re defunded, we see the tech team childishly lashing out at each other (“Don’t touch me!”) in the background while Donna sits serenely inside her glass-fronted office. If she’s to be the one in charge of bickering would-be computer geniuses, now she can simply dismiss them when they become too much trouble.
Gordon Clark remains the core group’s functional fuckup. Having built up the company he, Joe, and Cameron embarked upon at the end of season three into a stable (if not thriving) internet provider concern, he seems at peace with his level of professional and personal success, much as we’ve seen him at various points in the series. When Gordon fails to recognize the need to risk security for the lighting-strike genius of Joe’s nascent idea of Google, essentially, Joe accuses Gordon of “sleepwalking.” “You’re trying to convince yourself that it’s all right to stop,” Joe tells him, further entreating, “You’re a builder, you need to build.” But Gordon’s gearhead brilliance has always sought to stall out somewhere comfortable, and here, throwing himself an over-lavish company party for his 40th birthday (complete with performance by the Blue Man Group, who messily use the body-condom-ed Gordon as a human paintbrush), he urges Joe to abandon his traditional head-in-the-clouds thinking in favor of helping their company (CalNect) fight off the encroaching tidal wave of free AOL discs that threatens to sweep smaller providers like them right out of town.
As for Joe MacMillan, getting his head back in those clouds means emerging from the CalNect basement, where he’s been ensconced for the three years since we last saw everyone. Season four opens with a showily impressive eight-minute sequence revealing how the promise of the Joe-Cameron-Gordon team splintered almost immediately, with the pained Gordon watching helplessly (via tracking shots, sly dissolves, and gradual lighting and scenery changes) as Cameron returns to Japan (and husband Tom), leaving Joe and Gordon to work long-distance attempting to get their visionary browser Lodestar to market first. (They fail, beaten by real-life online pioneer Mosaic.) Confronting the returned Cameron in his Post-It-festooned workspace (Joe’s been meticulously tracking every new website he can by hand), he blames her distance (in every sense) for the failure, snapping, “If we had worked on this, together, it could have been amazing.”
And it could have been—Gordon admits that Joe and poor Ryan had been right about the coming of the open internet, but pleads that Joe simply enjoy the benefits of having been right. Joe buys in for a while, allowing traces of his old, take-charge demeanor to emerge during a board meeting—before uncharacteristically deferring to Gordon. But a stray parting thought from Cameron about the need to catalog the exponentially expanding number of websites sends Joe’s mind, again, spinning out into the realm of the possible. Despite the fact that first Gordon then Cameron describe his concept of mapping every available website in one directory as “Like the Yellow Pages?,” Joe has the old Joe MacMillan fire rekindle inside the shaggy, somewhat squirrely basement tech geek he’s become over the intervening three years. And then, also like the old Joe, his enthusiasm spreads.
If Halt And Catch Fire too-readily allows its characters to define themselves in metaphor, that’s because the characters are all, in their individual ways, defining failure and success that way. In the second episode, “Signal To Noise,” which picks up immediately after Joe learns via telephone that Cameron and Tom have split up, the pair slowly thaw toward each other as Cameron’s says of her seemingly random “back to the beginning” puzzle in Pilgrim, “Maybe it means everything. Now you can approach the path you’ve taken in an entirely new way.” But, effortful as the metaphor may be, it leads to the lovely, episode-long conceit that Joe and Cameron playfully allow their initially tentative telephone reunion to sprawl through one whole night and following day. (We see Joe swapping out one cordless phone for another when the battery runs low, and the two at one point adorably admit that they have had to pee for a long time.) Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis make Joe and Cameron’s connection here deeply touching and funny—even as we see how events outside their artificial, two-person world continue worrisomely without them.
