Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW: 'Halt and Catch Fire' - Donna, Cameron and Joe Try to Figure Out Their Futures in 'Search' & 'Ten of Swords'

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire - Episodes 4.09 "Search" and 4.10 "Ten of Swords"

Donna celebrates a milestone with her closest allies. Cameron contemplates saying goodbye. Joe confronts an uncertain future.

Joe has always operated under the belief that "computers aren't the thing. They are the thing that gets us to the thing." That's the phrase that made him seem like a visionary in this industry. It's what allowed everyone to follow him as they dove into the unknown. When Joe first met Cameron, Gordon, Donna and Bos, it was all just an abstract idea. Joe could see it on the horizon but had no idea what was coming next. He always believed he could but the series has proven that his vision is more limited than that. This season has made it seem like the series has actually gotten to the thing that Joe promised all those years ago. The internet has arrived and is bringing people together. It's forging these new connections that have the potential to radically change the entire world. The future has arrived. And everyone wants a seat at the table. They want to be at the forefront of innovation. They are obsessed with creating the next big thing that will revolutionize the way people use the internet. It's Joe finally delivering on his grand promise. He's now behind a successful company that is helping the search functionality of the internet. Comet is a unique site with a distinct voice that also gives the customer unlimited access to everything the internet can offer. It's an exciting time for the company even though Gordon has died. Joe had the time to mourn his passing. Now, he's focusing on reinventing the company. It's the reinvention they talked about before the tragedy occurred. But now, the show is revealing that this belief and phrase may not be as all knowing or powerful as Joe has believed for all of these years. Right now, his life is just repeating the same pattern over and over again without any hope of it being any better in the future.

The internet is changing. The operating systems are becoming obsolete with a new version set to hit the marketplace soon. Comet needs to be ready to make that transition in order to stay relevant in this new era of the internet. Joe has the vision to ensure its stability in the industry. He's working closely with Cameron to make Comet the best possible version of its self. She has the connection to get a beta version of the new operating system. But that version only reveals that Comet is already poised to be obsolete too. Yahoo has arrived and will be the company to make the internet searchable. It's such a crushing reveal for the characters. This entire season has seen the two companies battling it out for control in this industry. Both Comet and Rover believed they would be the company that would forever change how the internet is accessed. And now, Rover is being sold for parts. It's going back to its original mission of being a company for cataloging medical information. Meanwhile, Comet is just done. This company brought Joe and Gordon so much love. It was a company they were both excited to work at. And now, it's finished. It's gone down just like all of the previous companies in this series. It makes it clear that these characters all continue to hope for the best even if they know that whatever comes next will only be successful for a limited time. It feels good to be relevant. But this is a vicious industry where another company is just ready and waiting to swoop in and take over.

All of this proves to be so destructive to the actual relationships between the characters. Last week they were able to come together because they were all grieving Gordon's death. They could rely on each other and connect with each other because they all understood what they were going through. Gordon was an important fixture in all of their lives. And now, he's gone. Those connections are still present. They still feel the pull to be in each other's lives and connect with all the change. Cameron knew that things were bound to end between her and Joe. And yet, she stays with him for a long time. She's trying to help him make Comet work. She's able to rely on her partnership with Alexa to get the new operating system. But none of this saves the relationships from falling apart. She's there in the moment when Joe discovers the grim fate for his company. He was so excited about the future because of the commercial he has just made honoring Gordon's legacy. But that commercial may have cost him his relationship with Haley. But there's also no saving the company. It's going down. And no matter what Joe and Cameron do, their relationship will meet the same fate. They understand the devastation that has just hit them. This is familiar territory for them. But they honestly believed that a successful future was still possible. And now, it's not. They can no longer deny what's actually going on between them. They just need to accept that it's over.

Meanwhile, Donna needs to make a decision about her future. Four months have gone by in between episodes. Joanie has figured out a plan for her life. It just includes her going away to Thailand to explore the world. It's the typical story of a mother struggling to let go of their child as they plan on leaving the nest. And yet, it's such a gripping story as well. This entire finale is essentially about these characters needing to pick themselves up and continue living following tragedy. Joanie is doing that. She's seeing the world. She has the confidence to do so. She's completely free which is such an admirable quality to Donna and Haley. Donna is just spending each day swimming in her pool. She's avoiding having to make the big decision about her life. Diane is getting angsty about moving on from her job as managing partner. She's stayed on because she wants Donna to replace her but Donna needed time to be with the girls after Gordon's death. But even now, it's scary for Donna to actually pick herself up and go back to work. It's a huge decision to make. Diane is perfectly comfortable having the conversation no matter which way it goes. But that conversation needs to happen because her family is moving on and wants to experience more in this life than this job. There's even some uncertainty over whether Donna will actually take it because she feels the need to get her hands on machines again. She wants to enjoy being an engineer once more even though that profession is seemingly becoming obsolete to her. She makes the decision to replace Diane. It's a fulfilling moment for her as well.

