Showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Main Cast: Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Toby Huss
Notable Guest Stars: Anna Chlumsky, Annabeth Gish, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs, Carol Kane
Episode Running Time: 42 Minutes
SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses significant plot details of all four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire. Read only if you have watched the entire series or don’t mind being spoiled.
I have heard the appeal of Halt and Catch Fire described by some of its viewers in a manner reminiscent of that of Lost. Like those who said that the latter was not really about the island and all its mysteries, there are those who would have it that HaCF is not really about the technology industry but rather the people who just happen to be employed by it. To which the correct response is: of course the characters are great, but the reason they are so compelling is because of their relationships with computers. All four of HaCF’s principals – Gordon the tinkerer (McNairy), Donna the explorer (Bishé), Cameron the restless (Davis), and Joe the visionary (Pace) – know that their destiny is inextricably bound by tech. But really, what they are all searching for is connections with other human beings. In the fourth and final season, the indelible impact they have made on their audience is proof of their success.
Each season has served as a fictionalized examination of the major developments in technology. Season 1 concerned the personal computing revolution, Season 2 brought to life the birth of online gaming, Season 3 detailed e-commerce and computer security, and now Season 4 brings it all together with the expansion of the World Wide Web. Gordon and Joe have reunited for a new venture as an internet service provider, but they ultimately convert to a focus on search, almost by accident, when Gordon’s teenage daughter Haley (Skaggs) tools around the office on her own personal website. Gordon and Joe fall in love with what she’s up to, and bring her onboard for the re-tooled company, now called Comet (as in Halley’s Comet), which is basically a highly curated predecessor to Google. But the thing about being a predecessor, as so often befalls this crew, is that your ideas end up ahead of your time while your implementation somehow ends up behind the times.
The driving momentum of this final season is the reunion of the core four. After years of manipulation, both real and imagined, Joe and Gordon are finally on fully equal terms, passionately working towards a shared goal. Elsewhere, Donna and Cameron make more halting efforts in being drawn back into each other’s orbit. Recently divorced from Gordon, Donna finds herself overseeing another search website, and accordingly struggles to attain personal success as a professional rival to her ex-husband and daughter. Cameron reunites romantically with Joe; their relationship at the beginning of the series was a tad abusive, but after years of healing and a pivot to total honesty, they confirm that they do indeed have real respect and love for each other. But any efforts for Donna and Cameron to reconcile with each other are much more halting, their wounds more recent and bitter.
About halfway through the season, the reunions are not complete, but everyone is closer to inner peace than we ever have seen them. This sense of contentment is on full display in “Who Needs a Guy,” which represents just about the perfect day for Gordon. But anyone who knows how writers effectively manipulate viewers’ emotions should view such an instance with concern. That hour of television ends with Gordon passing away, finally succumbing to the toxic encephalopathy he was diagnosed with in Season 2. The end of this episode, and the entirety of the following one (“Goodwill”), are incredible reflections on how it feels to lose someone so young who has just found inner peace. At this point, it does not matter at all that this is a tech show – the truth and bittersweet satisfaction it conveys are all just about being human.
I have on multiple occasions made the perhaps crazy claim that a great TV show can be enjoyed no matter what order you watch it in. I (inadvertently) tested that theory with Halt and Catch Fire, having watched the first half or so of Season 1 when it originally aired but then gave up on it, only to hear that it got significantly better in Seasons 2 and 3. So I jumped right into Season 4 for its initial airings while concurrently catching up on every episode I had missed, finishing Season 3 just before the series finale. So when I watched “Who Needs a Guy,” I had yet to see the episode with Gordon’s diagnosis, so his death surely hit me harder than it did most viewers. I enjoyed experiencing Season 1 and Season 4 sort of back-to-back, as they work as mirror versions of each other. Furthermore, with HaCF’s frequent time jumps (including one at the start of Season 4), it is designed to be easily jumped right into more than the average show.
Here now is where I make room to praise the supporting and guest characters. The Clark daughters, Joanie and Haley, were always adorable kiddos in earlier years, but in Season 4, they are now teenagers, with correspondingly beefed-up roles. Kathryn Newton and Susanna Skaggs have the obsessive minds and deep wells of feeling necessary to fit in and thrive with these people. Anna Chlumsky comes onboard easily and delightfully as Comet’s chief ontologist and as a new, perfectly matched love interest for Gordon. Her quick departure after his death captures the ephemerality of some of the best things in life. And then of course there is Bos, who is some combination of mentor, therapist, father figure, and best friend to everybody. Toby Huss’ portrayal of him is and has always been the embodiment of the perfect dadgum Texas folksiness.
In an immensely satisfying finale, HaCF calls back to a credo expressed in Season 1: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” The purpose of all the technological breakthroughs these people have been chasing has never been the point in and of themselves, but rather, the personal connections that they forge is the point. For a moment, it seems like everyone is about to go their separate ways and miss out on the opportunities to hold onto those connections. History is threatening to repeat itself, but then … that repetition is embraced. The patterns of the computer industry, and life, are unavoidable. We end where we begin, hopefully wiser and correspondingly ready, and eager, to start all over again.
Best Episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous,” “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Ten of Swords”
How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? Halt and Catch Fire is practically symphonic in how its conclusion wraps around to its beginning. It fulfills the promise that was always there, maybe even confirming that a brilliant plan was in place all along. Thus, Season 4 is the show’s most hopeful, most peaceful, and best.
Halt and Catch Fire is Recommended If You Like: Silicon Valley but want something less cynical, Mad Men but wish every character were the Peggy
Where to Watch: Seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix, and Season 4 is currently on AMC.com.
Grade: 4.7 out of 5 Things
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