UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 Finale (Episode 9 and 10)
James R | On 21, Oct 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
“This is a really cool idea,” says Cameron in the finale of Halt and Catch Fire Season 3. And in that single sentence, she sums up everything about the show that has made it get better and better – and, in this two-part finale, even better still. The show closes out its third run at a level that’s on a par with the very best TV of 2016. This isn’t just a cool idea. It’s one of the coolest ideas you’ve seen this year.
The idea in question? The world wide web. It’s the inevitable end point that we know the show has been building towards ever since its first episode, as showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers faithfully follow the course of history and personal computing from their fictional sidelines. It’s the fact that they can so seamlessly blend that side of the show with its human drama that makes AMC’s series such high-class entertainment. It’s one of the most elegantly and efficiently written shows on the small screen. As if to prove it, the writers time-jump four years forward for Season 3’s conclusion, just so they can get to that end point sooner, without wasting any time.
The jump is handled brilliantly, with almost no fuss whatsoever; we watch with Donna, as people take down the sign at Diane’s firm, which we automatically assume is because she’s been fired or the company’s gone under. Of course, neither is true. It’s because she’s been promoted – and she’s divorced, so the sign is being made up in her maiden name. In that short moment without dialogue, we get almost all the exposition we need. Donna’s single. She’s just been made partner. And she’s in the 90s, judging by the Windows 3.0 on her computer.
It’s telling it’s the latter that dates the penultimate chapter as taking place in 1990; the programme is unrivalled at using technological details to tell person stories and vice versa, something that makes Halt and Catch Fire a natural companion piece to Mr. Robot. While Bos and Diane are still together, the rest of our gang has drifted apart. What should bring them together? Comdex, of course.
But where are they all, exactly? Gordon, we learn, is a single dad, failing to discipline daughter Joanie and proving boring in absolutely everything he does – including his new passion of cooking. We see him using video dating to find someone to be with (again, note the natural use of the latest tech by someone who is defined, in part, by their nerdiness), and see Joanie sabotage his first attempt at having a woman over for dinner, something she does out of both love and spite. (Scoot McNairy talking about pasta at the dinner table is worthy of some kind of award.)
Joe, on the other hand, is a trader who has retreated from the world, shutting himself away with a private phone number and lots of Chinese takeaway. Cameron, though, is something of a super star, thanks to the huge success of her Atari game, Space Bike.
Comdex is a must for her, as she has to return to the US from Tokyo to promote her sequel, Space Bike 4. Even now, the show retains its eye for small details – little touches, such as Joanie’s Cameron-like attitude, or the punk-chic models hired to promote Space Bike, show how much Mackenzie Davis’ character has matured and grown in the last four years. But she’s still Cameron, her first demand once back on American soil being eating a burrito.
Joe shows up mid-signing, which gives us a chance to see the pair together again – a reminder of how well their characters, and the performers, click. Lee Pace is marvellous here, his eyes twinkling over his great big bushy trauma beard. Watching them raid the stands for free crap and dance together at Atari’s party is genuinely uplifting, their interactions naturally carrying such intimacy and warmth – and not just because of his facial hair. It’s no surprise they end up in bed together.
Compare that to Donna, who shows up and rapidly ruins the mood – a reminder of how good Kerry Bishe’s chemistry with Cameron is too.
What emerges is a familiar study of success and failure with a greater sense of perspective, as our ensemble have grown, or not grown, over the interrim four years. And an ensemble show this proudly remains: Donna Emerson is more powerful, almost like Joe in Season 1, as she rubs people up the wrong way, but it takes her interactions with McNairy’s Gordon to bring out her inner Donna Clark.
“Working with you was the most fun I ever had in my whole life,” Cameron admits to Donna, and there’s a hint of their old friendship. But, just as Episodes 6 through 8 proved heart-wrenching, the series refuses to give us the reunion we want, brutally yanking the pair apart.
And so we witness Cameron, Joe, Donna and Gordon meet up at the Mutiny offices. Oh, and Tom.
