Halt and Catch Fire: a final season review


I imagine that series finales are incredibly dificult to write. Only a handful of these have really left me feeling satisfied. I liked how Person of Interest ended, for instance. Also The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. A few others I could think of, if I gave myself some time, and none of these would be Lost.

We knew that Season 4 of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire would be its last before it started. This caused me to dread episode 10 the entire time I was watching the nine episodes leading up to it. What would happen to these characters we’ve grown to know during these past few years? Would the ending feel right?

And the answer is: yes and no. But, even this is somehow appropriate for a series that has always evoked a certain ambivalence. While a critical darling, the show never captured the imagination of most of the viewers out there. It did capture mine, but I suppose, at least in this instance, I’m part of a niche group rather than the mainstream of popular culture.

As I mentioned before, I was there during the birth of the PC era, which is where this series begins. In my college studies in managing information systems, I learned to write code on mainframe computers. I learned about data base programming and was writing programs in BASIC and COBOL. I even sold IBM-clone personal computers while working for Radio Shack, whose previous entry into the field, the TRS-80 was affectionately known as the Trash-80. The TRS-80 Model 4, with 64K RAM and a single disc-drive, sold for $1699 in 1983 (which is about $4200 in 2017 dollars). The Tandy Corporation, Radio Shack’s parent company, was actually at the forefront of mass-produced and mass-marketed personal computers. And, again, I was there.

In HCF, Cardiff Electric, where the characters Joe MacMillan, Gordon and Donna Clark, and Cameron Howe all meet, is loosely based on the history of Compaq. The series’ jumping-off point is in North Texas’s Silicon Prairie, which, by the way, included Fort Worth-based Radio Shack. The series begins with Cardiff’s attempt to take on Goliath-like IBM in developing their own personal computer. But, more importantly, the series becomes a deeper examination of these four people who came together at Cardiff—five if we count Toby Huss’s character, John Bosworth, which we must. By the third season, the setting is moved from the Silicon Prairie to Silicon Valley in California. And the focus of our characters changes from personal computer creation to that great beast that didn’t really exist when I graduated college, the Internet. Our characters, too, go through changes along the way.

In Season 4 of HCF, Joe and Gordon have converted the former offices of Mutiny, Cameron and Donna’s company, over to their own concern, an internet service provider known as CalNect. Cameron Howe has gotten married and moved to Japan, where she created a video game named Pilgrim. She hasn’t been able to finish working on the web browser for Joe and Gordon, but when she does, Joe has had a new idea about a way to index every website on the Internet. Meanwhile, Gordon’s now ex-wife Donna, who works for a venture capital firm, meets with a startup called Rover who proposes to use an algorithm they designed for cataloging medical databases to index websites and make them searchable. In this way, Gordon and Donna are immediately set up to be on opposite sides of the search engine race in the first episode of the season. And, this is the kicker, Donna stole the idea after hearing Gordon talk about Joe’s vision. Such high drama. Also, Cameron tells Joe that her husband Tom left her and she’s not returning to Japan, so it looks like Cameron and Joe’s on-again-off-again relationship is on again.

As the season progresses, Gordon and Donna’s daughter Haley begins working with Gordon and Joe, initially working on indexing Joe’s research into different websites, but then creating her own website, “Haley’s Comet.” CalNect is being pushed out of business by AOL and MCI, so Gordon and Joe redirect their energy into Haley’s website. Haley refuses to sell the idea, insisting instead on continuing to work on it herself. The website is renamed simply “Comet,” and Donna eventually learns that her ex-husband and daughter are in direct competition with her startup Rover.

Cameron, meanwhile, finds that her Pilgrim video game is in trouble after receiving a scathing review from Electronic Gaming Monthly. It turns out she leaked the game to the media, and Atari eventually shelves the project, indefinitely. The game is just too hard, it seems. Cameron buys a plot of land and a used Airstream trailer. When John Boswell comes over to help her with a plumbing problem, Bos reveals that a bad real estate investment has depleted his bank accounts. Bos, whose girlfriend is Donna’s boss at the venture capital firm, gets Cameron’s help in refining the Rover algorithm, unbeknownst to anyone else. More drama.

Donna, a smart cookie, is immediately suspicious about the origins of the new algorithm, and she eventually gets to the truth, but not before causing Bos to have a heart attack. He lives. But the truth about the algorithm comes out. This causes friction between all of our main characters. Cameron eventually signs over the algorithm without payment. Coding comes easy to her, it seems.

Because her school grades are slipping, Gordon tells Haley she can’t continue at Comet for a while. She goes into full meltdown mode. The website was her brainchild, after all. Joe, during a trip with Haley to a fast food restaurant, comes to the realization that Haley is attracted to a female employee there. Joe has been shown to be what can only be called sexually fluid during the course of the series, though none of the characters ever make a big deal over it. While he’s currently in a relationship with Cameron, he’s been in relationships with men even as far back as Season One. It’s a sign of the times when this is never really openly discussed. This connection to Haley leads him to ask Gordon to let Haley return, but Gordon is, as ever, stubborn. An episode or so later, he relents, but Haley doesn’t seem interested in returning. Then Gordon dies.

We have known that Gordon was ill for some time. And I knew he was going to die during the final season, but I expected it in episode 10, not the end of episode 7. The actor Scoot McNairy died twice this year, on HCF and earlier on Fargo. 2017 is now the Year Scoot Died Twice.

The remaining three episodes of the season involve the reactions of the surviving characters to Gordon’s death, and, as ever, the failure/startup of their various ventures. Comet, unable to compete with Yahoo, folds. Cameron and Joe break up—again. Cameron’s latest relationship with another investor crashes and burns. Donna recovers from her alcoholism that was another subplot this season, takes Diane’s place at the venture capitalist company and changes its name. Joe becomes a humanities teacher at a prep school. Cameron and Donna become friends again, and, as the series ends, it appears that they will be going into a business partnership again.

Donna seemed to have a sudden inspiration for their business. Many people are saying it was wi-fi. But, as usual, the show didn’t feel the need to explain everything and, whatever Donna’s idea was, it’s not the important part. What’s important is that it appears that the lives of these characters will continue after the final episode ends. In my personal head canon, I know that all of their lives will continue to intersect until all of them are dead like Gordon.

This was good television. The ending feels ambivalent to me not because it was bad. It wasn’t. It was apt and fitting. I was sorry to see Gordon die, but it was the logical conclusion to his personal plotline. The ending feels ambivalent because it just wasn’t. Wasn’t an ending, I mean. A fifth season could take place just as easily as all the others have, entering a new phase of the characters’ lives. We could see what happens with Joe the Teacher, and how he gets inspired to do something new, as we know he will be. We could see what happens with Haley as she explores her sexuality and makes her own way into the world. We know the course of Donna and Cameron’s new partnership won’t run smoothly. And how will Bos and Diane enjoy their retirement, and what will cause them to come out of it? Something with Donna and Cameron and Joe, no doubt.

It doesn’t end. The characters live on. That’s just good writing there.

I will miss Halt and Catch Fire next year, but I’m happy to have experienced it.

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