“1984,” the finale for what’s looking like Halt And Catch Fire’s only season (if the ratings are any indication), decides what’s needed is a big finish. Except that the show’s incremental improvement over its last few episodes has been due to its scrupulous avoidance of the sort of showy, would-be show-stopping big scenes that made much of its first half so downright silly.
After a promising pilot followed by a run of alternately humdrum and ludicrous episodes, the latter half of the season has seen the show get better without ever getting very good. The last four episodes’ bump in quality have derived much of their effectiveness from their focus on the inherently compelling rush of the Cardiff crew to complete their portable PC (still ill-advisedly called the Giant) in time to premiere it at the COMDEX expo. Everyone loves a good underdog, beat-the-clock story, and the show has benefitted from seeing the show’s four main characters (I think Donna has proven herself by this point) uniting in the face of a common goal.
Of course, to find that moderately sweet spot, the show has had to push past a lot of what was presented in the first half of the season as important, most of it centering on Joe. In that pilot, Joe MacMillan’s elaborate, mysteriously motivated scheme to force Cardiff (and MacMillan pawns Gordon, Cameron, and Bosworth) to commit to making what would become the Giant provides the dramatic current—and the show’s initial promise. Who is this Joe MacMillan and why is he imposing his enigmatic will on this small, complacent Texas computer company and its employees? Instead, Joe’s secrets were parceled out in deadeningly mundane fashion and poor Lee Pace was left to contend with some of the downright dippiest scenes of the TV season. (Although Joe luring Cameron to grab a live wire as foreplay and Joe doing an interpretive flashlight dance in the middle of a hurricane are contenders, his parking lot breakdown/inspirational speech in “FUD” takes the prize as Halt And Catch Fire’s most ill conceived big dramatic moment.) As fine an actor as Pace is, he’s been asked to play the unplayable all season, Joe’s purported magnetism coming off as arch, overheated posturing most of the time.
In that overwritten parking lot rallying cry, Joe appealed to Cameron and Gordon, citing their shared destiny—as outsiders! as visionaries!—as the reason why they should stick with him, despite his increasingly byzantine manipulations. Except that, as his plan was revealed, the Joe MacMillan posturing became more mundane, and the show with it. It’s not inconceivable that Joe would get so caught up in the many pragmatic details of the Giant’s development that he would lose sight of his messianic schemes, but that the show bogged down with him was crippling. Every time Joe turned his oratorical zeal to getting the Giant “on store shelves by Christmas,” Halt And Catch Fire’s reason for existence became less distinct. And tonight, with the show determined to deliver a resonant denouement to the season, Halt indulges in some of its most flamboyant conceits yet.
With the Giant succeeding after Joe and Gordon jettisoned Cameron’s personalized interface, Cardiff is flush. Despite shit-kicker CEO Nathan Cardiff’s customary bluster, Joe and Gordon are set to split 8 percent of the company and run the place together. Cameron’s off in a snit over Joe’s perceived betrayal, and her discovery that her phone company job offers exploitable opportunities to create a proto-internet gaming network sees her creating her own company (“MUTINY,” spray-painted on her walls, because she’s a punk). Joe attempts some mutiny himself, trying to delay the Giant’s initial order in order to bundle a software package with the programmers before they jump ship to join up with Cameron. Gordon and Donna contemplate blackmailing Joe into leaving Cardiff with Cameron’s illegal hacking on behalf of Toby Huss’ Bosworth, but relent when Joe, rejected by Cameron, seems to cave. Then it’s all Joe burning a truck full of computers, Gordon taking over as dead-eyed CEO, and Donna going to work for Cameron’s new company. If that description sounds perfunctory, then it accurately captures the episode’s effect in telling it.
As a wrap-up, there are a lot of problems here, again, mainly centered on Joe. If the show were intended as a deconstruction of the main character, that would be interesting—if Halt didn’t want it both ways. Joe MacMillan is clearly intended to be the show’s tragic hero, a tortured genius devoted to…something. But when Joe, in an almost exact repeat of his appeal in the hurricane episode, shows up at Cameron’s door, her rejection is of a piece with the show’s signature obviousness. I quote it at length:
“Except, you’re not the future. You’re a footnote. For a while you had me fooled. I mean, I thought I heard a heartbeat, but it wasn’t a heartbeat—it was an echo. I loved you because you recited my own ideas back to me and pretended they were your own. You wanna know the truth? You’re still exactly what you were the day your mom let you fall off that roof. Just a sad little boy with a lot of wasted potential.”
Thanks, Cameron. Thanks, Halt And Catch Fire.
So if the show isn’t about the grand vision Joe hinted at in the pilot, and it isn’t significantly about the birth of the computer revolution, then it’s ultimately not about much at all. At the end, Joe hikes off toward a distant observatory, where presumably his absent mother works, a Dexter-like shrug of an ending that Halt And Catch Fire similarly imagines more meaningful than it actually is.
Episode grade: C-
Season grade: C
- From where she began, as “nagging, killjoy wife character,” Kerry Bishé’s Donna improbably became one of Halt’s most engaging presences. She’s got two great scenes tonight, one playing dumbly honest to assure her firing from Texas Instruments, and the other (after finding a long-abandoned bag of weed in the garage) advising Gordon how to blackmail Joe into leaving the company. Plus, her stoned chagrin at finding her package of cookies empty is just adorable.
- I like the way Donna basically ordered Gordon to abandon his half-assed couch surfing (because of Donna’s near-adultery) and how she stilled the hanging planter he set rocking as his final act of defiance with a little smile.
- Scoot McNairy’s Gordon shaves his beard off to look more authoritative. Instead, he gives off a more Rick Moranis vibe. Not a bad thing in theory, but probably not the effect he was going for.
- I was making note of it simultaneously, but credit to A.V. Clubber Scott Von Doviak for his Twitter observation about Joe’s statement: “ ‘I taped it on VHS.’” Something no one ever said.”
- Also, both Joe and Gordon, in viewing the commercial that Joe has “taped on VHS” note that the woman in the landmark Apple commercial that gives the episode its name, helpfully explain that the woman in the ad (British athlete Anya Major) “looks like Cameron.”
- That commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, in case you didn’t know.
- Gordon’s overreaching purchase of a Porsche gets him and Donna carjacked, in the final example of Halt’s highlighter-neon symbolism. (They get a minivan.)
- Close second to Cameron’s dialogue above: Gordon: “I think Joe did it on purpose. He can’t live in reality. He’s always chasing some fantasy.” Donna: “I wonder what his endgame is?” Gordon: “I don’t know, I just know I can’t trust him.”
- Cameron has invented “a phase shifting and amplitude modulation protocol that breaks” something, something. I’m willing to believe her.
- Thanks for reading, everyone. I’ll see you when AMC produces another middling drama.