Goodbye to a collateral attraction: Halt and Catch Fire season 4

Lee Pace as Joe in the last season of Halt and Catch Fire.

Last Saturday, AMC broadcast the final episodes of Halt and Catch Fire — a series that won a lot of a critical approval but never really found an audience. As reflected in the blog, I’d been watching it from the beginning (although somehow I never saw season 2, and now I suppose I won’t). So it seems appropriate, after my reflections a few months ago, to write about it one last time.

This season had almost no tech, and while that meant less controversy about and wider comprehensibility of the show, it also cut down on a sort of vital intellectual, almost spiritual energy that had characterized the first season at least — the feeling around the notion of discovery. Any intellectual energy in this season came from the younger generation — either anonymous-ish scientists working for Donna, or Gordon and Donna’s daughter, Haley. Cameron — the major constant creative force — was stymied for most of the season, caught up in the failure of her game, the throes of her waning and waxing connection to Joe or her attempts to be relevant to an annoying tech specialist. Beyond that, we had only the simultaneous conception of a search engine, and then the failure of both projects as Netscape built a company called Yahoo (whose services both Comet’s and Rover’s teams thought were inferior) into its toolbar. In short — this season wasn’t about learning anything, it was just about being faster, something I find inherently less interesting. Ultimately, season 4 felt like a bit of a reckoning, with everyone spending most of their time thinking about what it had meant, realizing they would not live forever — it’s not coincidental that Donna and Gordon turned forty during this season, and that Bos’ heart attack made his wife reassess her situation as well — and trying to conceptualize how to think about and further the technologies on which they had spent the previous three seasons. There was also a moment of cranky tech nostalgia, as Cameron and Donna have the mechanical knowhow to fix Haley’s harddrive when it crashes, although it’s broken beyond repair. It felt subtly metaphorical.

Speaking of nostalgia, a sentiment that has pervaded the show, particularly musically and materially — there is a sense in which this season was overly elegiac, with three full hours devoted to “the wrap up.” I enjoyed episode 7, in which Gordon died and thought that the script presented that in a really touching but never overbearing or heavily symbolic way. Episode 8, in contrast, was often simply too soggy for me, with every symbol ridiculously obvious and overloaded with meaning. I had truly grieved for Gordon after episode 7 — with the message of all the things he didn’t know and had yet to discover left untouched against the narrative of his memories with Donna and his daughters — but fifteen minutes into episode 8 the emotion was embarrassing me. There was one good scene in episode 8 — the one where Anna Chlumsky admitted that she didn’t like Gordon’s interior decorating, and that she’d been troubled by “how much” of the cool Gordon Donna had had.

So I was worried about how the last two hours would go — mostly without cause, despite the ridiculous title, “Phoenix.” One thing I appreciated about these two episodes was their very mature realization that that often things don’t work out, even things to which we have devoted a lot of time and effort, and that this isn’t cause for sorrow. (Interesting from this perspective: a commentary that points out what a Gen-X show this was with its constant requirement that as soon as you’ve figured things out, the word has changed and you have to reboot. I was really in synch with this interpretation of the show.) Joe and Cameron finally realize that they’re never going to be on the same page at the same time and their very different lifestyle preferences are just the tip of the iceberg of the reasons why they should not go on together. I thought this was classy and that the breakup occurred more or less during a sex scene felt hugely realistic to me. I also really liked the way the Cameron / Donna story looked like it was going to end — with them telling a story about why they couldn’t work together. Unfortunately, this excellent script and plot shaping was undercut by the very end of the show, in which it looks like Donna has an idea (it’s not clear what) and they might start another company together. This seemed an obvious prospect for another trainwreck for me, but I guess US TV can’t get along fully without its transparently happy endings.

Final niggle: although I appreciated the idea that if you want to talk about meaning (“the thing,” as opposed to “how you get to the thing,” to use Joe’s repeated verbiage), the best place is in a humanities classroom, you don’t just move from running a Silicon Valley tech startup to teaching humanities at an ivy covered campus. You couldn’t do that even in the 1990s. These fields now also require a non-negligible amount of technical and methodical knowledge for those who want to work in them. Sorry, Joe. But it was a neat fantasy. Oh, and finally they credited Tracy Kidder.

Some of my judgments stayed firm across the series — for example, that Mackenzie Davis simply can’t act, that she just stares with huge eyes in an aggravating way and has exactly one reaction to any setbacks: a not very believable tantrum (although I read here that the character is supposed to seem childish, it’s still inconceivable to me that an adult would be have this way, but even if she did, Davis seems to have one style for performing that). I loved the music, the costumes, the set dressing, the way everything about the surroundings of the characters seemed so perfectly timed, as if I was returning to a time capsule of my early life in which suddenly I understood how all the environmental pieces fit together. Other judgments wavered — at times I was team Donna, at times team Gordon. But I always enjoyed although I really liked Kerry Bishé’s acting and felt all the way through that Scoot McNairy really inhabited Gordon integrally.

And thus to the reason I began to blog my thoughts on this series in the first place: while the character of Joe was not as interesting by season 4 as he had been in season 1, Lee Pace was always interesting, always magnetic, always giving Joe an interesting emotional cast, even the episode I liked the least (8). Even there, Pace gives one of the better performances of season 4 as someone who just cannot deal with what he is feeling.

And in that light: Here’s an interesting and revealing interview with Lee Pace. Goodbye, Mr. Pace. I wish you well.

~ by Servetus on October 19, 2017.

16 Responses to “Goodbye to a collateral attraction: Halt and Catch Fire season 4”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the link to the Pace interview!
    Like you I didn’t like the end re Donna and Cam but all in all I think the season was a dignified ending for the show

    • Yeah — it felt like Donna got out of the marriage that worked most of the time (Gordon) only to end up in a bad marriage that was never going to end (Cameron).

      This show was, on the whole, really well written.

      • Maybe she’ll needs somehing familiar in her life no matter the consequences.
        Yes, it sure was! I really liked Joes empty flat for example. It was so typical Joe and Cameron’s face when she opened the door was hilarious!

        • yeah, that was a great scene (as with the scenes throughout that showed his displeasure with her Airstream trailer). I also thought the remark about how Joe had a particular way to wash the dishes was hilarious.

  2. Oh and re Lee Pace: I really am curious about the progress of his career in the next months!

    • Broadway for Angels in America — the English production transferring to the US.

      • Read this some minutes ago over at Perry’s.
        Wow, what a great opportunity for him. I saw the british production via NTlive in the cinema and loved it. But I must admitt that I can’t LP see as Joe because he is such a different type as Russell Tovey but I am sure he will be great. Man, would I love to be able to watch that!

        • Yeah — if I lived in NYC I would definitely try to get tickets. This is the kind of production that Broadway HD might pick up, though. Meanwhile, I think I’ve found a way to see the NTLive productions.

  3. I agree that the interview was interesting and revealing…Given his comments that the last five years of his life have been “complicated”, and the realisation that he is now an adult, I can’t help wondering about the relationship dynamics he had with Armitage?
    And if the gossip on DL is to be believed, it makes me wonder if he is going through a bit of a midlife (albeit early at age 38) crisis at the moment??!

    • I’m going to have a separate post on this topic soon (will be passworded), where I’d be happy to continue this discussion.

  4. Uch. I should not write at 3 a.m. Every third word here is “interesting.”

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