“We’ve got the cheat sheet to the exam. We’ve won. I don’t want to miss another opportunity.”
After the delicately complex elegy that was last week’s “Goodwill,” the aptly titled “Search” finds Halt And Catch Fire, like its characters, tentatively deciding what comes next. Gordon’s death—driven home like a stake through our hearts when he appears in the in-office presentation of Joe’s big Comet commercial—saw everyone in his orbit stepping away from their stories to tend to his as they all gathered to pack up his empty house.
We see, in this next-to-last episode of the series, that that wider perspective on old grievances and long-standing grudges has endured, even expanded. Cameron is introduced watching the commercial along with the rest of the Comet office, where she’s been pitching in (in the sense of leading) the company’s coding team as they prepare for their major launch. She looks happy, and at home, the raucous, obvious affection Comet’s motley crew have for her hearkening back to the similarly rambunctious clan at Mutiny, and, when Joe falters in his speech when talking about Gordon, she picks up the room by starting a “Comet! Comet!” chant that brings the energy back up, and allows Joe to collect himself. Later, we see that Cameron and Donna’s tender attempt at reconciliation has flowered, too, as they, Joe, and Haley are seen having dinner and silly conversational fun together. (The “What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever eaten?” topic is always a sign that things are going fine.) But Halt And Catch Fire has never shied away from the fact that some things aren’t so easily healed.
Cameron is only at Comet temporarily, as Joe lets us know in his speech—faltering, too, on the phrase “We all knew her days were numbered”—and that she’s been doing this favor to Joe (and to Gordon) at the potential cost of her relationship with impatient and suspiciously well-connnected benefactor Alexa. The same goes for Donna, seen first swimming serenely in her backyard pool, something we find she’s been doing incessantly in the four months since Gordon’s death. (Later, breaking a tense mother-daughter talk, Haley snaps, “Yeah mom, I like swimming too but, Jesus Christ!,” their burst of shared laughter as much a relief to us as to them.) Surprised by Diane’s sudden appearance poolside, Donna is confronted with the fact that, like Cameron, she’s been treading water (here literally as well as figuratively), putting off a decision about whether or not she’s going to take Diane’s spot as managing partner. “They think you’re getting soft,” Diane says of their ambitiously smug young colleague Trip and his cronies, suggesting by her ever-crisp tone that she’s not unworried herself. Gordon’s death left a hole, and Donna and Cameron have rushed in to fill it with things that, while healthy and restorative in their own way, seek to forestall what comes next.
What comes next. That’s always been at the heart of Halt And Catch Fire’s narrative as the show’s characters, having tied their ambitions to the inexorable and accelerating rocket car of computer technology, must constantly seek the next, biggest thing. We’ve seen our conception of each character’s dreams develop as they have for the characters themselves. Gordon’s hands-on tinkering was an expression of his desire to prove himself worthy, a clunky, halting progression through idealistic projects whose half-realized natures were always in need of sweaty patch-jobs. Donna, as much of a tinkerer and dreamer as her onetime husband, carried the added pressures and conflicts of a woman in a male world trying to manage her own expectations (and those of her fragile husband) while never being satisfied with being anyone’s side-player. Cameron the lost, rebellious teen grown to punk rock genius, sought to use her prodigious talents and imagination to craft whole virtual worlds for her to, finally, find a place in. And Joe MacMillan, introduced as a manipulative cypher, smooth-talking his way toward goals known only to him (a serious dramatic misjudgement that nearly sun the show before it was bailed out by one of the most successful retoolings in TV history), improbably became a human being. Echoing his first, shark-sleek pitch to the restless Gordon that they ape the IBM BIOS in order to beat the big boys at their own game, Joe pitches his vision again to the Comet team in a different context. “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
So, as this uniformly fine final season approaches its end, we have to ask: What is the thing? The series has become such a deeply human thing itself over the years that every development in “Search” lands with an inevitable and affecting grace. Bos, forcing Diane to cover her eyes (she peeks) while he puts the final touches on his endlessly in-progress garage workshop-den, tells his wife, “I’m done. Done, I say. How about you and I do some actual livin’?” And when the suitably old-timey romantic ballad “Hey Paula” comes on the restored Cardiff transistor radio Bos had delightedly found in an old box, they embrace, and dance, and it’s a perfect ending for their late-life love story. Annabeth Gish’s Diane has always kept us wondering, her guarded, slightly judgemental coldness ever suggesting that she might decide some day that the courtly, eminently worthy Bos we’ve come to love so much just doesn’t measure up. But when Bos, puttering in his den earlier in the episode, breezes past the fact of his rosy prognosis from his doctor, Diane’s tearful, grateful, “You’re gonna be okay?” tells us, finally, how invested she is in their thing.
