Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Episode 9 and 10? Read our spoiler-free review of Halt and Catch Fire Season 4’s opening episodes here.
“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Those were the words of Joe (Lee Pace) several seasons ago, as he rode his black car into the computer industry and decided to drive ambition through everyone’s lives until they were rubble. Because back then, Joe was a salesman as well as a visionary: he was a master of the pitch, of convincing others to buy into his latest project, and never failed to convince himself either.
For four seasons, Halt and Catch Fire has charted the obsession of four people at the forefront of the tech world: four people who are focused on computers; the thing that will get them to the thing. The show’s decision to use the shifting arena of the rapidly evolving computer industry as the lens through which to study that fundamental human preoccupation with the potential of what comes next.
Now, after seeing relationships crash, burn, fire up again, and once more risk failure, the question of what comes next has taken on entirely new, powerfully poignant light: it’s not about seeking out a new, groundbreaking future, but finding a way to move on from the past, after Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) death. The show did justice to Scoot McNairy’s consistently brilliant performance this season, managing to find a way to redeem the manic, self-centred husband as a renewed family man, and a similar arc is painted for Joe, as he tries to steer Comet onwards without his partner.
We rejoin Joe as he does what he does best: pitching the business to those who work there, doubling down on its future trajectory through the digital skies, aided by a video that sees everyone talk about what the Internet is for. That means we get Haley’s (Susanna Skaggs) beautiful moment in the diner, but it also means we get one last glimpse of Gordon – a fleeting moment that hits home hard. He talks about how Comet isn’t a product, but a way of connecting, a classic Joe’s sales line, but one that now takes on so much sincerity and emotional baggage that he struggles to finish his sentence – it’s a lump-in-the-throat moment that finds in that short silence so many unspoken memories that have been built painstaking between these characters by the meticulous scripts.
Donna, meanwhile, is busy finding her way to the next thing – namely, the promotion that Diane finally gives to her, leaving her in charge of the venture capital firm. It’s a hard-earned, well-deserved step up the ladder, one that’s made all the sweeter by the way she forces Trip to recite the name of “Yahoo!” over and over again. Why Yahoo!? Because, of course, it was only a matter of time until one of the modern names of online computing emerged on the stage of AMC’s period drama. While Comet was racing to become integrated with Netscape (remember that?), a new beta version of the web browser sourced by Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) from her oddball tech backer Alex reveals that Netscape has already done a deal with the yodel-branded firm – and, just like that, in the click of a toolbar button, Comet’s potential is grounded.
With Comet’s demise comes another, inevitable collapse: the death of Joe and Cameron’s relationship. Less fire-and-ice and more fire-and-fire, the volatile duo were so close to making it work once and for all. “The thing that gets you to the thing,” Joe tells her. “It was you. It was always you.” It’s a heartbreaking exchange, one played so agonisingly convincingly by Davis and Pace, and we know that he’s both telling the truth and still, at heart, partly devoted to chasing that ever-elusive thing.
He’s not the only one: we see Cameron head off to a robotics conference with Alexa. But as the two-part finale gradually boots down, Halt and Catch Fire gradually finds more and more stock in what Joe said to Cameron. Some of the best moments are simply seeing these people interact, from Cameron, Donna, Haley and Joe all chatting around the dinner table to Toby Huss’ scene-stealing Bos, who returns from hospital to Diane with a clean bill of health – and Fanfare for the Common Man playing in the background, without a trace of irony.
And so we watch as Joe eventually gives up on Comet, forced to stop putting people ahead of ideas. It’s only later, when we jump forward for the closing scene, that we see him fully make the transition. In a deft, cute callback to the very opening scene, which saw Joe walk into a university seminar and quiz students on their hopes for an engineering career, we catch up with him on campus at a college, where he’s now a full-time professor. “Let me start by asking you a question,” he begins, in the same way as Season 1 started. But gone are the tech dreams: he’s a Humanities teacher now, and his desk has a photo of Gordon on it, not a computing brochure.
