Tuesday, October 17, 2017

"Halt and Catch Fire" — Final Season Thoughts

Spoilers for the last season of Halt and Catch Fire after the jump:


"I have an idea."
—Donna

"Let me start by asking a question." 
—Joe

Halt and Catch Fire in its last two seasons is one of the great practitioners of the increasingly lost art of layering several storylines to be in dialogue with one another. And its final pair of scenes serves as a tribute to the way it's managed to weave its central themes—the act of creation and striving to connect—through just about every moment it stages. I suppose we can probably argue whether the series would have been better served to leave us with that scene of the fractured Donna/Cameron partnership fully reigniting as our last memory, rather than the beautiful note of symmetry that is Joe repeating his words from the pilot in a much more substantial way. For the record, I think it would have, considering the degree to which that partnership was the beating heart of HACF for so many people, myself included. But on a broader level, I also don't really care, because it's one last instance of the show crafting scenes that feel like perfect mirror images in service of an overall thematic portrait. Each big moment's effect depends in part on the other. Neither of them exists in isolation, because the characters don't.

Here's the main thing I'm getting at here: I think Halt became a good show when, after moments of excellence in season one, it reinvented itself as a story primarily about Donna and Cameron in its second season. But it became a great show a season later when it realized that this, in and of itself, wasn't enough, because it was still on most levels a show primarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of narrative. That's important, for sure, and Halt does that nuts and bolts stuff very well. "Tonya and Nancy" from this season, for instance, is a masterpiece of moving through plot gracefully, as is the big montage from the season that covers three years in the characters' lives. And the show has always had a pretty strong command of those sorts of moments. What was missing in its early years, however, was a thematic and subtextual vision underpinning everything else it did well, just like The Americans (the current champion of subtext) has used its plot to meditate on such wide-ranging subjects as loneliness, ideology, commitment, and self-knowledge.

Seasons three and four did that by finally tying the technological potential of connectivity to the characters' emotional lives on a much more personal level than before, much in the same way Mad Men did from the get-go with its view of advertising. It became the central thesis of the show, permeating nearly every scene and allowing the characters to orbit around and brush up against it as they navigated their own connections—each laced with moments of potential for joy but also utter emotional ruination. "You Are Not Safe," perhaps the third season's second-finest episode, contains a moment of voiceover from Ryan, a protege of Joe's who moments earlier had committed suicide, that cuts to the core of this particular double-edged sword:

"There's something on the horizon. A massive connectivity The barriers between us will disappear. And we're not ready. We'll hurt each other in new ways. We'll sell and be sold. We'll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We'll be so vulnerable, and we'll pay the price. We won't be able to pretend that we can protect ourselves anymore. It's a huge danger. A gigantic risk, but it's worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won't isolate us. It won't leave us in the end so totally alone." 

This stark, brutal speech arrives one episode after we've seen Cameron and Donna's relationship collapses in "The Threshold" and an episode before we discover Donna and Gordon's marriage didn't make it. For my money it's hands down the best stretch of the entire series, in which we see these strands of vulnerable connection that have developed torn apart by impulsive decisions and long-held resentments. Everyone utterly fails to do what Ryan advises: take care of each other. And it leaves them in pieces.

The season that follows this tremendous period of tumult is mostly one long stretch of episodes devoted to picking up those pieces and seeing what sort of new connections can be built anew out of them (if anything). It also asks a related question of each of its main characters: What kind of a person have I become after these experiences? In an ingenious move, the show also centers some key scenes on two characters—Donna's daughters Joanie and Haley, now teenagers—who are in a different stage of their processes of becoming, which allows it to craft some different kinds of parallels as the season goes on: Joe finding a sort of kindred spirit in Haley, for instance, or Cameron later offering Joanie her wisdom (such that it is, anyway) following a fight with Donna. Not that the adults are necessarily wiser or more mature at all times; Donna's relationship with Joanie is a mess for much of the year in large part because of the walls she's put up following the demise of Mutiny. Watching those self-made barriers finally come tumbling down in the closing episodes, following an arrest for drunk driving and then the sudden death of Gordon, is one of the season's most moving arcs.

That death must be reckoned with in any discussion of this season, of course, because it results in the show's greatest episode, "Goodwill." In lesser hands this material could have been something vastly inferior, because it can on some level be boiled down to this sort of fairly cliched summary: "A main character's death brings everyone else together and forces them to reflect on what really matters in life." But such a straightforward plot description ignores how the episode is thematically situated within a season in which everyone is constantly circling one another and struggling to open themselves up again fully to the possibilities of creation and connection, as well as the pivotal role Gordon played within the series as perhaps each surviving character's most sustained connection. He was Cameron's closest friend, Joe's business and creative partner, and while he and Donna weren't married anymore, there was still a strong bond there, as evidenced in his attempt to comfort her in "A Connection is Made" after the arrest. With that anchor gone, everyone's suddenly unmoored, searching . . . in short, willing to be vulnerable with one another again despite the chance for devastation.

It's a vulnerability, however, that now comes grounded in more experience and self-reflection, which gives it a greater chance of lasting this time. "Ten of Swords" is no "Goodwill," but it's a perfect finale on a thematic level that in its final 20 minutes pays off this new, more weathered sense of openness just beautifully. Having reconnected personally, Cameron and Donna question whether a renewed professional partnership is the best idea, flashing forward to a possible future endeavor called "Phoenix" (which would have been a better episode title, frankly) and seeing themselves fighting over the same old stuff but not breaking this time. To refer back to the Halt character who had figured himself out more than anyone else at the time of his death, Gordon nailed it when he noted to Donna the ways in which people both do and don't change: "They're all you. All the versions. You're the same person that you always were." These new versions of Donna and Cameron (and of Joe, as well) aren't that different; they have the same needs and ambitions they've always had. But they're now just a little better equipped to help each other fulfill those needs—or, in the case of Joe's last moments, to break the pattern of perpetually dissatisfied reinvention and find a new way of connecting.

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