The Clark daughters, products of a deeply loving but broken marriage, each find their things, too, even if neither is out of the woods. Joanie is introduced in the episode leaving it, as she, her abortive college plans presumably resolved with her mother, hops on a plane to Thailand, and the thrillingly uncertain adventures of a young woman alone in the world. It’s lovely when Donna’s tearful airport “Don’t go!” elicits first Joanie’s angry, “This is such bullshit, mom!,” and then, as she walks away, a half-smile. Mother and daughter, whether they know it or not, giving each other just what each needs. And Haley, gifted her sister’s car and her old driver’s license (“Maybe wear a hat,” Joanie advises), makes her big move, too, nervously asking her waitress crush out for a showing of Natural Born Killers. We don’t see her rebuffed, but Susanna Skaggs makes Haley’s heartbroken, barking little sobs of humiliation in the car afterward all too familiar to anyone who’s ever been a teenager. Haley, furious and confused also at Joe and her mother over Comet’s expanding life apart from the deeply personal idea she began it with, sulks and lashes out (and drowns her angst with the then-new Bagel Bites). But, in the episode-ending montage, we see her logging onto Comet, putting on her headphones in her neat, book- and computer-filled room. Searching for her thing.
Donna chooses her thing, too, returning to work in a defiantly bright, flowery ensemble, nodding to her now-nominal superior, and then starting her first meeting as managing partner by making the abashed Trip crow out the name of new web portal Yahoo! like he means it. Earlier in the episode, we’d seen the uncertain Donna still defensive and guilty about her corporate role, admitting to Cameron, “I haven’t had an original idea in kind of a long time.” When Cameron brings up Community, Donna demurs that she’d just piggybacked on Cameron’s ideas for Mutiny, but, when Bos comes to her later for help restoring the antique Cardiff radio, Donna picks up her soldering tools and makes it work. When Bos, marveling at how technology now, with its chips and invisible circuitry, is “like magic,” Donna responds, “Not my kind of magic.” But, when she tells Bos to have Diane call her later, she reconsiders, telling him to just relay the message, “Aw, screw it. Just tell her I’m ready.” Donna, told that Yahoo!’s ascendancy as the toolbar web portal of choice with blockbuster new browser Netscape means that both Comet and her Rover will almost certainly be rendered irrelevant, breaks out in a laughing fit that has the entire office poking their heads from their cubicles. All the season’s drama and conflict and pain, rendered irrelevant too by the next big thing, she can only laugh—and then shepherd the next.
Comet’s impending death, coming on the heels of co-founder Gordon’s, is especially painful in that it finally takes down Joe and Cameron’s relationship with it. Having come so far from the two far-less-interesting types they were introduced as (furtively fucking at an arcade after Joe makes a play for Cameron’s expertise as part of his first season plans), Joe and Cameron remain mismatched. Like the Centipede machine with the broken sound card that Joe buys as part of his pitch for Cameron to remain in order to wow the Netscape guys into taking Comet on, their relationship has never had all the right parts. They’re too different, maybe. Too broken in their specific ways, with the jagged pieces just not configured in the right way to make a whole, as much as they (and we) would like them to. Here, Joe’s fastidiousness (he needs the dishes done in a certain way) is brought up as just another niggling detail that Joe and Cameron pretend is just couple stuff. But when Joe can’t stop micromanaging Cameron’s work as she hurries to reengineer Comet so it runs seamlessly with Netscape (thanks to a no-questions-asked beta version Alexa has somehow scored her), all their friction turns combustible. It’s not the thing itself—although when Joe, realizing that inferior competitors Yahoo! have slipped in just ahead of them, smashes the locked door to Gordon’s office, Cameron’s shocked expression betokens what’s to come. It’s that they both recognize that, even when so much between them is right, they are simply not.
