A few specific pieces of this finale are frustrating. It’s a small gripe, really: The situation already felt plenty tense, so why add extra tension? My fear about Cameron sleeping with Joe — that it would introduce an element of jealousy that would drive a wedge between Cam and Tom — proved true. This group of characters already has sufficient layers of betrayal, distrust, forgiveness, respect, friendship, and emotional pain. Halt and Catch Fire does not need to add a love triangle to make things interesting. It is already interesting.
I wanted to share that complaint up front, because the rest of this recap is a love letter to “NeXT” and to the season as a whole. I was not thrilled with the love triangle. You have it on record.
But these last four or five episodes have been as solid a run of TV drama as any I’ve seen. As the third season progressed, Halt and Catch Fire finally found the time and scale it needed to tell the big tech story it’s been aching to tell. Its characters, especially Joe, have always been big, grandiose characters who spoke in metaphors and abstractions. This last episode, with Joe leaning into the camera to explain his vision for what the internet could be — and what they need to do to make it happen — is the first time Joe’s Don Draper-y overwrought flights of fancy almost makes sense. It has been one of the real joys of the last few months to watch this show turn into a phenomenon worth raving about.
The first hour of tonight’s two-episode finale had a strong whiff of finality about it. We saw characters transform into the people they were going to become, we saw the consequences of this season played out in the long term, and right there at the end, we saw a brief, tantalizing glimpse of the future. It felt like an ending. The beginning of this second hour feels the same — it has an utterly classic “the gang’s all back together” vibe to it. The old Mutiny offices are empty and in disrepair; Joe, Gordon, and Cam walk inside like cowboys entering a saloon in an old Western. Their shadows loom over the threshold.
Like the boardroom scene in “The Threshold,” it’s easy to imagine an alternate version of this story where everyone gets along and everything works out: They fight and run into obstacles, but in the end, everyone sees the same glorious vision of a utopian future and stand marveling over a screen that says, “You’re online!” or something. The internet is born.
It does not go that way. At first, there’s a complete disconnect regarding what they’re all even talking about, a miscommunication handily captured by everyone’s conflicting drawings of connected boxes on the whiteboard. (Hilariously, Joe’s sketch is just one giant box. Oh, Joe.) Then they start to get into the massive mountain of finicky technical impediments. It’s a deluge of details that probably flies over most of the audience, including callouts to Steve Jobs and his NeXT machines, CERN, TCP/IP, existing networks, and forgotten paradigms. Our modern ears ping to pieces of vocabulary that make it sound a little like the group is speaking in a language closely related to our own, but not quite the same, a language full of cognates but where none of the grammar works. It’s a bit like Esperanto, really. These scenes are remarkably well-built arguments of ideas, allowing us to follow along without immediately knowing who in the room is (historically) right. Up until the point, that is, where clearly Joe is the one who’s right. He can see what this could be, he’s managed to grapple with the exact right metaphor, and when he lands on it, you can see the sun open up on everyone’s faces.
Everyone else except Tom. And this is the part of the episode I just did not need. I like Tom, and I did not need to see him willfully blinding himself to the right side of history just so Joe could have an antagonist in the room. I did not need to see them come to fisticuffs while Cameron watched in dismay. I like my HACF power players to be fascinating, flawed, powerful women, thank you very much.
But I cannot claim that this plot was poorly handled, or that it wasn’t useful in the end. First, Joe gets the full back-on-his-game edit, and it’s nice to see that prophet stance get complicated by his clear jealousy and affection for Cam. Second, although it’s painful and frustrating to watch Cameron lie to Tom about what happened between her and Joe, it’s also a relief that Tom doesn’t stay in the wrong. He apologizes to Joe, he apologizes to Cameron for spying on her emails, and he seems generally ashamed about his (admittedly accurate) suspicions. This show is best when there are no real villains, and it would’ve been too cartoonish for Tom to march off the end of the season in a dark, jealous cloud.
Finally, the distraction of Tom and Joe allows the real gut-punch of the episode, the true moment of sadness and confrontation, to be more of a surprise. We’re so wrapped up in Joe falling through a floor and FTP and whether the internet is going to be a stadium or a language or a box or a door, that when the real crux of things arrives — when it’s just Donna and Cam trying once again to work things out — it’s easy to be taken aback. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much it will matter that Joe says he loves Cameron, and Tom’s on the outside, but the two-part reconciliation and split between Donna and Cameron is simple and completely devastating. Cam admits blame for her part in Joe’s failures and in Mutiny’s collapse. She’s grown. She can see her own flaws. And then Donna makes what’s supposed to be a quick, reassuring promise: If he’s going to be a problem, they can cut Joe out of the project.
In the end, this is what breaks them. Donna becomes attached to a project and pursues it beyond her loyalty to the people involved. And Cameron, having been on the other side of Donna’s ambition, finds that she just cannot trust her. But she’s keeping the project anyway. In the end, it’s the original HACF three, all clustered around a NeXTcube, crossing their fingers as they log in to CERN’s World Wide Web. Donna goes speeding out of the parking lot in her fancy car, barking over her car phone that she needs a plane ticket to Switzerland and a meeting with CERN when she gets there.
This could’ve been a fitting series finale, but lucky for us, it won’t be. Earlier this week, AMC announced that the show was renewed for a fourth and final season. Thank goodness for that: “NeXT” is too effective at pivoting to new challenges and lining up possibilities for what might come next. The coming tech revolution we all know so well is too tantalizing to leave in such a nascent form. I am beyond thrilled that Halt and Catch Fire will be able to end on its own terms. And given how the show accomplished something truly special this season, I’m so excited to see what the future looks like.
- There are a few lovely little scenes that stand out in this episode, like Donna and Gordon having dinner together and negotiating the tension of their divorce. Another is Cameron’s reunion with Bos, which is every bit as satisfying as you could want. He’s on a boat. He’s dancing to “All My Exes Live in Texas.” And the most touching part is that Bos actually played Space Bike — force fields and the little bastard with the chain saw and everything. I’m so glad the Cameron-Bos relationship got some time here at the end.
- I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am onboard with Gordon Clark. He used to be such a weak link, and now he’s an intriguing potential mediator between Cameron and Joe’s intense personalities. Plus, no one else on this show can deflate Joe’s pretentious recounting of his trip to Paris like Gordon, who suggests that maybe he went there to learn the “whimsical art of mime.”
- Gordon’s also the only one who can do a little bit of metafictional joking, teasing Joe for his Steve Jobs hagiography. Of course Joe loves the NeXT. “It was designed by a disgraced megalomaniac who loves form over function.”