“The idea can come later. That’s not what’s important.”
It’s an impulsive statement blurted out by impulsive whiz programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) proposing the mother-of-all-impulsive ideas: that she once again team up with engineer-turned-businesswoman Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) after their last partnership ended in years of anger and estrangement. But television scripts are hardly spontaneous, even if the statements their characters make can sometimes come off that way. This seemingly offhand line—delivered halfway through Halt and Catch Fire’s series finale—is actually a thesis statement for the entire series. Halt and Catch Fire was a show about people, with all their anxieties and aspirations, that just happened to use technology as its medium. Or to cite a Season 1 quip that comes up over and over again over the finale’s two hours: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’s superb AMC drama came to a close this weekend, but its true crescendo arrived several weeks ago with the death of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Way back in Season 2, Gordon was diagnosed with progressive (eventually terminal) brain damage, making his demise in “Who Needs a Guy” devastating yet forewarned. Halt spent the closing minutes of that episode, the season’s seventh, and the entirety of last week’s “Goodwill” processing Gordon’s departure, giving both his life and his loved ones their due. While this show is too savvy about the long-term effects of Gordon’s absence not to loom over its final two chapters, placing his death before the finale freed Halt to go out on a less melancholy, more original note. If Halt wouldn’t end by lamenting one of its protagonists—a natural way to bring everyone together one last time in a meta celebration of what’s come and gone—it could craft a less cliché ending on its own terms.
Halt and Catch Fire has repeatedly expressed skepticism toward the concept of closure, let alone happy endings. Improbably, given its low ratings and initial lukewarm reviews, Halt managed to chronicle more than 10 years in its characters’ lives, often arriving at a seeming endpoint before pushing past it. In one another, Cameron and Donna seemed to have found their secret passageway out of the tech industry boys’ club—only for other critical differences besides gender to slowly force them apart. Gordon and reformed antihero Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) seemed to have stumbled on a rudimentary form of browser—only for the technology (and Joe) to stall out while Gordon builds a successful ISP. Gordon found his footing after his divorce from Donna, hiring the Blue Man Group for his birthday party and meeting a brilliant, supportive girlfriend—only for his life to come to an abrupt and uneventful end. Some of Halt’s best moments came from taking a moment of apparent finality and wearing it down with time, nuance, and realism.
“Search” and “Ten of Swords,” the two-part finale’s components, preserve the spirit of those fake-out endings by walking back one earlier-season development after another. Cam business–breaks up with the young, ambitious backer who tried to steer her away from game design and towards even grander, more big-picture ideas. (She also breaks up–breaks up with Joe, with whom she’d finally made a good-faith effort at an adult, intimate relationship.) Donna takes the summer to mourn, appears to recommit to her job at a venture capital firm by introducing a more casual culture, and finally bursts out of a diner with an idea for her and Cam to work on; true to Cameron’s earlier pronouncement, we never learn what the idea actually is.
And Joe, ever the visionary on the hunt for the next big thing, leaves Silicon Valley behind altogether. The last time we see him, or anyone from the series, he’s moved back to Texas, where it all began, to become a teacher. Somehow, the move simultaneously comes out of nowhere and immediately clicks into place: Joe, obsessed with the future and lately regretting his decision not to have kids, relocates to a profession that’s all about curiosity, nurturing young minds, and looking forward. Years ago, Gordon told his friend and colleague that the most irrepressible part of Joe’s personality is his need to “push” people. Here, Joe finally finds a way to apply that urge constructively, and in the process he gives us the last line of the show, optimistic and inquisitive until the very end: “Let me begin by asking a question.”
Halt’s most consistent theme is that when people are this passionate about what they do and what they’re working toward, their personal and professional lives will always be hopelessly intertwined. It’s a tendency that proves both beautiful and tragic for Halt’s core four, now reduced to just three. Mostly, though, it’s a fact of life. Try as they might to make a go of it as simply a couple, Joe and Cameron’s complementary genius ultimately spells the end for them; they can’t be around each other without working together, or more accurately, Joe asking Cameron to apply her gifts toward his own goals. Still, Cameron can’t resist herself when she asks Donna to give their alliance another go. This time, both women are fully aware of the risks involved and walk through them in a lovely scene where the two women recount the hypothetical history of a company called “Phoenix,” its neon logo flashing in the background. They know this could blow up in their faces. They also know it’s worth the gamble. More importantly, Cameron doesn’t know where to take her just-rekindled connection with Donna except towards collaboration. It’s how she, along with everybody else on this show, relates to the most important people in her life.
After the credits roll, it’s possible that these characters go through entirely new cycles of booms, busts, breakdowns, and reinventions. Rather than offer a happily-ever-after guarantee, what Halt and Catch Fire instead offers is a benevolent, open-ended sense of confident ambiguity. We sense that, while their challenges are far from over, Donna and Gordon’s teenage daughters will survive and thrive, as will their relationship with their mother. We sense that Donna and Cameron can endure, even if their latest business venture doesn’t, and we sense that Joe has finally found some measure of inner peace. (His serene walk into his new workplace deliberately mirrors and contrasts with the first time we ever saw him—strutting out of his luxury car and into Cardiff Electric.) We may not be totally prepared to say goodbye to these people we’ve come to know so well, but Halt and Catch Fire has convinced us of their humanity so thoroughly we know they’ll be all right.