Halt And Catch Fire wears its metaphors on its sleeve. Think Donna treading water tonight, or the achingly welcoming ending to Pilgrim. There’s a novelistic touch to the show’s writing that, when it works as here, heightens the drama to an almost unbearably lovely extent. Tonight, Cameron and Joe’s ongoing, denial-heavy debate about Cameron leaving Comet is interrupted twice by a beeping sound. Gordon’s watch alarm, reminding him to take his medication, sits locked in his still-locked office, the key having been lost. The first time, the thing beeps and beeps, accelerating like a heart monitor, until it abruptly shuts itself down. Later, when Joe and Cameron realize the implications of having been, once again, a fraction off (“Two days”) from truly capitalizing on their newest big thing, the alarm sounds. Joe picks up a chair and, before Cameron can protest, he hurls it though the glass door, walks over the jewels of safety glass, finds the rapidly beeping watch next to Gordon’s abandoned last cup of coffee, and shuts it off. In his opening speech tonight, Joe had choked up when, talking about Comet being a family business, he addressed the fact that the place was going on without its heart. Now he shuts the heart off for good.
When Joe and Cameron silently make love that night, Cameron sheds a single tear, and in the morning, they go through the motions of saying what they already have decided wordlessly in the night. “I wanted it to work,” says Cameron, “I wanted us to work.” “Yeah? Me too,” responds Joe, hollowly before adding, “The thing that gets you to the thing... It was you. It was always you.” In that opening speech, the old Joe MacMillan coexisted with this older, wiser Joe, but uneasily. His pitch to the assembled, mismatched, but happy chosen family of oddballs at Comet sounds like old Joe, as he claims that their curated search model, “isn’t just a product—it’s a new way of connecting. A new way of being.” The thing is, this Joe believes he’s filled out his formerly empty patter with meaning—and he largely has. When Joe tries to pronounce Comet—an idealistic, personal approach to understanding this impossibly huge and confusing and frightening new world—as “the thing,” he can’t finish. Choked with emotion, he can’t fit it all into the old Joe’s practiced appeals. As the episode ends, with Cameron jetting off to a robotics conference with the satisfied Alexa, Joe plays the silent Centipede machine, its by-then outdated pixels reflected in his eyes as workmen repair Gordon’s broken door in the background. With just one hour left to set all its characters irrevocably on their final courses, Halt And Catch Fire still has yet to tell us if, for Joe MacMillan, anything will truly be the thing.
- After coping with Gordon’s death last week, it’s a dirty trick to open “Search” with Bos getting a post-heart-attack medical checkup, especially when his wry doctor (Matt Malloy) starts making worrying marks on his clipboard. But the episode gifts us with one of the most unexpectedly gratifying sequences in its history, as the gobsmacked Bos, told that he’s likely to live “well into the 21st century,” strides out of the office in slow motion to the triumphant strains of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” Like a goddamned astronaut.
- Poor Haley psyches herself up to ask out her first crush with Veruca Salt.
Episode 10: “Ten Of Swords”
“I know it doesn’t look like it now, but it’s just the start of something.”
Halt And Catch Fire was built on Joe MacMillan, and so it has to end on Joe MacMillan. Entering the cosily slobby home office of a similarly described fortune teller (Carol Kane, doing eccentric and soulful as only she really can these days), Joe has his palm and tarot cards read. Lost in the wake of Cameron’s departure and the end of Comet, perhaps he’s there on a whim, although the example of his “free spirit” mother is likely not far from his mind. Shown the ominous ten of swords, Joe scoffs, “So I lose again,” and Kane’s homey psychic can only counsel, looking at the picture, “The golden horizon behind the storm clouds, that could be somethin.’” Joe buys a pack of the cards, staring intently at his future in the daylight, and is almost creamed by a speeding Porsche, lending the whole sequence an enduring air of unreality, as if a dream of old Joe is at the wheel. Spotted coincidentally by an old IBM colleague, Joe sits for a beer, asks about things back in New York, and is told by the departing colleague, “Can’t wait to see what you do next, Joe.”
And then Joe disappears from the episode. At least until the end, when he must. We’ll get there.