Summoned by Donna, they sit around talking about her idea of turning a local network in Europe (Switzerland’s CERN, to be precise) into a global world wide web. This is Halt and Catch Fire at its simplest and most natural: four people sitting around chatting technology. They sling about mentions of HTML, NFSNET, Steve Jobs, NeXT and more, and even if the jargon is hard for non-computer folk to understand, the truth is it doesn’t matter: Halt and Catch Fire’s characters are so well written, and so well written together, that it doesn’t matter what the subject is: it’s just a pleasure to watch them interact. The only thing better than that is the thrill of them buzzing with potential – like The Martian, it’s a rare example of a TV show (or film) taking time out just to appreciate enthusiastic talented people being good at something.
Inevitably, it doesn’t go smoothly, as Tom suspects Cameron and Joe have been rubbing their USB ports together. But while that tension is effective enough, descending (literally, in Joe’s case, through the floor) into physical conflict, the obstacles to them all getting along are more profound than that. They fundamentally aren’t 100 per cent compatible – heck, they can’t even work out the best metaphor to describe the Internet. Is it an arena? A language? Or, as Joe hilariously tries to draw on a whiteboard, a box?
Bringing them together is a welcome opportunity to value what they each bring to the group. After Joe’s season of going solo and talking extensively in vague terms and marketing spiel, he’s brought back into sharp focus here, as Cameron manages to define him beautifully. “I don’t think you should deprive the world of what you do,” she says. “You bring people together. You create change.”
Change, though, is never what people expect it to be – “The future is just another crappy version of the present,” snaps Cameron, when patience at Joe’s endless gushing about ‘the future’ wears thin. “A bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want.”
That’s the underlying question for all of these characters: will they be bribed? Or who will be the one doing the bribing? There’s no doubt about whether they will succeed or not: we know from the history books that they won’t become wildly successful or famous. They’re not Tim Berners-Lee. Tim Berners-Lee is. Just look at Cameron’s Space Bike game, which Bos can’t complete. “It’s like you can’t even win,” he complains to her. “Nope,” she says. “No you can’t.”
Instead, the tension revolves around how they will fail.
To date, we’ve seen Joe as the bad guy, bringing down Cardiff Tech, Gordon as the bad guy, interfering with Mutiny, and Cameron as the bad guy, immaturely refusing to play ball.
“It’s so easy to make Joe the bad guy,” she tells Donna. “Making him the villain takes the blame away. I deserve some blame too. And it’s the same with you. You know, things fell apart and you did what you did, but a lot of it was my fault.”
“This is a really cool idea,” she adds.
But that’s the line in the sand, as Donna offers to cut Joe out to make things easier – and Donna is revealed as the one who’s now the villain. She’s the one willing to throw people under the bus to get success, something that makes it impossible for Cameron to trust her. It’s not that clear-cut, of course, and Halt and Catch Fire has a whopping amount of empathy for each of its core players: Donna’s turn comes after years of watching her struggle in the background, held back or undermined by everyone (particularly the men) around her. Like the show’s constant improvement with each season, her rise to the top has been hugely satisfying to root for – which only makes her behaviour once she’s there more painful.
Bishe’s magnificent, able to be both likeable and loathsome at the same time. Over the last three seasons, the series has achieved the same thing with each of its cast members, as they all become more and more rounded with every plot development, from the impact of Ryan’s tragedy upon Joe to Gordon’s calmer presence, in the wake of his bonding with Cameron and parting with Donna. There’s a messy, fuzzy quality to each of their relationships now, part pathos, part comedy, that makes the whole thing wonderfully realistic.
As Donna departs for CERN herself, we’re left with the three main players that we began Season 1 of Halt and Catch Fire with: Donna, Cameron and Gordon, gathered around a computer, their faces lit up by the possibilities that await. Failure is guaranteed, but this bittersweet conclusion gives the understated taste of hope once more. After all, they’ve made it this far to the 1990s – and even the heavily day-lit cinematography, not to mention the costumes, reminds how big a step forward that is. The world wide web, they all agree, is a door. With Halt and Catch Fire already renewed for a final, fourth season, we can’t wait to see them walk through it.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 to 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – until 16th October 2020.
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC