AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire was something of a joke for its first season, with its goofy title, played-out 1980s period setting, and mind-numbing concept—Mad Men but with computers. But the second season retooled to focus on the partnership between Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), two women struggling to build a tech company in the 1980s, while the third season sent the cast off to Silicon Valley to try their hands at the big leagues. For two years, Halt has been in a state of perpetually ecstatic narrative freefall. And this willingness to continually reinvent the show culminated in Tuesday night’s two-part season finale, which was one of the boldest things to air on a television drama this year.
Before the finale, the third season of Halt and Catch Fire seemed like it might be formally, structurally close to perfect. It had all of the elements in place for a satisfying clockwork resolution, turning Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) from a brooding, Steve Jobs–esque villain to a totally broken failed tech entrepreneur in search of redemption, reenergizing Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy)’s commitment to the industry, and, above all, shattering the loving, firmly established partnership between Donna and Cameron. Halt took a new status quo, then slowly, painstakingly dismantled it over the course of the season—only to jump ahead three years, to 1990.
The time jump is a well-worn dramatic trope at this point, but in the case of Halt, the length of the jump, its placement at the very end of the season, and the extent to which it changes up the series’ relationships makes it unusually effective. The episodes “NIM” and “NeXt” risk alienating longtime fans by threatening to finally turn the series into a Mad Men clone: Joe has become a mysterious, vaguely heroic, difficult man once more—and he’s fully fallen in love with Cameron—while Donna and Gordon have gotten a divorce, with a teenaged daughter carrying the symbolic surly torch for Sally Draper. (There’s even more corporate turnover, as Donna and Cameron’s company Mutiny has failed after an ill-advised early public offering.) But somehow, it works like gangbusters.
In the first half of the finale, the characters congregate around the COMDEX computer expo, mirroring an episode of Season 1 that takes place largely at COMDEX 1983. “NIM” is a far cry from that episode, where Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon pile into a car eating fast food and listening to the Talking Heads. (It’s also the episode that first raises the specter of the characters moving to Palo Alto.) In the intervening seven years, all of the characters have grown up, personally and professionally. Joe fields consulting offers for uninteresting investment opportunities, Donna has a partnership at a venture capital firm, Gordon runs the network project he’d already planned on doing with Joe, and Cameron has created a successful video game series—but they inexorably return to each other, drawn to a single powerful force: the fledgling internet.
“NeXt,” the last episode of the season, is just an hour of people talking, and it’s Halt and Catch Fire at its best. “NIM” was, it turns out, an excuse to get the main cast back into the warehouse office Mutiny was using at the beginning of the season. The characters’ debate over their new project forces them to clash over concepts: originality and creativity in conflict with commercial success, the value of connectivity. The cast, as always, communicates their commitment to these ideals near-flawlessly. There’s no Sorkinesque, writerly abstraction here—just people plainly articulating why they are so deeply committed to what’s important to them.
Hanging over all of this is the specter of Ryan Ray, an unstable former Mutiny programmer driven to suicide after releasing the source code for one of Joe’s old projects, living (and dying) by the values of openness that define the characters’ approach to their work. Acting with integrity and vision in the world of Halt and Catch Fire has a deeply human cost. In fact, the show seems to suggest that the only people willing to try are already, in some ways, incredibly stupid. Halt and Catch Fire concludes its season with a mournful, contemplative two hours, episodes that feel more like the wrapup movie so many canceled television shows are denied.
As the finale comes to a close, Donna moves into the villain role—with loads of VC cash behind her, she’s as close as a TV character not on Silicon Valley will get to the evil tech billionaires of today’s headlines. It’s a genuine surprise that still works perfectly, knowing what we do of her sense that she’s earned success, and damn the consequences. She’s going up against a now-united Joe, Gordon, and Cam—mirroring the first season, in which a tech giant and a Joe MacMillan–backed upstart fight to be the first to arrive at a tech innovation we know they won’t succeed at realizing, at least not with the world-changing scope they imagine. Will Halt and Catch Fire get a chance to follow up on these developments, to explore the race to connect the world, the cool rivalries undergirding old friendships, and whatever Lee Pace looks like in ’90s period clothing?
The show has always had abysmally low ratings, even for a prestige loss leader on a network that used to air good dramas instead of churning out endless spinoffs of the Walking Dead franchise. Thankfully, it’s been renewed for a fourth and final season, giving showrunners Chrises Rogers and Cantwell the opportunity to end the show on their terms. But as the show moves ahead into the 1990s, it will run up against an even bigger problem for period dramas: being too obvious. Much of the dialogue in the finale is delivered with total commitment, but it also boils down to: Whoa, the internet!
Still, the internet is serious business. Telling a story about its conception, and all of the ideals it once stood for, seems even more important in an age in which the web has been transformed into a tool of hate. With this finale, the Halt and Catch Fire team has proven it deserves viewer trust and the opportunity to see the story through to its conclusion. A period drama about the creation of the internet? Whoa, indeed.