Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halt and Catch Fire: The Final Season

Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Annabeth Gish, Anna Chlumsky, Molly Ephraim, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

            ** Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Season 4 of 'Halt and Catch Fire' **

Everyone thinks about the possibility, but few shows actually have the guts to go through with it. In the third to last episode of one of TV's most improved dramas, Halt and Catch Fire, creators and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers do the unthinkable. It's what every fan of a major series fears could happen in the home stretch, but rarely does, since the story being told so infrequently calls for it. This one did. You could call it a shock, but that wouldn't exactly be accurate since viewers have known for a couple of seasons now that the show's backbone, everyman Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) was quietly fighting a degenerative brain disease.

So, did we just simply forget about it? Or know, but find ourselves so distracted by all the other compelling goings on that we neglected to consider Gordon was on borrowed time. It's a true credit to the writing and performances that we took for granted that the character would make it to the end because he had too much left to accomplish. This may as well be the story of the series, which started in the Silicon Prairie of Dallas at the forefront of an 80's computer revolution spearheaded by four wildly different, but initially underdeveloped characters who were always a little too far ahead of the curve. 

Joe and Gordon argue in Comet's offices
It began as being all about the technological connections, but with each passing episode the series morphed into something else, until arriving at its final destination of California's Silicon Valley in 1994, at the forefront of another revolution, the internet. Whether it be personal computing, chat rooms, anti-virus software, first-person gaming, and finally, the world wide web, hot shot visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), geeky engineer Gordon (McNairy), shrewd, buttoned-up corporate brains Donna Clark-Emerson (Kerry Bishé), and rebellious coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) were often there first. It's just that someone else was always better.

Right up until the end this was a show about failure, with perhaps no character better epitomizing that than perpetual runner-up Gordon, played with equal parts desperation and inspiration by McNairy. With these three, the next big idea would always be right around the corner. Eventually, the series evolved into being about human connections, as the characters grew and expanded with the world around them, particularly in the past two seasons.

Gordon brainstorms ideas
When audiences do eventually realize what they've missed, and as others discover and re-discover this overlooked series, they'll have its finale, "Ten of Swords" waiting for them. And while this will never usurp Breaking Bad or Mad Men critically or otherwise, it became its own thing, delivering an universally beloved final episode neither could lay claim to having.

Yes, the bar was set higher for those because of the greatness preceding it and most were just relieved that the perpetually ratings-challenged HACF even made it to the end amidst constant threats of cancellation.  But it gets the last word, culminating in an hour and fifteen minutes that's everything a TV send-off can and should be.

After the surprise time jump at the end of last season that took the characters from the 80's into the 90's, Joe and Gordon have joined forces again to launch a new internet service provider, CalNect, spawned by their World Wide Web brainstorming session with Donna and Cameron three years earlier. But despite occupying Mutiny's old office space and employing Cameron, she's too distracted  to finish their browser, and competition from the marketplace is forcing them to change course.

When Joe comes up with the idea to index every website on the Internet, Gordon enlists his youngest daughter Haley (Susanna Skaggs) to help. She creates her own webite, "Haley's Comet" that could prove to be the solution to all their problems, if they Gordon can work out the issue of his 13-year-old working for him and Joe while competing with her own mom, and his ex-wife, Donna, who's venture capital firm is funding a very similar startup company called Rover.

Bos and Cameron have a talk
With Cameron's marriage having fallen apart in Japan and her new video game, the frustratingly impossible "Pilgrim," receiving awful reviews,  she's torn between these two competing companies, as her personal ties to Joe and Comet conflict with her loyalty to old friend Bos (Toby Huss), who's wife Diane (Annabeth Gish) oversees Donna's Rover project. With Cameron offered a new business opportunity from a mysterious source that could give her the independence she wishes, Joe, Gordon and Donna are separately still searching for what they want and figuring out how they'll get it, unaware their paths are converging for the final time.