But the bulk of “Ten Of Swords” veers sharply away from this odd opening—an opening that calls back to the old Joe, of the speeches, and mysteries, and parking lot revelations—to a chamber piece where Donna and Cameron find their own version of a happy ending. There’s a breathtakingly warm interlude with Bos first, where Cameron, having ditched her partnership with the, as it turns out, controlling and disdainful Alexa, returns to her Airstream. Bos, the unlikely father figure that Cameron found in the midst of Joe MacMillan’s Cardiff machinations, sits her down in her sadness and confusion over her breakup with Joe (and with Alexa and her deep pockets) and delivers as glowingly kind and decent a fatherly benediction as anyone could hope for.
You got a lot of love in you. More than anybody I ever met. It’s burstin’ out of you. You take in the world in these big gulps and you can’t help but to let yourself get drowned in it. It overwhelms you. Makes you feel like you’re ready to explode at any minute. They don’t see it. I do. It’s the burden you carry.
Toby Huss is simply astoundingly good, rendering Cam—always uncomfortable in the presence of sincerity and closeness—speechless, until she manages to decide on driving to see her mother. “You don’t think I’m just running away. Again?,” Cameron asks beseechingly and Bos can only answer, “You might be.” But he advises her to follow her instincts, telling her that they’re worth following, and always have been.
So she drives her truck and trailer to Donna’s house, where she finds Donna deep in preparation for a fancy work gathering, and the two talk around their past, Cameron’s looming departure, Cameron’s discovery that Joe has left town without saying goodbye (to her), and, surprisingly, Haley’s nonentity of a boyfriend (his name’s Kevin and he likes hackey sack). Their guarded pleasantries are so not what we need them to be that Haley’s scream from her bedroom is a relief, as her school project has just disappeared from her computer in a flurry of error messages. Packing Haley and Kevin off to see Star Trek: Generations, the two computer geniuses set to work—Donna on the hardware, Cameron on the soft—trying to recover Haley’s file, and start wryly lobbing well-meaning clichés to each other as if in recognition of how they’re not saying what needs to be said.
And here’s the thing—we need them to be said, too, but we need them said in a way that doesn’t just wallpaper over the very real issues between these two characters. We need the show to pay them the respect they deserve. When Cameron, settling into something like the pair’s old working groove while Donna restlessly plays with Kevin’s hackey sack in the background, floats the idea of the two of them working together again she does it half-jokingly and Donna responds half-seriously. Cameron immediately apologizes as Donna stammers, Donna’s veneer of professional distance reasserting itself as the practicalities of restarting their combustible partnership flood the space between them. But she asks Diane about it later at the poolside party, which we see is an all-woman event where Donna (who has transformed her department at the company into a fun, open, politely Mutiny-like enterprise called Symphonic Ventures, touchingly) stands to give a speech.
Cameron, having admitted defeat to the returned Haley and gently pumped the girl for details about Joe from his letter, walks among the periphery of the well-dressed women in the crowd, gradually losing herself as she hears what Donna has to say. As do we.
Speaking earnestly as she hasn’t been able to much of this season, Donna confesses to the assembled women that, in pursuing her ambitions in the tech world she’s sacrificed as much as she’s gained. She speaks lovingly and regretfully about Gordon, and how her choices contributed to losing him. She speaks of wondering every night if her choices have cost her things with her daughters that she’ll never be able to get back. And she confesses that she once voted out her female partner—and her friend—in pursuit of things she’s not sure were worth it.
But I’ve done things. That always comes with a price, but I did them. One of the many things I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, somebody is around the next corner with a better version, and if that somebody is a man it might not even be better, just might get more attention. And sometimes that person is you. That person who’s never satisfied with what you just did because your obsessed with what’s next.
Then Cameron, touched at Donna’s description of her as “my last and best partner,” falls in the pool.
The last half of this episode is a series of huge swings, and creators and episode writers Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers connect on all of them, even when it looks like they’re going to fall on their faces. Haley’s busted computer prolongs Cameron’s stay at Donna’s house, and we’re conditioned to want so much more from their encounter that we’re simply grateful for the contrivance. Here, Cameron is making to leave again, and having her fall into a damned pool is the hoariest of gambits. But who cares, when, the party completed and the two women dangling their feet in the water, they agree to just try being friends for a while, rather than to risk everything they’ve gained on another risky partnership. “I’m out of ideas,” confesses Cameron. (Oh, they also finally acknowledge that Haley is probably gay after she blandly informs them that she’s dumped Kevin.)
