Halt and Catch Fire Series Finale Recap: Phoenix

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Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC Film Holdings LLC.
Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire

Search; Ten of Swords Season 4 Episodes 9 and 10
Editor's Rating 5 stars

It was always going to end. Comet, Rover, Joe and Cam, and Halt and Catch Fire itself. They were all always going to end, because everything does eventually. There are reasons for each ending, different ways of explaining what happened. Comet and Rover were always going to end because this show exists in our real lived history, and there was never any way around Netscape launching with Yahoo built into its browser toolbar. Halt and Catch Fire was always going to end because it’s one of those shows that existed on the bubble forever, perpetually tilting on the edge of cancellation. TV shows and tech startups are alike that way.

And Joe and Cam? As Bos tells her, Cam is just too full of love — it’s overflowing, bursting, exploding out of her. And Joe has never been able to put the person ahead of the idea. He’s tried to change. He’s tried to make something that will endure beyond him. But in the moment, when he’s scrambling to keep Comet in the game, when he can’t see past his own pain to focus on the person next him, he goes too far. He wheedles Cam, he stretches her, he cannot help but pull on the strings of her talent even though she’s straining to get back to her own space. So the end of Comet is also the end of them.

Many things happen in these last two episodes. Halt and Catch Fire tries to teach us how to say good-bye (“To stay is hard. It’s all hard”). Haley screws up her courage to ask out the girl from Hound Dog, and then she strikes out. Joanie takes off for Thailand, tearful but courageous. Cameron finally ditches Alexa, who was more interested in trotting around Cameron’s brilliance than she was in actually supporting any of her work. Joe goes to see a fortune teller. But mostly, things end, and then everyone tries to figure out how to move forward.

I’ve written a lot about boxes this season, and the way Halt and Catch Fire has been nimbly juggling metaphors of boxes, encasement, doorways, and portals. From the start, the show has been about the computer (yet another kind of box) not as the thing, but as the way of getting to the thing. It’s all over these final two episodes. In this season’s second episode when Cam and Joe reunite, they sit in their separate boxes connecting over the phone before Joe finally crosses the threshold. Now, the final shot of the two of them together is a gasp-inducing image of them once again outlined in separate spaces, walled off from each other forever. And if the thing Joe has always wanted to do is to open a door, it’s hard to imagine a more catastrophic ending for him than picking up a chair and hurling it through the glass of Gordon’s office, smashing his way across the boundary in order to reach Gordon’s still-beeping alarm. The timer has gone off. Joe’s time is up and he didn’t make it.

Boxes and time, beginnings and ends. Bos lovingly dusts off an ancient Cardiff Electric radio and Donna solders it back into working order; it’s the exact model Bos used to pack into boxes on the Cardiff factory floor, he tells her. When he turns it on, music plays and he and Diane dance in his immaculate garage workshop. (It’s not the thing, it’s how you get to the thing.) Cameron shows up at Joe’s apartment with a box and is left holding it in the doorway, blinking in shock at the emptied space. Donna swims back and forth, back and forth inside her swimming pool, before finally getting out and going back to work. In the montage that follows, Donna gets out of the elevator, glances happily at the firm’s new name, Symphonic, and heads into the new space. She has taken down all the walls between each person’s office.

A box breaks, and that’s how Cameron and Donna finally come to an understanding again. Haley comes storming into the house with her definitely real boyfriend Kevin, and yells from her room that her computer’s having a meltdown. It’s ruining her project. Cam is on the verge of departure, just about to head off to somewhere she hopes will be a fresh start. She’s mustering the energy to say good-bye to everyone all over again, but she can’t. There’s a problem with a box. Again. She and Donna bow their heads over a busted hard drive, considering the damage. They look like they’re praying.