This season, more than any before it, feels like a completely different show, while still managing to draw upon the rich history mapped out in previous episodes. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the time jump, which takes a series that was for so much of its run steeped in 1980's culture and pushes it into the early to mid 90's, even managing to forge ahead three years further to 1994 in the season premiere. AOL is king, the internet is in its infancy and now the gang finds themselves in a far different place than they were a decade earlier when they spearheaded the PC craze. But not much has changed either as they constantly find themselves being thwarted by those with similar, sometimes identical ideas executed better or with more capital behind it.

Initially, there almost seems to be a lack of tension and conflict compared to prior seasons as everyone actually appears to be in a pretty good place, both personally and professionally. But appearances are deceiving, even as Gordon celebrates his 40th birthday with a party (complete with the Blue Man Group) and shares a business partnership with Joe that, for the first time, seems to also be a legitimate friendship built on respect and trust. Unfortunately, even as they've grown, they still can't seem to agree on a direction for the company, and the addition of Gordon's daughter Haley into the fold as founder creates all sorts of complications neither were quite ready for.

Donna toasts Rover's success
On the other side is their corporate opponent Donna, now a formidable executive willing to win at any cost, fully completing a transformation that occurred back when she booted Cameron out of Mutiny. Watching her rule over Rover underlings (including Bos) with an iron fist, develop a drinking problem and take colleagues into her bed is jarring, but knowing what we do about Donna up to this point, I believed it. She always had ambitions that stretched beyond what Gordon had imagined for both when they were married, and she's now in her mind making the necessary sacrifices to execute on them.

This is probably Kerry Bishé's  best season, taking extremely unlikable behavior and giving it motivation, while sliding in signs of the old Donna through her positive interactions with Gordon and the relationship with her kids, most notably rebellious teen Joanie. Formerly the show's most beloved character, we start to see cracks in Donna develop with each passing episode that remind us why, making what's earned between her and Cameron in the series' final minutes that much more rewarding. And while the latter has made significant strides in her maturation as a rational functioning adult, the tension between the two stemming from what went down at Mutiny runs through much of the season whenever they're forced to interact.

As far as Cameron's come, we're also reminded at so many points just how little she's changed, even as she and Joe have another go at a formerly toxic relationship that for a while feels like it could really work. Of course it inevitably doesn't, due in part to Cameron doing what she's always done: run away. With her future as a game designer in limbo, she purchases a piece of land, isolating herself from the world while living out of an airstream trailer.

Haley at the negotiating table
While the thrill of creating and coding has always been her life force, she can't help but get sucked into the battle between Donna and Bos' Rover and Joe and Gordon's Comet, with Gordon's daughter Haley stuck in the middle. The biggest benefit of the show's jump into the 90's is the development of what might be the series' strongest plotline, as Gordon connects with his now teenage daughter, who ends up being a lot more like him than both are willing to concede.

More than fulfilling the daunting task of stepping into a character late in the game that's already played by someone else, an endearingly goofy and likable Susanna Skaggs basically owns this season, as her story becomes that of Gordon's and Joe's. While she's undoubtedly going through some things, both related to her social awkwardness and sexual identity, the bigger concern is Joe, who's never met an idea he couldn't shape to fit his vision or a person he couldn't take advantage of to do it. We saw it at Cardiff, again at Westgroup and most famously, with the anti-virus software idea he lifted from Gordon to build his own company

When he gets his claws into Haley's idea and starts working with her, there's legitimate concern he'll see dollar signs and be more than willing to throw a little kid under the bus and destroy his friendship with Gordon to see it through. That this would have happened with Season One or Two Joe, but doesn't occur now, is perhaps the first sign that put cold, calculating Joe MacMillan is being put to bed.
Gordon's life flashes before him in "Who Needs a Guy"
 With that metaphorical death also comes an actual one for Gordon, who quite literally sees his life flash before his eyes moments before his hallucinatory death in the landmark episode, "Who Needs a Guy." The cruel twist was that he finally seemed to arrive at a place of happiness. Running a successful company, on relatively good terms with Donna, having loyal friends, in a healthy relationship with new girlfriend, Katie (Anna Chlumsky) and sharing a personal and professional bond with his daughter that defies description in its overall impact, it was an awful time to go. But it was also the right time, handled so beautifully and with such grace, no one could dare label it emotionally manipulative, as shocking TV deaths so often tend to be.