A short cameo for Dale, one of the IBM lawyers from Episode 1, reinforces the transformation that’s happened, as Joe’s mission becomes inspiring other people to find their own thing: what comes next isn’t him, but the next generation.
It’s that cycle of hope, inspiration and creativity that has always singled Halt and Catch Fire out as one of the most rewarding, and nuanced, TV series around. There was, of course, never a way for Comet to partner up with Netscape and trump Yahoo!, because that’s not what the history books. Just like there was no way Joe and Gordon’s work at IBM could ever have stopped Apple’s dominance. Halt and Catch Fire has succeeded precisely because it focuses on the losers in the tech race – not because that makes it a tragic show, but because it makes it an optimistic one. Failure isn’t losing: failure is learning. And life is more failure than victory, it’s messy in love, complicated in friendships, and always capable of rebooting one more time with a new configuration.
In that sense, Joe isn’t really the heart of Halt and Catch Fire at all. The phenomenal Lee Pace may get the token bookends, but the series’ soul sits with Donna and Cameron, a double-act that clicked into place in Season 2 and has sent the show soaring ever since. With Cameron and Alexa parting ways, it’s a treat to see the former business partners slowly begin to orbit each other again.
It’s only in front of Cameron that Donna ever really drops her guard – the kind of subtle touch that Kerry Bishe brings to the role effortlessly. And so it’s to her that she confesses that she’s sad she hasn’t had an original idea in a long time. And it’s to the rest of a group of women at a dinner party that she stands up and addresses them with the poise, confidence and charisma everyone else always sees.
“One of the many things I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, someone’s around the next corner with a better version,” she declares, in one of the best written speeches in a show full of best written speeches. “If it’s a man, it might not even be better. It might just get more attention,” she adds, on a note that’s sadly still all too pertinent.
“Sometimes that person is you,” she continues. “The you that’s never satisfied with what you just did, because you’re obsessed with what’s next.”
What could be next? That’s what Donna and Cameron muse about, as they chat in private – after Donna’s drug-addled hallucination of reconciliation earlier in the season, this pay-off feels all the more satisfying. And as they chat about the idea of a phoenix rising from the ashes, a sign lights up behind them, almost as if to give us a faint vision of that hypothetical dream – and it’s at this point you’re likely to start crying, even as you laugh at Cameron falling into Donna’s pool during the party.
Donna’s speech pays tribute to Cameron as her last and greatest partner, tapping into the nostalgia that has laced this period show, as it crawled through the decades to get to the 1990s. But it’s not just about pop culture references: Halt and Catch Fire’s nostalgia is deeper than that, rooted in a longing for past connections, for friendships forged in bankruptcy and bitter competition, for those who inspire us to do great things. “The one constant is you,” Donna tells her guests. “It’s us. The project gets us to the people.”
The project gets us to the people. It’s a perfect evolution of Joe’s slogan, and it’s demonstrated immediately by Cameron spending a day helping to fix Haley’s computer. Does it get repaired? Of course not. But it’s not about the failure: it’s about the people who worked together to try and a make a difference. And it’s here that Halt and Catch Fire rests, realising that technology is merely a way to get to the next connection with another person.
For Donna, it’s a bittersweet revelation that comes after a season of attempting to be like Joe in the world of business and management. It’s only as the season draws to a close that she realises her power lies in collaborating with others, not manipulating them. And so, as she and Cameron have a catch-up breakfast in a diner, she stops and sees a jukebox playing (Salisbury Hill), a cash register ringing, and she has an epiphany, a mechanical ringing in her brain that could almost be pinging back from our current computerised age, where networks link our music, money, restaurants, transport more than ever.
“I have an idea,” she says simply, as she goes out to join Cameron in her truck. She has the smile of someone ready to boot up the unpredictable cycle of life one more time. What is her idea? We never find out, and we don’t need to. It’s everything. It’s nothing. It’s the thing to get her to the real thing that matters: the woman standing right next to her.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes arrive every Monday, within 48 hours of their US broadcast. A subscription costs £5.99 a month, or, if you want next-day delivery on Amazon products too, is included with a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.