Still, the two women go back to the beginning of their partnership for one last look around the now bare old Mutiny—then Comet—offices. Joe led off the episode by wishing his employees a fond goodbye, with Kate Kneeland’s Risa telling Joe gratefully, “Comet was a miracle.” And it did seem like one for the collection of oddballs who found, impossibly, a professional home that valued their esoteric enthusiasm. Here, standing together in the empty office where so much of their lives played out, Donna and Cameron start to fantasize for real about what it would be like if they took over the lease and started all over again, together. In another delightfully big swing, we see the neon sign of their brainstormed theoretical new company (“Phoenix”) pop on behind and between them, their shared energy powering thought into reality, if just for a little while. For the two work through how they imagine it going, and the best they can come up with is a gentler replay of their dynamic at Mutiny, which is nearly enough. Admitting that they’d end up right back there again, Cameron muses, “We’d grow at our own pace this time, just enjoy the ride.” The light fizzles, even as the two friends continue the fantasy. “Hey, it was a pleasure working with you at Phoenix.” “I loved every minute of it.”
But we see them next in a diner, as Cam has a tense telephone conversation with her mother about coming home, and the two argue over splitting the check. “You’re unemployed,” says Donna, and Cameron lets her pay. As Cam goes outside, however, Donna looks around at the diners, the jukebox, the manual cash register, and can barely bring herself to take her change, wandering outside with such a blank look that Cameron assumes something is wrong. Something isn’t wrong, as Donna tells Cameron that she has an idea. Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” rises there to drown out whatever it is that makes Cameron put down her map and listen.
Speaking of big swings, it’s a ballsy move to end your series on “Solsbury Hill,” which is a song so well-suited to endings where characters make big, idealistic choices that it’s a cliché to even contemplate doing so. But, like everything else in “Ten Of Swords,” Halt And Catch Fire earns its moments. Even when the series ends with a monstrously manipulative fake out.
We see Joe, the song’s tale of boldness and risk-taking seemingly the soundtrack to a reversion to form as he pulls up somewhere in an expensively tailored suit and an impossibly flashy car (a Lotus no less) and strides importantly into a building, briefcase in hand. When he walks into an office bearing the sign “Humanities,” and we see that Joe has become some manner of professor, it’s another improbability, a head-jerking twist that season one Halt And Catch Fire would have muffed. They tried it back then, and I laughed. Here, seeing Joe’s immaculately well-appointed office carefully festooned with mementos of the things in his past that are important to him (a Cardiff Giant, the book he read to Cameron over the phone one long night, Gordon’s copy of Streets Of Laredo, that tarot card, pictures of Gordon, Haley, and Cameron), it’s, instead, thrillingly bold. Walking into his classroom, Professor Joe MacMillan waits for his rapt students to assemble themselves in a semicircle around him—the worshipful audience he always craved. But when he begins his lecture, his challenging rhetorical flourish is in service of something—the thing—he’s been looking for. As Peter Gabriel sings, “they know what that smile on my face meant,” Joe MacMillan smiles and begins, “Let me start by asking a question.”
- Donna’s speech ends with her addressing the assembled women, some of whom she knows will be her competitors, by telling them passionately, “You will know that I am rooting for you. I can’t help but not.”
- That and her description of herself as “a partner by trade and a mother and a sister by design” is as goosebump-raising a statement as you’re going to hear, Kerry Bishé making Donna’s followup, “And I am so proud to be on this journey with you,” the most eloquent declaration of female solidarity I’ve heard on TV.
- Donna is seen leading a team led by a young woman into Symphonic.
- In a show that’s made solid use of period-specific music cues throughout, the reveal that haley’s headphones are playing Gordon’s self-actualization tape is just perfect. “Know that it’ll fade. Every problem feels big in the moment. But Gordon, you know better.”
- Thank you all for reading these reviews. I’ve been with Halt And Catch Fire since the beginning, and, for all of you who’ve followed along with me, it’s been an honor and a sincere pleasure.