Review: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ looks to the future in its remarkable season finale

A review of the two-hour Halt and Catch Fire season finale coming up just as soon as I give you this Cisco wrist rest…

“It's amazing how much changes in just a few years. And how much stays the same.” -Joe

Late in the finale's second hour, Gordon tries to cheer Donna up about how the first day of World Wide Web brainstorming went by suggesting tomorrow will be better.

“There's not going to be a tomorrow,” she laments.

Thankfully, for all six of us still watching this great show – which has only gotten better as it's gone along – there is going to be a tomorrow, as AMC yesterday announced a renewal for a fourth and final season. We'll get to see what Joe, Cameron, and Gordon's approach to the Web will be, find out if Donna is going to CERN to work against her former partners or try to help them from a different angle,  see if Cameron and Joe end up together or if there's too much damage from their pasts; find out what facial hair choice Gordon ultimately chooses for the long haul and a lot more.

And I'm very glad about that. The creative team – I interviewed Cantwell and Rogers about the finale – has earned the right to end the story on their terms, and I'll take as many more hours with these characters as I can get.

But if AMC had looked at the pitiful ratings and decided there wasn't enough money there, ownership of the series or not, then “NIM” and “NeXT” would have made one hell of a swan song for Halt.

Because last week's episode so obviously wrapped up a lot of this season's stories, I had a feeling we might be approaching another time jump, which arrived in the opening scene of “NIM,” showing Donna with slightly less big hair, going by her maiden name as the new name partner at Diane's firm, using a more modern computer that runs Windows 3.0. In time, the other regulars turned up with ever-more-changed looks – Gordon clean-shaven again, Cameron a braided brunette, Joe an early '90s hipster – and in new circumstances. Gordon and Donna are amicably divorced, with the toll of the previous seasons outweighing whatever reconciliation efforts each of them made in this one. Cameron is (mostly) happy in Japan, and has become a celebrity in the gaming world for the Space Bike series. Bos is enjoying retirement and life as Diane's kept man, while Joe is a recluse, making deals by phone and fax and running away from his stint as the public face of personal computing.

It's a new status quo, but one that fits with everything that came before. Had AMC made the decision to call it quits, this would have made a fine epilogue to the story we've seen so far. Instead, it turns out to be prologue for the inevitable final phase of the story, as everyone moves from working on a primitive version of the Internet to the one you're reading right now – and one where our fictional heroes have a chance of getting in on the ground floor, or through the open stadium gate, or whatever metaphor you choose to take out of their brainstorming session.

Though they weren't originally meant to be scheduled together, “NIM” and “NeXT” made perfect companions, with the former getting us acquainted to the characters circa 1990, and the latter simply placing most of them (minus Bos, plus Tom) inside the gutted former Mutiny offices to see if Donna's right and there's something to be done with the Web. That discussion becomes amazingly wonky – especially when Joe and Tom begin arguing about HTML versus HTTP – yet never boring, because each argument is complicated by the relationships each person in the room has with one another, and the shared history they all have. So there's macho posturing by Tom as he seeks to mark his territory in front of Joe and the others, tension between Donna and Cameron over the ugly end of Mutiny, awkwardness between Donna and Gordon despite all their best efforts to just be friends (you can tell she was hoping that the guy he planned to fix her up with was himself), etc. Pace, Davis, Bishe, and McNairy are all old-hat at this point at playing cosmetically altered but fundamentally similar versions of these characters, and while there's a bit more age and wisdom (or, at least, cynicism) to all of them, they all still registered as the people we were watching last week, or earlier. We close with an image of the show's original core trio – Tom having gone on to Texas, a tearfully bitter Donna ceding her spot because Cameron won't work with her – again staring at a computer screen, and style aside, they track as the people we met back in season 1…

…only now they're working on something much bigger than building an IBM clone. They're trying to decide the future – not only for them, but for all of us.

Ordinarily, fictional dramas are either reluctant to insert their characters into history, or do it so clumsily that it becomes a distraction. But the great thing about the Web – particularly at that Lewis & Clark-ish phase of it – is that it's so big and complicated that season 4 can have Joe, Cameron, and Gordon's project succeed or fail wildly (or simply become a modest, obscure success, like Gordon's NSFNet deal) in any one corner of the place without it ringing false. The future of the series is as open to Cantwell and Rogers as the Web theoretically is to their main characters.

But if this somehow had been the end, I love that the creators were prepared to go out with an episode this talky, this thoughtful, and this optimistic. This has always been a show about creation – and about, as Cameron notes in her praise of Joe during “NIM,” bringing people together – and the characters have tried so hard to create without ever quite getting there. The Giant was just a cheap knock-off. Mutiny was too far ahead of the curve (which no doubt informs Gordon's concern about being too soon with the Web). Corporate interests spiked Joe's plans for MacMillan Utilities. But they haven't stopped trying, and haven't stopped coming together despite their flaws and feuds and rivalries. They're still there, and the best – and, as we've seen from a lot of what's happened on Twitter this year, worst – of the Internet is still way out in front of them.

What an incredible show this has turned out to be. What lucky viewers we are that we'll get to see it through to its conclusion.

Some other thoughts:

* Both episodes were peppered with callbacks to the run of the series. I particularly liked seeing the return of the pitiful dot matrix printer guys from season 1's COMDEX episode.

* Though Gordon is learning to cook, dating a subordinate, and otherwise acting light on his feet, it's clear that the physical toll of his condition has only worsened, which both Joanie and Donna are keenly aware of.

* Not sure which I enjoyed more: Joe and Cameron busting out the very '80s dance moves to the Pixies' “Velouria” at the Atari party (and looking as in sync as they did back in the day), or the Don't Look Now/Out of Sight editing that presented their conversation on the balcony at the same time we were seeing them fall back into bed together. The show had to devote a lot of work – and let a lot of time pass (for us and the characters) – to plausibly let those two be this physically and emotionally close again, and Pace and Davis's revived chemistry made it all worth it.

* The time jump prevented the show from doing an episode about where all the characters were during the '89 San Francisco earthquake, but it at least weakened the Mutiny building enough for Joe to fall through the floor after his fight with Tom. Always acquiring scars, that guy.

* The show walks an interesting middle ground with Tom, where we understand why Cameron would want to be with him and why he in turn would get so chesty around Joe, but where he's always presented as a blatant safety school choice for her. The right guy for someone else, but the wrong guy to be stuck in the middle of this group, which is why he so glaringly didn't fit in during the discussion.

* For those of you who had the willpower to not watch Too Many Cooks the moment Cameron used the phrase, I applaud you. Here's your reward. I'll see you in 11 minutes.

* Man, it was something to behold the frustrated rage of Donna when she gets into her car after giving up her dream project as a way to apologize to Cameron for Mutiny. This is your periodic reminder that Kerry Bishe and her co-stars have gone unnoticed by the Emmys. #PeakTV

So go read the Cantwell/Rogers interview, and then tell me: What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at