You wonder how the series could continue after the passing of one of its most important characters until the realization sets in that it doesn't need to. Or at least it only has to do it for a few more episodes. And does it ever. As the shocking news ingeniously moves from character to character in what feels like the cruelest, most painful game of telephone tag in dramatic TV, we must adjust to new reality for the series that's forcing its characters to hit the reset button on their lives with only three episodes remaining.

The grieving process and the possibility of each finding their own way to remember Gordon and begin to somehow try to survive without him is vividly explored in the powerful episode "Goodwill," as Joe and Cameron help Donna and the girls sort out Gordon's belongings.  As the rift between Donna and eldest daughter Joanie grows greater, there's some signs of healing in her seemingly irreparable former friendship with Cameron. Ironically, just as that glimmer of hope presents itself, a sullen, withdrawn Joe's vision of a post-Gordon Comet disintegrates with the arrival of Yahoo! so too does his relationship with Cam.

Whenever the conversation of any series finale occurs, that inescapably dirty word, "expectations,"  always seems to be accompanying it. HACF is in the unique, enviable position of hardly having any since few anticipated the series would make it past its inaugural season, much less be able to map out an exit strategy for a fourth. But for fans of the show who were religiously watching it and knew how good it became, there were expectations that these characters who have developed so much since the pilot would earn a send-off that not only makes narrative sense, but provides suitable closure and a necessary amount of room open for interpretation.

Donna contemplates her future in "Search"
The penultimate episode, "Search," and its succeeding finale, the Karyn Kusama-directed "Ten of Swords," finds a way to honor the past while also looking forward to an fuzzy, uncertain future that comes more clearly into focus in its closing minutes. While Gordon's gone, his creations and failures still feel as integral to the series as when he was alive, driving these characters onward whether they're ready or not.

For Cameron, it appears as if her investor Alex Vonn (Molly Ephraim) will finally provide the outlet necessary to let her ideas roam free without interference. Instead, she again becomes an unwilling puppet to a strangers' vision, reminding her just how creatively fruitful that Mutiny partnership with Donna truly was. In one of the season's most wonderful scenes, both return to the abandoned Mutiny and Comet offices, envisioning a future where they give it another go, naming their fictitious company "Phoenix" as its imaginary neon logo blinks on the wall behind them. They each own their biggest mistakes with Mutiny, determining they would inevitably screw it all up the same way if they tried it again, but with one key difference. This time, they'd have the self-awareness to make sure they walk away friends.

Now at the top of the corporate hierarchy having successfully taken over AGGE and taken it to new heights in the wake of Diane's retirement, Donna's soul-searching has not only made her a better boss and more motivating leader, but allowed her to connect with backpacking daughter Joanie on a level not previously thought possible. All roads lead to her Sheryl Sandberg-like speech Donna delivers at her self-hosted female coders party, conveying a message about work and sacrifice that's as timely and relevant now as it would have been in 1994. Given the character's history, it doesn't feel sappy or sentimental. It just seems right, like a declaration of facts from someone who's earned her place at the head of the table.

Cameron listening intently to Donna's speech
Try as she might, Cameron can't run away this time. Whether she's falling into Donna's pool while clumsily trying to make an exit or working with her to take apart Haley's computer (in a brilliant call-back to Donna fixing the girls' "Speak and Spell" in the pilot), the forces are conspiring to prevent Cam from visiting her mom in Florida. This is where she belongs, as a roadside breakfast with Donna at a diner ends up being the scene that encompasses so much of the series.

