Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire: It Won’t Leave Us in the End So Totally Alone

Full spoilers for Halt and Catch Fire follow.

In the sixth episode of Halt and Catch Fire‘s final season, “A Connection is Made”, most of the gang goes out to shoot off model rockets for Haley’s birthday. The scene is a beautiful moment of fan service. After four seasons of rocky interpersonal relationships, seeing Joe, Cameron, and Gordon (plus Haley and Katey) experience a happy moment is treasured by the audience because they have seen these characters go through so much.

At that moment, a happy, conflict-free ending for the series was all I wanted. Joe and Cameron would live happily ever after. Gordon would have a great relationship with his daughters with his new romance beginning to blossom. Donna would return to the group. But with almost half a season still to go, things were inevitably going to fall apart.

Despite the obvious comparisons, Halt and Catch Fire‘s first season was not like Mad Men. That season was driven too much by the narrative of “build a revolutionary product and beat evil IBM” to let the show become a brooding character piece like Mad Men. We all thought this was an knockoff story of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak in the fictional form of Cardiff Electric, Joe MacMillan, and Gordon Clark.

However, Cardiff does not become Apple in this fictional universe; Apple does. And from this point in the series onwards, Joe and Gordon are pushed to the background to let Cameron and Donna become the main protagonists. The failure of the Cardiff Giant is the first of many the crew faces1)James Poniewozik has a brilliant piece in The New York Times that failure is main theme of the show.

As expected after episode 4×6’s rocket scene, even more failures can be added to the pile. By the end of the series, Cardiff, Mutiny, and Comet have all gone by the wayside. Both the Donna/Gordan and Cameron/Joe relationships end because the characters are too different. The most painful of these failures is the failure of Gordon’s health.

The episode after Gordon’s death, “Goodwill”, may be the most realistic portrayal of grief ever seen in television. Heartbreak is not about standing somberly in the rain at a funeral (HCF wisely chooses to skip over Gordon’s funeral entirely.) Real grief is about the sadness you feel looking at an old photo or the melancholy happiness of telling stories about our lost friends.

Although both the audience and the characters are saddened by Gordon’s passing, death is inevitable. On a wider note though, the show uses Gordon’s death to point out that everything ends which recontextualizes the endings we have seen in the show for both companies and relationships. Even if Cardiff, Mutiny, and Comet had been widely successful, that success would still end. Eventually, Apple and Amazon will become what IBM was in the 90s at the end of HCF: a company on the downturn with little cultural impact. What matters is the impact on the world and the fun you had at the time. Everything ends, but we can still be better for it. With ended relationships, this is even more true.

The fundamental problem with television as a medium comes from its length. Stories are ultimately about change. The basic story structure is a character is in a place of comfort, goes off on an adventure, is forced to undergo a change, and returns home as a changed person. This works well in movies and books, but in order to keep a show running for years, the main characters cannot change. Protagonists either remain stagnant or alternate between periods of growth and regression.

Look at a show like House M.D. At the beginning of the show, Gregory House is a narcissistic, Vicodin-addicted genius who deep down wants to be happy, connect with others, and eliminate his physical and emotional pain. In the first few seasons of the show, he isolates himself from his love interest (Stacy) and team members (Cameron, Chase, and Foreman). By the end of the show, Gregory House is still a narcissistic, Vicodin-addicted genius who deep down wants to be happy, connect with others, and eliminate his physical and emotional pain. In the later seasons of the show, he continues to isolate himself from his love interest (Cuddy) and team members (Taub, Kutner, 13, among others). The show has great episode that progress the character of House like the sixth season opener “Broken” where House is checked into a mental institution, gets off drugs, and establishes positive relationships with those around him, but those gains are ultimately lost as the show continues. In television, the set pieces change but the characters rarely do.

Yet this lack of change is much more akin to how real life actually works. For me, giving up on the internet has failed spectacularly. I have tried dieting yet again for a few days before giving up and binging on junk food one evening. I keep failing to spend enough time working on my hobby projects. With my recent promotion, I thought I would be happy with where my career is now, but I am already looking on to the next goal2)“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” —Don Draper. People keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

The quartet of HCF‘s main characters never truly change. Beset by his diminishing mental health, Gordon had mostly stepped out of his engineering role by season 4. In the three years that the season opener skips over, Joe has spent the time working on building a web browser while Gordon has foregone his interest in building such projects to become the businessman the internet service provider needs. Yet just before his death in “Who Needs a Guy”, the engineer gets his hands dirty again when repairing the air conditioning.

Near the end of the series finale, Donna and Cameron “reminisce” about their uncreated company, Phoenix. Just like with Mutiny, they would try to enjoy the ride but knowing they would inevitably take on venture capital, undergo an IPO, disagree with one another about the direction of the company, and eventually lose to a competitor. Despite knowing this inevitable fate in their final scene, Donna still comes up with a new idea, and the pair will surely set out to build it. The two know they will make virtually all the same mistakes as they did at Mutiny but still set out to build something together.

Joe’s lack of change is the most painful because he so desperately wants to be better. At the beginning of the finale, he gets a palm reading, not due to a belief in some supernatural force like destiny, but because he wants to know what even a stranger can tell about him based on his demeanor and personality. The psychic describes Joe as stubborn, smart, successful, selfish, and is a man who has loved and lost. The last scene of the series and its parallelism to the very first reinforces that Joe is, more or less, the same person as he was at the beginning. Joe MacMillan arrives in a nice car, strolls into a classroom wearing a blue shirt reminiscent of his former employer IBM, and says, “Let me start by asking a question.”

But there is a lot of wiggle room in saying someone is “more or less” the same person. After Joe gets his palm reading, the psychic’s grandson walks into the room to get some dessert. Joe sees this women whom he does not even respect have a familial bond with her loved one. In this moment, Joe surely must have been reminded of his almost parental (or “cool uncle”) relationship with Haley. Joe and Haley’s interactions are the treasures of season 4 from grinning widely when offering to buy Comet to the dawning realization of how how similar the he and Haley are when she is talking to the girl she likes.

Joe carries his relationship with Haley, alongside his past with Cameron, Gordon, and the rest, with him to his new life as a college professor as evidenced by their pictures around his office. Their influence is what makes Joe a calmer, more loving person than the one we saw at the beginning of Halt and Catch Fire.

While preparing for the cocktail party, Cameron and Donna have been unable to save Haley’s C++ semester project. When she returns from watching Star Trek Generations, Haley is content with getting a fresh start. But no one ever truly starts over. Haley has improved her programming knowledge from completing the project the first time. Cameron and Donna will not let their friendship be ruined again at their new company. Joe, once described in his lowest moment from the penultimate episode of season 2 as “an accident…something that happens to people who deserve better”, is someone who sets out to make the world better, not through technological products, but through his students. The characters are not different from their past selves, but they are also not the same. Failures and endings have educated them.

By the end of the show, the rocket scene is just a fond memory like the photos the characters discover while packing up Gordon’s home. The past is over, but just because things ended does not mean they fell apart.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. James Poniewozik has a brilliant piece in The New York Times that failure is main theme of the show
2. “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” —Don Draper

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