“I know it doesn’t feel like it now. But this is the start of something.”
Each season of Halt And Catch Fire has to set up the one big technological advance its characters will discover, then fail to capitalize on. As much as Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon might recall—at various times—legendary tech figures like Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak, we know that they will never reach that same level, financially or otherwise. Halt is set firmly in our world, and Joe MacMillan: Technology Pioneer doesn’t exist here. One question that fact raises from a storytelling perspective is, “Why do they fail?”
Failure is relative, of course. Every one of the main characters is managing varied levels of professional and personal success as this fourth and final season reveals the next big, brass ring for the four to snatch at. Gordon and Joe might have seen MCI scuttle CalNect, but Joe’s signature deal-making skills have netted them a tidy profit (“Twice what we were expecting,” admits a downcast Gordon) in selling the company off. With the series’ admirable economy, “Miscellaneous” steams right ahead through CalNect’s dissolution to the pair’s next venture—turning Haley Clark’s web-categorizing personal webpage Comet into something much bigger. Cameron, even with her new game Pilgrim stalled, has a small army of gaming acolytes who revere her vision of a gaming experience a lot more immersive and revelatory than the then-current spate of hack-and-slash best sellers. (Doom joins Mortal Kombat in earning Cameron’s contempt, even though, after Atari finally pulls the plug on Pilgrim, she admits to a Doom-obsessed Godon, “There is something cathartic about it.”)
And Donna, outwardly the most successful of the group, finds her position in the corporate world beset with many of the same pitfalls she’d hoped to escape when she broke out of the core group’s orbit at the end of last season. Shepherding her small, overworked team in the creation of Rover (“The page that gets you where you want to go,” Donna pitches at a board meeting), Donna finds herself coping with her slick new colleague, Trip (Charlie Bodin), the seemingly-conditional support of pragmatic mentor Diane, and her own warring instincts in managing her team. After Diane scolds her for heavy-handedly riding her subordinates too hard, and for assuming that their solidarity as women in the workplace would supercede the need to succeed on their own, Donna’s mandatory dinner party bonding session with the team is a little masterpiece of cringe comedy. Serving pizza on her good china while trying way too hard to be the cool boss (“The kids are gonna get whiplash,” cautions team-leader Bos), Donna’s flailing attempts to balance her human and professional sides makes everyone exquisitely squirmy. That is, until her deployment of emergency loosen-up shots inadvertently reveals that Rover engineer Vera (Chelsea Talmadge) is pregnant. Shocked out of her performative friendliness by her “horrible, invasive horribleness,” as she endearingly terms it, Donna finally finds the right tone as she shares her own anecdote of being a pregnant woman in the workplace, finally assuring the touched Vera, “You don’t have to wear any giant sweaters around me. I am so happy for you.” (Even party-crashing daughter Joanie can’t maintain her signature, laser-guided teen scorn in the face of Donna’s sincerity.)
Here, Donna finds the way forward. So does ex-husband Gordon, eventually. After (in a scene of laugh-out-loud comedy timing perfection) he and Joe reveal that their big meeting in the empty CalNect offices is with Gordon’s 14-year-old daughter Haley (a pitch-perfectly awkward Susanna Skaggs), Gordon initially balks at the prospect of Haley’s Comet (get it?) being sucked along into the Joe MacMillan slipstream. After another video game bonding and air-clearing session with Cameron (Gordon is understandably wary at finding that she and Joe are back together), Gordon responds to Cameron’s reassurance that the Clark girls “won’t turn out like me” by telling her, as they head home separately, “Hey Cam, it wouldn’t be so bad if my girls turned out like you. I’d be proud of ’em if they did. You know, like a dad.” As well-drawn as all these characters have become since that shaky first season, Gordon and Cameron’s unlikely kinship is perhaps the most unexpectedly affecting. The fact that they don’t need or want anything from each other other than someone to talk to makes their palling around (here the former adversaries have a Doom “deathmatch,” whereas they played Mario Kart in “battle mode”) such a relief. Gordon’s pissed and fearful of what another Joe-Cameron go-around will entail. (He exasperatedly tells Joe that they’re like two trains speeding toward each other once he finds out about their rekindled relationship.) And Cameron, shown at episode’s start ruminating on how her inability to stay away from Joe MacMillan helped kill her marriage to Tom (Mark O’Brien, in a heartbreaking scene where Cameron confesses to sleeping with Joe), remains, for all her relative success, deeply ambivalent about her place in the world. But, in these joystick time-outs, the pair give each other the space and perspective they need.
