The series is ending, but it's never too late to appreciate AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire'
Spoiler alert: This story contains details from Saturday's series finale of Halt and Catch Fire.
You may not have heard of Halt and Catch Fire, which would be a shame.
The AMC drama, which ended its four-season run Saturday, chronicled technological invention in the early years of the computer revolution (1983 to 1994) even as it staged its own brilliant reinvention several times over its 40 episodes.
There are plenty of reasons low-rated Halt, exiled to Saturday for a final season that producers and fans were fortunate to get, may not have been on many viewers’ radar.
The title, an early computer term, is probably without meaning to non-techies. The series isn't noisy — no dragons or zombies. It’s a character study, stirring emotions and occasional tears but nothing that would attract Kleenex cross-promotions.
But Halt shouldn’t get lost, and in this age of on-demand viewing — a relatively recent byproduct of the digital era the show chronicles — it doesn’t have to.
In the show, half-visionary/half-con-man Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) refers to advancing technology as “the thing that gets you to the thing,” or a helpful means to some desired end.
For Halt, the first “thing” is a fun ride through the early digital age, hinting at a future world of Yahoo, Facebook and Google, but the ultimate goal is the characters, especially the core quartet: ambitious frontman Joe, genius coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), cautious inventor Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and organizationally brilliant Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé).
As digital technology evolved over the course of Halt’s four seasons, so did the series, as Christopher C. Rogers, who created the series with Christopher Cantwell, tells USA TODAY.
"One of the show's themes is about reinvention, that tech is about failing fast and changing quickly. That felt like it gave us license to do that," he says.
Season 1 opened in 1983 as IBM alum Joe, an anti-hero in the Don Draper mold, arrives in the "Silicon Prairie" (Texas) and persuades computer whiz Gordon to break some rules as they reverse-engineer an IBM PC in pursuit of a lighter, faster model.
After that capable yet somewhat predictable opening, Halt reached the sublime in Season 2. The series shifted its attention to the two women — Joe’s on-and-off love, Cameron, and Gordon’s wife, engineer Donna — and their guerrilla start-up Mutiny, a joyous, chaotic embrace of video games and the emerging social community.
"The show found its voice when we did Mutiny," Rogers says, explaining mixed first-season reviews helped persuade producers to gamble. "We wanted to go down playing our music."
They upped the ante again in Seasons 3 and 4. First, they moved the quartet, along with mentor John "Bos" Bosworth (Toby Huss), to California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley.
Then, they jumped the action ahead to 1993: Joe and Gordon buried the hatchet and partnered on another start-up inspired by Gordon's teenage daughter; Donna flourished but felt pressure as a venture capitalist; and Cameron, once again adrift, returned from Japan without a job or her husband.
If Season 2 raised Halt’s game dramatically, the final season may have put the series at an even higher level, as technology took a backseat to intriguing characters and their ever-changing relationships.
Over the seasons, Joe — whose selfish drive once left emotional carnage — slows down enough to become a feeling human being. Guarded Cameron opens herself to feelings of pain (and love). Donna gives up her frustration with Cameron, opening the door to renewed creative partnership and, more important, friendship.
In recent episodes, Gordon achieved a life balance, bonding with his teen daughters and a new girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky) before a chronic ailment finally claims his life. Gordon's internalized death scene, a trip through life moments and the different ways friends and family mourn their loss, makes for mesmerizing television.
The characters received a mostly happy ending — with a side of bittersweet — in Saturday's finale.
Bos, recovering from a heart attack, got a clean bill of health, opening the door to a long life with new wife Diane (Annabeth Gish). Cameron and Donna had a chance to explore a new creative idea together, but Cameron and Joe ultimately couldn't make their renewed romantic relationship work.
"We wanted to play a lot of the fourth-season (character) dynamics by returning to the first-season dynamics, but having them do it right this time: Joe and Gordon partners again; Cameron and Joe back together," Rogers says. "But Gordon's death calls into question what everybody wants and it just didn't feel true to send (Cameron and Joe) off together. That was a wrenching decision."
In Halt's final scene, Joe is teaching humanities at a high school near where he grew up. He's a fuller man, finally at peace.
"This is a guy who's gone through the wringer and learns the hard way the value of the people you work with as opposed to the success you achieve," Rogers says.