'Halt and Catch Fire' Season Finale Recap: Where There's Smoke…

The diverging fates of this late-blooming AMC show's core characters end a promising first season on a satisfyingly puzzling note

Halt and Catch Fire
James Minchin III/AMC
'Halt and Catch Fire'
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The final Halt and Catch Fire of Season One begins with the show's single most likeable sequence: Things are tense in the Clark household, where Gordon and Donna have evidently not recovered from the COMDEX debacle. Dishes are washed, beers are drunk, TV is watched, all joylessly, silently. Finally, Gordon attempts to settle in on the couch where he's been sleeping – but Donna has had enough. "Get in there!" she demands, directing Gordon to the bedroom she insists she'll be sharing with him tonight. "I'm still very mad at you," he replies, pointing at her, and surrendering. She giggles. They walk off to bed, Gordon stomping and swinging in faux-fury. The two of them have decided that their fight about Donna's borderline infidelity and Gordon's job-related neglect was about real issues – ones that pale in comparison to the even realer love and respect they share. As Donna puts it in code later in the episode, when Gordon presents her with the engagement-slash-decoder ring he promised her nine years back, "I darf you very gerp."

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The Gordon-Donna scenes in this late-blooming show's season finale — '1984" — aren't just the show's most human moments to date. They echo the legendary Apple Super Bowl ad that gives the episode its title, and like the Cameron lookalike who smashes the oppressive IBM machine in that commercial, they represent the triumph of imagination, emotion, and empathy over cold hard calculation. Gone is the Halt that forced its characters into empty confrontations week in and week out to drum up drama on the cheap – the equivalent of the Cardiff Giant's faster-cheaper computing model. In its place? A handsome, clean-shaven, confident, self-actualized Gordon, now head of the company where he was once just another face in the crowd. But more importantly, he's a Gordon we actually give a shit about.

How, then, to explain Donna's decision to start sleeping with the enemy, metaphorically speaking? Rather than share in his triumph, Donna seeks her own, joining Cameron's hilariously loosey-goosey proto-internet company Mutiny. All of his friends and foils – Donna, Cameron, Bosworth, Joe – are gone. That leaves Gordon alone at the head of a conference table, the camera slowly tracking in on his hardened face as his final words echo: "So what now? What are we gonna do next?"

Perhaps the carjacking that provided the episode's single most dramatic moment is the key. Donna departs one symbol of Gordon's success (the party) in another symbol of Gordon's success (the Porsche). The end result? Getting tossed out of the car in the middle of the road by an armed man while her husband watches helplessly from a distance. Is that where their road really leads?

But you don't even need to turn to the event's symbolic resonance. Watch Donna's face when she and Gordon finally return home late that night: arm broken and nerves frayed, she stares at a double photo frame on an end table. While she can see the faces of her two daughters, who are presumably the subjects of the pictures in the frame, the camera's placement ensures that we can't – a subtle but chilling reminder that if things had gone another way that night, Donna would never have seen them again either. That's a question-your-choices moment if ever there was one. Just ask Gordon, whose encounter with an electrocution victim a few episodes back sent him on a similar journey.

Joe's fiery exit from Cardiff is harder to explain. If you want to play by the show's rules for the show's resident tortured prestige-TV antihero, sure, it's easy as pie. He smashed open a water main to flood an IBM data center – lighting a truck full of Cardiff Giants on fire before disappearing for parts unknown (again) is small potatoes by comparison, right? The line on Joe, delivered by a neverending succession of angry characters throughout the season, is that he doesn't create; he just copies and sells and destroys. As Cameron puts it, he's "just a sad little boy with a lot of wasted potential" whom she only fell in love with because "you recited my own ideas back to me and pretended they were your own." (Never underestimate the appeal of that kind of relationship.) If that parasitical process is all Joe has going for him, why not burn it all down and move on at his moment of triumph?

Here's why not: Halt and Catch Fire has labored mightily to make us believe that's not all there is to Joe. If it were, would he have gone to Cameron, encouraging her to do basically whatever she wants with her life as long as he could be a part of it? Would Gordon's praise and thanks at the party, and afterwards when there's no audience to impress, have been so sincere? Would his admission of defeat regarding his big "killer app" scheme after the coders quit and the test-computer problem was found to be a fluke have felt so genuine? Would his craziness have been capable of rallying everyone to his cause, transforming their lives in the process, as Gordon so eloquently and passionately described before their trip to Las Vegas? Halt and Catch Fire wouldn't work as a show if the answer was no.

If the show does work – and let's just say, for argument's sake, that it does – then the best way to understand Joe's actions at the end of the episode is as a one man's tragic misunderstanding of himself. Cameron may be skeptical, but Gordon and Donna both had come around to the idea that Joe MacMillan was indeed capable of leading a company, not just killing one and building a new one in its carcass. And Cameron is more right than she knew about the would-be PC pioneer still being that little boy upon the roof with his psychotic mother – inside, that's exactly what Joe believes he is, so he's gonna jump before anyone else can drop him.

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So ends the rare prestige-drama season in which the female characters wind up happier and more fulfilled than their male counterparts. As Donna and Cameron mix and mingle with their fellow Mutineers, Gordon is lonely at the top of the corporate ladder, and Joe literally walks off into the sunset, seeking the stars his late (?) mother promised to show him. It's an unexpected, sticky set of emotions and images. Here's hoping we get to switch Halt and Catch Fire on again next year to see what the new model can really do.

Previously: Tragic-Con

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