Joe, on the other hand, seems to be careening back toward his wonted, monomaniacal focus, as he can’t help but steamroller his new 14-year-old business partner’s ideas, letting some of his old messianic patter creep into his brainstorming. (He pitches buying Comet from Haley for a cool 20 grand in their CalNect meeting, leaving Gordon to sputter out an excuse to his daughter while he pulls Joe into the corridor.) If Gordon’s speech telling Joe off is a little on the nose (“You push them whether they’re ready for it or not!”), he’s not wrong that Joe, for all the personal growth that’s seen him become the Updike-reading guy who’ll talk with the upset Cameron for a full day and night on the phone, is still Joe MacMillan. Gordon’s right to spot that gleam in Joe’s eye—and to want Haley spared what it could mean for her future, and her self-esteem. When Gordon, after speaking to Cameron, decides to let Haley work with Joe, it’s with the caveats that she stick up for herself, and that she will walk if it ever stops being fun. It’s as capable and warm as we’ve ever seen him, and, in the blue light of Haley’s bedroom, Scoot McNairy makes Gordon’s fatherly respect for his daughter’s well-being and talent exceptionally attractive.
But for four people whose passionate pursuit of innovation is so tied to their sense of who they are, good intentions have a way of going terribly off-track. Donna, spotting Cameron on a video game panel at a convention, can’t help airing out their still-raw grievances. Joining the Q&A, Donna pointedly asks if the “geniuses” aren’t in some ways culpable for the “fraught” (Cameron’s word) relationship between those who create and those who take care of the less-glamorous business side. Framing the relationship as symbiosis, Donna’s abashed when Cameron, unbending, parries that it’s more like parasitism. “The parasite can scuttle along to the next warm body,” Cameron finishes icily. So when Donna is later presented with a scathing review of the yet-unreleased Pilgrim in Electronic Gaming Monthly (Cameron had recklessly leaked them a copy), it should be a vindication, especially since the reviewer’s description of the game (“a ponderous mess”) echoes Donna’s veiled dig at Cameron’s traditional process as “meandering, or headed off a cliff.” To her credit, Donna silently responds to the review with wincing sadness and shock. As when Cameron, in their first accidental meeting this season, told Donna, “I’m surprised it wasn’t you,” referring to Mosaic beating Donna’s Millennium, the mutual, if perhaps irreparably damaged respect between the two women remains profoundly real.
Donna, having split off from the other three main characters, is placed in the traditional villain role. The corporate sellout, cracking the whip over hard-working creative types. But Kerry Bishé makes Donna’s position a far more complexly human one, as she fights to assert herself in a broader world that carries its own set of obstacles. That, even when she finds out that Rover’s main competitor (revealed at a board meeting by Trip, for extra humiliation) is Gordon’s project. Not only that, it’s Haley’s idea, and Donna’s own spark of inspiration came from Gordon’s offhand remark about Joe’s URL-cataloguing obsession. It was inevitable that the two factions racing to be the first to be Google or Yahoo! would come into conflict. That Donna’s conflict puts her on a direct collision course with her own family (including her child) might be a bit too “this time it’s personal” as a narrative device, but Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé sell the tragic inevitability of the coming heartbreaks too feelingly to quibble overmuch. Their weekly catch-up dinners (Donna gets the check here) see the divorced couple still possessed of obvious affection for each other. But Donna’s “No, I tried that for 15 years” when Gordon snaps about having dinner every night so they can keep things straight sears them both, and her furious but contained anger when Gordon storms off is eloquent in showing how the human element on Halt And Catch Fire is always what’s going to derail progress.
- Cameron, jokingly summing up Joe: “You’re like if someone gave Howard Hughes a copy of Siddhartha.”
- Joe and Cameron’s “playful” couple’s banter as they both leave for work suggests that their cozy current relationship is already starting to fray.
- “Because there’s no loving Joe. He’s impossible to love. He’s empty and he just becomes what every circumstance needs him to be.” Cameron was trying to explain her dalliance to Tom, but her analysis doesn’t bode well for her relationship with Joe, either.
- After watching her last box from Tom get obliterated by an 18-wheeler, Cameron pitches all her still-unpacked moving boxes into Joe’s dumpster. Joe, watching perplexed in his bathrobe, can only look on as he sees Cameron take his advice to “move on” after Pilgrim’s failure in a typically unpredictable direction.
- Joe, talking to a 14-year-old about her idea: “I want to build it and make it into something real. No offense.”
- Still, Haley’s cool, if her love of The Kids In The Hall and They Might Be Giants is any indication.
- Haley’s open call for URL’s finds the Clarks and Joe subjected to some slow-loading, construction-themed internet porn.
- Donna, trying to feel out her way through the dinner party with Bos, can’t bring herself to say the word “bitch” when recalling her behavior in the team’s meeting. I’ve said it before, but there’s a whole parallel series where Kerry Bishés Donna navigates the male-dominated business world.
- Cameron had the edge in Mario Kart (she had advance practice time in Japan), but Gordon is a Doom master. “You do know the object of the game is to not die, right?,” is some fine, understated trash talk.
- “I guess this is where everything’s going. You just kill everything.”
- Ugh, of course Trip is Guitar Guy. At least Donna shuts down his humblebrag about never being a great player with a withering, “Oh, don’t say that...”