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.
It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what it is. It’s, frankly, better that way, because the series always had to maneuver around the challenges of history, which is why the Giant, Mutiny, MacMillan Utility, Calnect, Rover, and Comet all had to eventually become footnotes to the real history. Even if Comet was a better version of Yahoo!, we know who won the early web portal wars (just as Mosaic had to beat Cameron’s browser to market). If we knew what Donna thought of, we would have to start thinking about the real-world equivalents, and the considering when and why Donna and Cam’s take on it would fail. Instead, it gets to be our version of Phoenix, only we can pretend that the company is a roaring success, and that the two of them work together until a ripe old age, bringing Haley in to help them as just one of a legion of young women they’ll mentor over the decades. It’s not about the money – all of them became fabulously wealthy from their many near-misses over the years (Joe is driving a Lotus while working as a teacher) — but about wanting to see their genius finally recognized with a clear win. The less we know about Donna’s idea, the easier a win is to imagine.
In the end, Halt does turn out to be a love story, just not the kind we’re used to. Gordon dies, and only after he and Donna have been amicably split for years. Cameron and Joe drift apart because they always have and always will, despite the spark they’ve had since the day they met. No, the One True Pairing of Halt was Donna and Cameron, whose love was built not on romantic or sexual feelings, or even really on friendship — they liked each other, but both of them usually turned to Gordon for emotional support — but on a shared passion for creating, for building, for connecting. So of course that love story must conclude not with a kiss, but with the promise of another idea to pull out of the air and make a reality, no matter how hard it is and how unlikely the chances of success may be. (As Donna says to Diane at the party, Cameron’s gift is, “Thinking of impossible things,” and that gift has infected her in that parking lot.)
It’s a gorgeous climactic scene, and the only disappointing part of the finale is that it’s not the actual end of the series. Instead, we have to get one more full-circle moment — in a pair of hours that have featured callbacks to “the thing that gets us to the thing,” the copying of the BIOS, Joe’s old colleague Dale from IBM, Donna fixing electronics for her kids (just like she repaired the Speak & Spell in the pilot) — as Joe is once again the man in the great suit and expensive car arriving to lecture a roomful of impressionable young minds, even repeating the first half of his first line of the series: “Let me start by asking a question: How many of you desire to be computer engineers?” But despite all the work that Lee Pace and the creative team had done in rehabilitating Joe from his early proto-Draperness and his chaos agent tendencies, he still felt like an afterthought. Once Comet failed and Cameron left him, his importance to what had turned out to be the central narrative of the show ended. He had become a sympathetic enough figure that it was nice to see him get a happy-ish ending — he doesn’t wind up with Cameron (who he admits, in a Field of Dreams-ish moment, was the real “thing” as far as he was concerned), but he gets to do the thing he loved best and bloviate about the future, the past, and how the world should really work — but Donna and Cameron in the parking lot is so powerful, and so much a summation of what Halt became, that it should have ended right there, perhaps with Joe’s academia interlude happening right before the breakfast scene. (After all, he’s back on the East Coast, so his classes start three hours earlier than breakfast out in Silicon Valley.) Let Donna make her pronouncement, play “Solsbury Hill,” roll credits. Easy.
But just about everything else in these two episodes was perfect, and frequently tear-inducing: the glimpse of Gordon in the Comet ad (and the idea that Cameron had joined Comet temporarily to launch the redesign); Haley retreating into the closet after her mortifying failure with the waitress, but Donna and Cameron understanding her sexuality without anyone like Gordon or Joe or Haley herself needing to tell them; the revelation that Haley has been listening to Gordon’s voice on the meditation tapes; Joanie making a deep connection with her mother that required no microchips or fiber-optic cable, just a tree in the mud of Thailand; forever antisocial Cameron’s attempt to slip out of the party with just a small wave being ruined when she falls into Donna’s pool; Bos, the show’s most fundamentally decent character and the one most deserving of an unqualified happy ending, pondering a life in the 21st century while triumphantly walking in slow-mo to “Fanfare for the Common Man”; even the Rover algorithm winding up back at a medical indexing company, right where it started.
For a show that wound up being about creating as much as about connecting, and that struggled so much at both in its early days, it was a masterful conclusion demonstrating the full range of the powers everyone on both sides of the camera (including finale director Karyn Kusama, plus both of the Christophers on script) and the riveting intimacy of a series that, at it start, felt as cold and distant as Joe MacMillan himself.
There have been many great TV drama finales, many of them featuring lines that will instantly pull me back to the moment when I first watched them and was overwhelmed with emotions of joy, or pain, or simply regret over losing something great:
“I did it for me. I liked it.”
“I have an idea.”
This was a great finale, to a series I never expected to become as great as it did.
Some other thoughts:
* Bos’s “Fanfare” walk was a wonder, but so was the look of sheer relief on Diane’s face when Bos casually tells her about his clean bill of health. She was never as important as the other regulars, but she and Bos both deserved that moment.
* Which spinoff would you rather watch: Donna Clark: Dangerous When Wet, an Esther Williams homage where Donna swims all day and night, or Hackers and Hacky Sack, where Donna becomes a competitive hacky sack player while revolutionizing the sport through her insistence on doing it in a series of fabulous cocktail dresses?
* We didn’t necessarily need those few glimpses of Gordon in the ninth episode, since the previous episodes so thoroughly said goodbye to him, but I still choked up when he appeared in the Comet ad, and again when Joe recalled their early ’90s days in that office.
* God, Haley getting crushed by the waitress — after psyching herself up with the sounds of Veruca Salt’s “Seether” in Joanie’s car, her legs bouncing with nervous energy to the beat — was brutal to watch, and I was almost as dismayed to see her dating a boy in response. The casual way she dumped him, though, suggests she may be okay in the end, which was a relief. Kudos to Susanna Skaggs and everyone else who made what was essentially a brand-new character (we knew Haley as a little girl, but still) into such a key emotional piece of this last season.
* Nice to see Carol Kane pop up as Denise the psychic, who’s candid about the vagaries of her business — the tarot cards mean “whatever you want them to mean” — but still gives Joe some hope with the eponymous Ten of Swords card and the possibility of some kind of happy ending after more of the difficulty that has become his lot in life. Also a good touch to see Joe struck by the glimpse of Denise’s grandson, since we know kids have been on his mind since Gordon’s death.
* Did you know that David Wilson Barnes, who played Dale, was actually listed in the opening credits as a cast regular early in season one? More evidence of how Halt was still in the debugging phase back then: he seemed like he would be a good longterm adversary, then got written out after two appearances when the story went in other directions.
* Donna’s laughing fit over the name Yahoo! — and the bafflement of Trip and the others about it — in the concluding scene of “Search” briefly suggested that she would crash and burn taking Diane’s place as managing partner. Instead, we see in the montage of her swimming and working (scored to “Beercan” by Beck) that she seems to be a very good, and popular, boss. In the hypothetical fifth season, I wonder if she’d have to leave that job in order to do this new idea with Cameron, or if she’d have the ability to do both, considering how hands-on she was with Rover (and Diane with Mutiny before that).
* My schedule this week made it too difficult to arrange an interview with Cantwell and Rogers, but on Monday I’ll link to a piece Todd VanDerWerff (who was on set for filming of “Ten of Swords” and spoke with both at length) will be running over on Vox.
What did everybody else think?