While Joe and Cameron unplug themselves, both are willfully unaware of looming disaster. Cameron ignores a message from Atari, but a second knock at her hotel room door brings notice that her stubborn purity of vision has sent Pilgrim to an uncertain future in the form of an indefinite postponement. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Joe, CalNect is on the brink of sudden disaster, Gordon’s dream of mid-level success unraveling in a snarl of busy signals, angry customers, and Gordon’s realization that phone provider MCI has deliberately scuttled their bandwidth in preparation for an in-house ISP. “They’re a public utility! They can’t play winners and losers!,” exclaims one CalNect employee, but Gordon’s face, as it inevitably does at least once a season, registers the fact that, once again, he’s watching his plans explode in his face. (The head of Donna’s firm warily describes the internet at this time as “frontierland,” and Gordon realizes that he hasn’t prepared himself or his company to survive there.)
The cliché (that I’ve helped disseminate) is that Halt And Catch Fire only became a good TV show (and then a great one) once it abandoned its Mad Men-cribbed blueprints. Like Joe and Gordon copying that IBM chip in season one, the product they came up with was counting on borrowed prestige to smooth over some clunky design. In “So It Goes,” when Donna tells one of her teams, “You need to be pursuing your own vision, not aping somebody else’s right?,” it echoes the course correction creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers made in their own, under-the-radar AMC workshop. As A.V. Clubber Eric Thurm writes at The Verge, the show had to let go of the single, great “misunderstood genius” trope so common to the modern creator narrative in order to both present a truer picture of the innovation process, and to become a richer show.
Joe MacMillan’s genius for inspiration and manipulation are still vital going forward, but it’s his—and the show’s—recognition of the different skills of those around him that make the gathering electric storm of ideas gathering around Joe’s indexing concept so thrilling in “Signal To Noise”’s final minutes. Sadly for these characters, their skills and personalities clash as often as they are complementary. Witness Gordon and Donna, their gentle, affectionate sparring at a very civil exes dinner yet providing the seeds for the coming conflict over competing versions of Joe’s idea. Or, again, Joe and Cameron’s restorative phone marathon. Joe, hearing the sleeping Cameron fall silent, quietly tells her through the phone, “I’ll just keep talking because I think you’re still there. Are you there? I’m here,” and it’s so exquisitely lovely it raises gooseflesh. But, as Gordon—caught again in the middle—intuits, things between these two are anything but simple enough to be fixed with a phone call, of any length. “Why do you keep putting yourself through this with her?,” Gordon asks Joe during their much more cozy 40th birthday camping trip, similarly warning off Cameron when she crashes in his living room after the Blue Man Group party. “Am I cruel?,” Cameron asks, and Gordon brushes the idea away. (It’s delicately heartwarming how these former antagonists have become buddies.) But, after Gordon realizes that Joe has become fixated on Cameron once more, he visits her at work and is interrupted before returning to the question. Gordon wants everyone to recognize things among this group of friends, lovers, exes, and coworkers need to be kept separate. (He refuses Boz’s request for a loan because Diane and Donna’s relationship makes everything too complicated.) But the characters of Halt And Catch Fire don’t pull apart that easily. The series’ central tragedy is that these brilliant people will always be at the center of great technological advances—only to lose out on the big prize in the end. We’ve seen them essentially invent online gaming, social networking, the internet, and now Google—but they’re doomed by their own humanity not to get the credit in the end.
Halt And Catch Fire has developed into a confident, fast-moving enterprise, and there’s a lot to take in in these first two episodes. (I haven’t even mentioned the blessed return of Toby Huss’ Boz, here still uneasily with Diane, but bluffing his way through meetings with Donna, then Gordon, doing his old shitkicker’s storyteller schtick to conceal how desperately he needs cash to hide a bad investment from Diane.) But what the show reasserts with such fluidity here is that these people are inextricably bound by a shared belief that there are truths to be found in the unceasing evolution of technology—and the possibilities for self-expression and communication it represents. Donna, berating one tech team for looking backward (using the internet to compile “dead data”), tells them, “We’re in the future business here.” Cameron sees her games as a place for people like her, who both need and fear human contact, to revel in a shared experience of discovery, and wonder. Speaking to Bos last season, she explained that the fact that there’s no way to actually “win” at Space Bike is part of its beauty, and she tells a colleague that Pilgrim is for people who know that the journey is an end in itself. “You have to trust the player,” she explains. Joe tries to rope Gordon into his half-formed idea of an online index at least partly by appealing to the shared spark of inspiration that has made the two of them such a good, if combustible, team. “Nobody remembers the power company,” is Joe’s response to Gordon’s plea for him to come up out of that basement.
