Halt and Catch Fire has come to an end, and I have many thoughts on the two-hour series finale, coming up just as soon as I bribe you with Centipede…
“But I’ve done things. That always comes with a price, but I did them.” -Donna
Late in Ten of Swords, the final episode of what has turned out to be a great, great series, I couldn’t help but laugh for a moment when the action paused so that Donna could look around at the customers of the diner where she and Cameron had eaten, while Cameron was outside getting something out of her truck. Remember that when Halt premiered, many critics — myself included — dismissed it as Quality Drama karaoke, claiming bits and pieces of prior classics (Mad Men, primarily) rather than bringing enough ideas of its own to the table, so it felt both surprising and weirdly apropos for one of its concluding moments to resemble Tony Soprano eating onion rings while Meadow parked her car outside.
That’s not really a fair parallel now, and it probably wasn’t even back then. The resemblance between the two diner scenes was superficial at best, just as Gordon was never much like Walter White (though his facial hair morphed several times), even as Joe was never really like Don Draper. Okay, maybe he was at times like Don Draper, but for the most part, the comparisons to past classics became an easy stick with which to beat a show that was still figuring itself out, and which conveniently was building its entire first season around its heroes building a thinly-veiled copy of someone else’s creation.
But I’m glad The Sopranos finale occurred to me when I watched Donna looking around that diner, not because it made me worried that some guy with a Members Only jacket was going to walk past her and generate 20,000 internet theories, but because it turned out to be the ideal setup for one of the most beautiful and original final exchanges between two main characters I’ve ever seen, these eight simple, magical words:
“What is it?”
“I have an idea.”
And that, my friends, is the story of Halt and Catch Fire in a nutshell, both within and without. It seems, even vaguely, like it will be traveling territory other shows have already staked out as their own, only to steer sharply into an area that is uniquely, marvelously, Halt‘s and Halt‘s alone, in a way that makes you wonder how anyone could have compared it to another show to begin with.
There have been many great endings to TV dramas involving death, or incarceration, or — as Cameron seems on the verge of doing before Donna has her brainstorm — characters heading off in search of fresh starts. To instead build almost an entire finale — really, in hindsight, the majority of a series — around two friends realizing they want to work together again and create something? And to create something that we will never know anything about, other than that Donna was inspired to do it in that diner? That’s both new and entirely the whole point of this wonderful show, and I didn’t realize how badly I needed it until it happened.
Well, I knew I needed Cameron and Donna to reconnect. Their partnership was the heart of seasons two and three, and their schism across the last ten episodes or so has been painful to endure, because the writers and directors and Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé had done such amazing work at portraying these two women and what their bond meant to one another. Having them not be on speaking terms for so long (and much longer for the characters than for us) was painful, and every time there was a moment this season where an opportunity presented itself for them to reconnect, it was all I could do to not shout at the screen something like, “Call Cameron right now! Tell her that you beat her game! Tell her her game is amazing!”(*)
(*) It speaks to how invested I’ve become in the show — a level of investment I never could have imagined even circa the COMDEX trip at the end of season one — that I would be that crazy in so many moments. But if I were to show you my notes from those scenes — up to and including the moment in the finale where Donna pauses too long after Cameron suggests they work together again — they would look like the all-caps rantings of a dangerous individual.
Still, I was fully prepared for the ending we seemed to be getting between them: in the wake of Gordon’s death, Cameron and Donna repair their friendship but realize the time to work together has come and gone. We still got one more chance to see them as a team — Donna on hardware, Cameron on software, like always — as they tried to salvage Haley’s lost project, Cameron still got to hear Donna’s deeply confessional and poignant (especially given how far the tech industry has not come since the mid-’90s with regards to gender issues) speech to the women at their party, and the two of them got to hang out one last time at the Mutiny/Comet offices, talking themselves through the entire rise and fall of their hypothetical new company Phoenix (complete with a neon Phoenix logo appearing and then disappearing behind them). If it had just been that… dayenu. It would have been bitterweet, but it would have been enough, specially after that long estrangement.
But then… good lord… then they had breakfast together, and Cameron went out to check the map while Donna paid the check, and somehow in that moment Donna — Donna, who has usually found herself in position to facilitate the genius of others, rather than as the one coming up with the brainstorms, and who has always to a degree felt guilty about this, no matter how much people like Cameron and Gordon and Joe tell her how important her contribution is, and no matter how often they point out the moments where she’s had great ideas like Community — had a Eureka moment, and she went to tell the one person in the world who would most appreciate and be able to do something with it.