This is the circumstance that leads Cameron to blurt out her desire to work with Donna again, and this is how Donna finally apologizes to Cameron. She does it publicly, in front of a crowd of women in the tech industry. Earlier this season, Donna wore a red blazer to circle a conference table menacingly, and I described it as looking like a bullfighter’s flag. She’s dressed in red again for this scene, but now it’s less like a flag and more like a beacon, an image of defiance and power and unapologetic existence. We’re actually here, she tells the gathered women. Things change, time moves on, and no matter what you do, there’s always a better version of it around the next corner. But she is still here and the constant is never the work. People are the constant, Donna tells them, looking out at the group. Cameron looks back at her, with all the love Bos could see in her just spilling out everywhere. She waves, and then she falls in the pool. Afterward, when she’s dry and clothed again, Cam and Donna sit and talk some more. This time, they’re both wearing red.

This series was always going to end — everything does. But in the truest Halt and Catch Fire turn, it ends with a moment of something starting again, as Donna looks around a diner and has a moment of epiphany. “I have an idea,” she tells Cameron. They’ll start again, as we knew they would. Not just because they have to, but because these two episodes are all about ending and starting over. Or, as Cameron explains it to Bos, they’re stories about recursion. Halt and Catch Fire plays with the negative vision of recursion first, exploring the idea of trying the same thing repeatedly, saying good-bye and starting over, failing and then trying it again. In the negative, it’s a vision of being stuck and never escaping, like Captain Kirk in a time ribbon. It’s Donna and Cameron starting a new company and already being able to see how it will fall apart.

Halt and Catch Fire’s vision of life is not about some false construction of an end point, though. For this series, recursion is what a real hero’s journey looks like: It’s the process of coming to an end and then figuring out what comes next. That scene where Donna and Cameron look at the empty box from the old Mutiny office and envision the whole cycle of a new company? It could be a sad scene. It could be them already seeing an end. But Halt and Catch Fire knows that this is not what tragedy looks like. This is what life looks like. This is what it looks like when people love each other, and when they try to make things together. They try, it ends, and they figure out how to start again. That scene with the Phoenix sign lighting up over their heads is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Halt and Catch Fire has always been about nostalgia and the past, even within its own run, and it feels unfair and unnecessary to try and force it into a connection with today. But the vision of the two women at the end of this series, committed to each other and the desire to make something together, is the most optimistic thing I can imagine for right now.

At the end of the final episode, we return to Joe, who has given up tech and turned to a world of ideas and abstractions. It’s a fitting end for him: At last, he can go live in a world where connection and idealism don’t need to be interrupted by who got there first. I get why this is the end the creators chose — it is a mirror of the first scene from Halt and Catch Fire’s pilot — but I wish the order had been swapped so we’d ended with Donna and Cam. It doesn’t matter that much, really; it’s amazing that the show’s truest, most lasting, most meaningful relationship is a friendship and partnership between two women. I’ve so loved spending time with Donna and Cameron for the last four years. I will always think of them as still being out there somewhere, ending things and starting again.

Random-Access Memories

• What a glorious treasure of ’90s things: Bagel Bites, Bob Ross, Natural Born Killers, Veruca Salt, hacky sack, Star Trek: Generations, and the promise of living into the 21st century. I want to go back and hug all of those people and tell them I am so happy for all of their dreams, but they should somehow figure out how to stop 2017 from ever happening.

• Yes, Donna, we think Haley’s probably gay. I was sure Kevin and his terrific uselessness would be far and away the funniest thing about these episodes, but then Donna tried to play hacky sack in her slip-style red cocktail dress and declared that she just did not “get” it. Perfect.

• Runner-up for funniest moment: Joe getting his fortune read by Lillian from Kimmy Schmidt (Carol Kane!), who notes that his salsa line looks pretty good.

• I have not spent nearly enough time on Bos. It’s probably because he just breaks my heart too badly? Toby Huss is astonishingly good, the kind of good that just socks you right in the solar plexus and prevents you from thinking straight. Bos, walking out of the doctor’s office to “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Bos, slow dancing with Diane. Bos, thinking back to packing radios into boxes, and how far the world has come. What did we do to deserve him?

Halt and Catch Fire Series Finale Recap: Phoenix