October 15, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Halt & Catch Fire”

It isn’t the preference of networks and producers for obvious reasons, but for viewers, there can be something particularly thrilling about a series that finds its greatness after its first season.  Shows like Mad Men, The West Wing, Breaking Bad or for that matter Friends came out of the box fully-formed, and they’re all unquestionably great.  It’s a series like Parks & Recreation, though, that reminds us that the TV series dynamic is peculiarly interactive, so it can feel as though our own reactions help to shape the content (and sometimes they do).  It’s as though we’re on the journey along with the show’s creators, and their victories are somehow ours as well.  HALT & CATCH FIRE is one of the most notable of these delayed successes, a series that was decent enough in Season 1–revisionist recollections that it was an abject failure are exaggerations–but one that took a leap the following season and never stopped leaping.  (It was also lucky, of course, to air on AMC, which was fat enough with zombie riches to keep the series on the air for 4 seasons, even though the ratings never matched the quality, and the awards groups never caught on.)

One of the realizations that came to series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (along with original showrunner Jonthan Lisco) was that the heart of a series that began as the story of two men, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), was actually located with the two women who started as their adjuncts, Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) and untamable coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).  Joe and Gordon remained important characters to the end, but Halt became the story of Donna and Cameron, two of the strongest and most complex characters on any television series… well, ever.  That was mirrored in tonight’s two-hour series finale, where after an opening hour (written by Supervising Producer Mark Lafferty and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer) that broadly involved Joe as well as key supporting characters like John Bosworth (the invaluable Toby Huss) and Donna’s boss (as well as Bos’s wife) Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), the final hour (written by Cantwell and Rogers, and directed by Karyn Kusama) narrowed its focus to concentrate mostly on Donna and Cameron.  (Although the writers couldn’t have known about this past week’s pop culture news, the sight of an hour of primetime television devoted to a pair of brilliant, inspiring, complicated women was more heartening than it would already have been.)

Cantwell and Rogers knew going in that Season 4 was going to be the final one, and they did a gorgeous job structuring their saga around endings and beginnings.  Gordon died three episodes before the end, in a way that played fair with viewers (he’d had a brain ailment for several seasons) but was shocking nonetheless, and that paved the way for an extraordinary hour about the grief felt by the characters about his loss.  The finale continued to pare away elements of the story:  both Comet and Rover, the internet search engines developed respectively by Gordon and Joe, and by Donna’s venture capital company and Bos (Cameron secretly helped on both), perished when Yahoo became Netscape’s chosen partner.  Joe, unable to control himself, ruined his renewed relationship with Cameron.  Gordon and Donna’s younger daughter Haley (Susanna Skaggs, an MVP of the season) gathered up the nerve to ask out the girl she was crushing on, only to be shot down.  Donna made the decision to leave her love for hands-on tech, and accept Diane’s Managing Partner position when Diane stepped aside.

Halt & Catch Fire has always been about the things that happen after failure, and although other characters were present, its final hour was largely a pas de deux for Donna and Cameron (and for Bishe and Davis).  Cameron, out of ideas and done with Joe, stopped at Donna’s house before heading all the way home to her mother in Florida in what felt like a retreat, kept delaying her departure for one reason or another (an attempt to fix Haley’s computer, a fall in the pool).  It gave her time to hear Donna’s heartfelt speech to a cocktail party of female executives about the challenges and triumphs of her life, and in a lovely sequence, the two women ruefully talked their way through the beginning, middle and end of any inevitably failed attempt to work together again.  (Halt isn’t usually a show for visual flourishes, which made the simple use of a fantasy neon logo above their heads for their imaginary company Phoenix even more powerful.)   Despite their having talking themselves out of a future collaboration, the show essentially ended with the non-rom equivalent of a rom-com climax, as Donna stared around the cafe where they’d been eating, her face illuminated with inspiration, and went outside to tell Cameron four little words:  “I have an idea.”  (A brief epilogue tied up Joe’s story with a sequence that paralleled the pilot’s opening, except with Joe now a Humanities professor, out of the tech business.)

Halt became a show to treasure for its honestly, ambition and depth, but mostly for its characters and the performers who played them.  It can fairly be argued that Cameron and Donna were as indelible as Tony Soprano and Don Draper, and although Joe and Gordon carried more baggage from Season 1, they were superbly realized as well.  It’s something of an irony that a series about technology was so remarkably human.

It’s sad, of course, to see a great series end while it’s still at its peak, and it’s possible that for Rogers, Cantwell, and the four actors, this will be as good as their projects get  But Halt & Catch Fire was a champion of starting over, both in its story and its reality, and we can eagerly anticipate what all of them will do next.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."