Halt and Catch Fire’s final episode probably aired last night, unless AMC has more faith in the show than its meager audience would suggest and renews it for a second season. I can’t say I’m heartbroken. The finale has all the frustrating aspects of a typical Halt and Catch Fire episode: overwritten speeches, inconsistent characters, disappearing stakes. And yet, as it has several times over the past ten weeks, the show shuffles the deck and sets itself up promisingly for the future. So, though I doubt we’ll get to see how Gordon handles being CEO of Cardiff, or how Cameron and Donna work together running their internet gaming startup, or if Joe reconnects with his absent mother who’s living in the woods (that’s what’s happening, right?), I would watch it. A second season would probably be just as much of a mess as the first season was, but maybe they’d pull it together once the Giant hits the shelves.
On this episode of Halt and Catch Fire we get the return of Susan Fairchild, Donna’s kick-ass alter ego. Not only can Susan recover (allegedly) lost programming code, her talents include some professional level piano playing and a glorious misread of flirty signals from her boss. Susan is fun, spontaneous, and intelligent without taking herself too seriously. She isn’t afraid to make mistakes or too proud to learn from them. At its very best, Halt and Catch Fire is a little like Ms. Fairchild. It tells a story about computer programmers and software engineers swiftly and confidently, adding humor, some melodrama, and more than a little weirdness to a potentially dry subject. This good version of Halt and Catch Fire, the Susan version, has only been seen sporadically over the past seven weeks. Too often the show is bogged down by misplaced ambitions, trying to manufacture meaning and depth that just isn’t there. But slowly, tentatively, the ratio of Susan to Donna seems to be on the upswing.
It’s possible that my expectations have been lowered significantly after five weeks of watching Halt and Catch Fire, but I think this episode is a lot of fun. In the last decade, AMC has built its brand on “quality” television, producing shows dealing with difficult characters and complicated themes. But what if this show is actually a soap opera and everybody involved is starting to figure that out? And I’m not trying to disparage Halt and Catch Fire by labeling it this way. I just mean that the joy of this kind of show relies on anticipating what the characters do, not exploring why they do it. With skilled writers and charismatic actors, this type of TV can be compelling, even addictive. I fell in love with television on Monday nights after middle school watching Melrose Place. I delighted in watching those characters fight and sleep with and backstab each other every week. In its best moments, “Adventure” captures some of that excitement.
Joe MacMillan has lots of secrets. Last week it was revealed that he disappeared after quitting IBM and wasn’t seen for over a year. This week scars are revealed, literal scars all over his torso, which are uncovered after Gordon tears off his shirt in the middle of a fistfight. While this revelation primarily calls into question Gordon’s unorthodox fighting technique, it also prompts Joe to improvise a story about how, as a nine-year-old, he was mercilessly bullied for being way too excited about Sputnik and was pushed/fell off a roof. Which gave him these scars. And made him miss the greatest football game of all time.
Last fall, AMC tried to launch a new show in the hour after Breaking Bad, hoping that the millions of viewers watching and tweeting about Walter White would keep tuning in. But Low Winter Sun was a bonafide flop, a critical and ratings fiasco, and the name itself became a sort of punchline to certain snotty TV viewers. Rather than helping launch the new show, its proximity to Breaking Bad only magnified Low Winter Sun’s shortcomings. It became the poster child for poor quality “quality” television, the skeleton of a dark cable drama with none of the skill or soul needed to sustain itself. The network is taking a different tactic with its new drama, Halt and Catch Fire. By debuting in Mad Men’s timeslot after the veteran show wraps up its truncated demi-season, the newbie can live or die on its own merits rather than forced comparisons to one of the greatest shows of all time. That being said, the fact that this is a period piece and a workplace drama is no accident, and I think Halt and Catch Fire’s superficial similarities to Mad Men might entice viewers hungry for more Don Draper but resigned to the fact that they won’t get him for another year.
The crime thriller is not an easy genre to tackle. The cinematic landscape is littered with movies that were unable to illustrate stakes worth caring about, characters worth emotionally investing in, or stories worth following. Good additions to the genre, however, are always fascinating to watch, as they show a side of things that very few people see otherwise, and put people in situations that reveal a lot about them.