A cash register opens. Money is exchanged. People talk. Then Donna runs out to deliver the immortal line to a waiting Cameron at the car: "I Have An Idea." And with that, a series known for its meticulous musical cues saves one of its biggest for last, as Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" starts to take us out. It's a fairly traditional but thematically appropriate choice given how much of the show's identity is inseparable from its soundtrack, specifically when it comes to Cameron, who Mackenzie Davis made the show's beating beating heart while subsequently emerging as its future star, garnering attention for her more widely seen turns in the Emmy-winning Black Mirror: "San Junipero" and Blade Runner 2049. But there's no mistaking that she earned both opportunities due directly to her work on this.

Upon realizing the show was jumping to 1994, there was palpable excitement in discovering what music supervisor Thomas Golubić would do when pushed past the series' early cyberpunk 80's aesthetic and into a new decade. We got a taste of at the end of last season with his unforgettable incorporation of the Pixies' "Velouria" and he doesn't disappoint here, as Hole, James, The Cowboy Junkies and The Breeders help provide a voice for the decade. He also ventures out the period box when necessary, like with the memorable use of Dire Straits' "So Far Away" following Gordon's death, and this final selection, channeling Gabriel's 1977 hit to reflect both the pain and excitement of moving on.                     

Cam and Donna on the cusp of a new idea
I love that we never hear what Donna's idea is in that diner, creating a contemplative sequence that carries echoes of The Sopranos' contoversial finale. Sure, we can speculate. Ebay? Napster? Social Media? Paypal? Smartphones?  There's enough evidence in the scene pointing to each, all or none of those innovations, but it's better we never find out and are instead left endlessly speculating what she had in mind. Anything revealed couldn't meet our expectations anyway, and if we knew what it was, chances are we'd be too busy thinking of ways it could fail to truly stop and appreciate the moment. And it probably will fail, which we've learned by now won't mean the end of the world for any of these characters whose lives and careers were defined by creating "the thing that gets you to the thing."

The series' big remaining piece of unfinished business is Joe MacMillan, the one character we weren't sure could ever come to terms with Gordon's death or himself.  If Cameron was always the one to retreat and run, this time it's Joe's turn, packing his bags and heading home to New York to put this all behind him. The expectation is a return to IBM and the reappearance of the slick, suit-wearing Don Draper/Patrick Bateman hybrid from the first season scares us (however briefly) into thinking Joe has once again regressed, having not experienced an inkling of personal growth from his time with these people over the past decade. The finale is full of clever misdirections involving Cam leaving, Bos' health and Donna's uncertain future. In each of these cases, the rug is pulled out to reveal a better outcome, but never more so than when Joe drives up to what we believe will be IBM headquarters in his Lotus sports car, arriving instead at his office at a local university where he's teaching humanities.

With the Cardiff Giant PC resting atop his desk and pictures of Gordon and Haley in front of him, Joe's finally found a way to move forward while fully embracing instead of resenting the successes and failures that got him here. As in the pilot, he's again in a classroom, only this time it's not to poach talent, but share knowledge.

Professor Joe MacMillan in "Ten of Swords"
As in the pilot episode, Joe opens with the line: "Let me begin... by asking a question" Only this time his delivery carries none of the slimy, know-it-all arrogance it did then, stated with a genuine curiosity that could have only come from someone humbled by experience. It's the perfect final line for a character whose perceived lack of dimension became the easy target of so many of the show's early criticisms, since retroactively corrected by the writers and Lee Pace's multi-layered performance, helping position the series as one of the medium's most overlooked.

Halt and Catch Fire proves again in its final season that it was still even better than it's recently gotten credit for, having not only earned the hardest of victories with an ideal send-off, but told a story that now justifies many of the early decisions the show makers faced derision for. It all makes sense now, and while we know that couldn't have been the plan all along, they deserve credit for making us believe that it was by having all the pieces perfectly fit. The rare achievement that ups its game with each successive season until peaking when it most mattered, the challenge was always convincing more people to watch, which still could come.  For a show many accused of reverse engineering the most successfully familiar aspects of AMC's greatest dramas, HACF succeeded where few did, changing course midway through to carve out a path of its own.           

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