'Halt and Catch Fire' Season Finale Recap: Westward Ho!

The show's going to California with an achin' in its heart in stellar season's send-off

Lee Pace in 'Halt and Catch Fire.' Credit: Richard DuCree/AMC

They made up their mind to make a new start, they're going to California with an achin' in their hearts. Halt and Catch Fire ended tonight's season finale by packing up and heading west, abandoning the Lone Star state for the Golden one. But from Joe and Sara MacMillan's scuttled plans for relocation to Gordon Clark's disastrous dalliance with a west-coast lady, the characters have walked through the shadow of the Valley of Silicon all season long. The results were not promising, which signals that the hard reboot Donna Clark, Cameron Howe and company are hoping for most likely won't work.

The irony is that this parable about the illusory nature of second chances was told by a show that proved it was the exception to that rule. Written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Sopranos, Mad Men, and Daredevil veteran Phil Abraham, "Heaven Is a Place" caps one of the most remarkable rebirths for a series in recent memory. Its freshman-year jitters are now as obsolete as the Cardiff Giant — Halt came out of its sophomore season as smart, savvy top-shelf TV, full stop.

It got to this point by creating relationships, between couples and coworkers alike, that are genuinely nuanced, complex, and unpredictable. Exhibit A: the faulty marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Clark. While both of them have spent the last nine episodes pursuing their careers independently — to a fault — Gordon draws the line at his wife's continued allegiance to Cameron, whose attack on the WestNet mainframe caused personal chaos and cost the company millions. But when Donna admits she had a hand in its as well, all bets are off. During the show's first season, when backstabbings and double-crossings were the norm, a revelation like that would've barely moved the needle. Now it hits like an atom bomb, an act of revenge so reckless and mean that only a changed person could have done it.

Which makes it the perfect catalyst for the Clarks' meltdown, since they have become different people since the season started. They've been so consumed by his illness, her business, and their separate secrets that at this point they're almost incompatible. With obvious frustration, she makes the point that his paranoid delusion about people stealing his work is exactly what happened to her in real life; he blurts out the truth about his California affair. Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy are phenomenal in this scene, capturing the way repressed resentment and rage can cause a couple's arguments to go from zero to 100 in an instant.

And when Donna reacts to her husband's revelation, she instinctively clutches her hands in front of her stomach. That one bit of physical business, intentionally or not, articulates her own great unspoken secret: an abortion. Judging from her airplane-bathroom breakdown, the pain of keeping it hidden is luggage she's taking to the West Coast with her in her plan to save her family by relocating the company. That's the kind of emotional and intellectual sophistication — many options, few of them obvious, all of them with their own pros and cons — that's slowly become Halt's specialty.

Joe, by contrast, is traveling light: It's just him and all his millions. For a while there, it looked like the simultaneous collapse of his career, his reputation, and his marriage had Joe on the brink of suicide. (As with Gordon's frequent displays of the avoidant personality typical to members of an alcoholic's family, Joe's warning-sign giveaway of items important to him shows how sharp the series can be about mental illness.) But he managed to capitalize on his toxicity by becoming, in Sara's insulting words, "something that happens to people who don't deserve it." Using an anti-virus program Gordon gave him, Joe terrifies an venture capitalist who'd previously called him "a legitimate psychopath" into setting him up as a security specialist. Now he's got a San Francisco-based empire in the making, but the office is as empty as his life. He ends this season the same way he started the first: staring out a window, alone in the world.

Closing out the core quartet is Cameron, who has plenty of company, just not quite the one she wants. Her old pal Yo-Yo is on board, as is John Bosworth, who makes the surprise decision to return to the fold when he realizes life as a backroom backslapper is no longer for him. (God bless Toby Huss, who could not be better in that role if he were an online avatar programmed for the job.) But as the Talking Heads' haunting "Heaven" plays on the soundtrack, Cam stares wide-eyed at the entrance to her plane to California, looking for Tom Rendon to rejoin Mutiny and restart their romance. Then the door closes, and she's left like Donna harboring her secret, or Gordon resenting Joe for his success — all of them flying to stand still.

It's a knockout sequence, the climax of 10 episodes of increasingly intricate character dynamics and rock-solid writing, acting, and directing. Whether or not there's a Season Three awaiting the gang when they land, this was the year Halt caught fire.

Previously: She's Lost Control