It’s that connection that all these characters share that makes what could feel like a contrived restart feel more like an inevitable, if fraught, reunion. The pieces for this season’s plan to have the gang—separately and together—race toward the invention of something brilliant and essential all click into place seamlessly. They spark off of each other. Cameron sparks Joe, Joe works through it out loud to Gordon, Gordon inadvertently lays the groundwork for Donna to recognize the same idea when one of her teams makes a similar, last-ditch pitch. Gordon, saddled with younger daughter Haley after she gets caught skipping school, ruminates both on Joe’s heap of scribbled URLs and his daughter’s impressive, self-created personal web page. At its best—and this two-part premiere is very promising for this final season indeed—Halt And Catch Fire welds character and inspiration into something exhilarating.
- Donna has a baller power move going with her elegant little flip watch, which she turns around to the face to show that supplicants are on the clock, and then snaps around once she’s decided the meeting is over.
- There are subtle glimpses of how Gordon’s condition has progressed in the last three years. He has a driver, one suspects because he can’t trust himself to drive himself any more. “So It Goes”’ opening expositional sequence ends with Gordon flashing on season one Joe and his plan to copy the IBM chip, only for him (and us) to realize he’s standing in the dark with an armload of firewood. Joe asks if he got lost, and Scoot McNairy lets Gordon’s face reflect the unintended truth there. And, panic rising as CalNect descends into chaos, we hear him transpose some words, threatening to “put his face through the fist” of the guy at MCI who’s just screwed them over.
- Donna’s made choices that would traditionally paint her as the villain, but Kerry Bishé continues to make Donna’s journey far too complexly human for that. The board meeting, where, sensing the boys’ club around her is about to take her new project out of her hands, Donna sells out the recently promoted (black, female) Tanya to install Boz as her surrogate instead, carries enough contradictory sympathy to make the case for a Donna spinoff.
- Tanya herself would be a major player on the Donna show. (Halt And Catch Donna?) Introduced via a panning shot of her various degrees on the walls outside Donna’s office, Sasha Morfaw’s Tanya is so shocked at Donna’s announcement of her promotion that she can barely speak, Donna’s prim demand for gratitude expressing the different levels of privilege in their relationship with a eloquent shorthand.
- He’s not credited, but pretty sure that was Kerry Bishé’s real-life partner Chris Lowell playing her pretty boy lover.
- As part of their all-night talk-athon, Joe reads out the ending to John Updike’s story “Pigeon Feathers.”
- Joe, to Cameron after her game is put on hold: “Don’t let that asshole take that away from you. He’s a parasite. You make something out of nothing and I have always been in awe of you.”
- We’re in 1994! Witness Hole, Mortal Kombat, Zima at Gordon’s party.
- The Clark girls are back. Joanie’s still patterning herself after Cameron, acting out, and smoking a lot of weed, while Haley has grown into a sullen, emotional computer geek. Gordon, shocked when Haley bursts out in racking sobs when he calls her “our rock,” expresses his concern to an uncomprehending Donna, rejecting Donna’s PMS explanation. “Trust me, I know menstrual crying,” might be Gordon’s finest dad moment yet.
- Toby Huss is back, too, making Boz’s glad-handing desperation acutely painful. It’s a crusher when, after all his talk of taking people sailing, he reveals to Gordon that he’s had to sell his boat. Similarly, Huss’ reading of the line, “I’m 65 years old. I can’t let this be my last thing” is devastating.
- And we’re back as well for A.V. Club coverage of the final season of Halt And Catch Fire. I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer. And you’ll thank yourself for checking out Erik Adams’ interview with the HACF creators and cast. Here we go.