This entire season has focused on how poorly Donna has been doing all by herself. She got power at this firm. She has put things into motion that made an immediate impact. But it was lonely and isolating. She truly did struggle. And now, she has to pull herself out of that without the support system she has always known. She has to find a new way to cope. That solution presents itself through a familiar friendship. Donna and Cameron's split from Mutiny was such a visceral moment in the show. The two of them have finally come together once more. Both of them are uncertain of the future. Past business opportunities haven't panned out when they first seemed so promising. Donna has a really interesting vision for the firm that Diane responds positively towards. Meanwhile, Cameron is at a loss once more. She's once again back at the airstream failing to connect with a world that doesn't seem like it's willing to connect with her. That could be her struggle for the rest of her life. She's a genius. But her ideas aren't always popular or easily understood. Sometimes the only other person in the world who gets it is Donna. Cameron thought she had that relationship with Alexa. But that just wasn't true at all. It has always been Donna. And now, the two of them can have an honest and open conversation. The walls have come down and things are genuine between them once more. Of course, Cameron has news that she's going on a road trip and possibly seeing her mother. That's the big decision she has come to. That's the life she envisions for herself at the moment. She just wants to be free and open to wherever the road may take her. She knows it may end up in Florida with her mom. That's tenuous because of their bad history. But it seems like a firm decision she has made.

And then, Cameron makes yet another impulse suggestion. She wants to know if Donna would be interested in working together once more. The fear of it destroying their friendship again is very palpable. They missed each other in their lives. They don't want to lose that again. But they are also much more creative when they are working together. They understand the other. That's precious and they need to hold onto that. Of course, that may not ultimately be enough. They aren't able to retrieve the information on Haley's computer after it has been damaged. Haley has a big reaction to that before seeing it as a potential blessing to completely start over. In the end, Haley's struggle with her sexual identity is still ongoing with Cameron and Donna being able to agree that she is gay and that's amazing. It's so empowering and special to see. It ensures that this family dynamic will be strong despite how often it changes. Change is a consistent feature. The show ultimately positions the tech industry as a business of change and evolution. Donna's big speech to a crowd full of women in the industry is both uplifting and tragic. She hopes that her daughters won't have to feel this way when they are her age. The audience has the knowledge that that's simply not true. In many ways, it is still difficult for women in this field. But it's also a rousing moment played for this specific time. Donna has grown so much as a person across these four seasons. Now, she is the one in charge. She can make change. But she's just as surprised about the perils of this industry as everyone else. She can fail too. She wants to send a message of empowerment for other women in this industry. She's ready and willing to work with Cameron again. They have no idea what their future company will be. It's so fascinating to see them imagine the future. It's a complete lifetime of story told in one intimate setting between them. They can just think about the life and death of Phoenix. It will play out just like all of the other companies that have operated throughout the series. But they remain hopeful that it won't ultimately destroy their friendship.

As Donna points out in her grand speech, "the project gets us to the people." It's a sentiment that highlights how the most important thing of this industry is how it forms connections with actual people. In so many different ways, it's both good and bad for human connection. Every piece of information is out there waiting to be discovered and learned. So many different connections can form just with a click. That's ultimately the most important thing. Donna could stand up on stage and talk about the successes and failures in this industry. But it's more important to talk about the people we've met along the way. That's the more enriching experience. It may spark the idea for Cameron and Donna's next project. I have to imagine that it's a new version of Community. Donna is looking around a random diner when inspiration strikes. The show plays it ambivalently because it has already imagined their future together no matter what the idea is. Meanwhile, the show sets up the expectation that Joe has abandoned all of his friends once more to return to his starting ground at IBM. He's missing for a good chuck of the series finale. He's disappeared like he has done so many times. There's the constant belief that he has changed that is then hit with the realization that he hasn't. But it's also some remarkable growth to see him return to his hometown willing to teach the next generation. That's a spark he got from Haley. He's had so much success in Silicon Valley. But he only sees his life as defined by the defeats. This is a radical change for him. It's a nice full circle moment as well. Joe starts his class by asking a question. The audience doesn't hear that final piece of dialogue. But it shows the circular pattern of this story. The people and places may change. But the need for human connection will forever remain constant. That's just so absolutely beautiful and a perfect way to end the series.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Search" was written by Mark Lafferty and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer.
  • "Ten of Swords" was written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Karyn Kusama.
  • Bos is given a clean bill of health by his doctor. That's such a relief. This season has been shrouded by death. So, it's so rewarding to see one character make a full recovery after a heart attack. Of course, he's more fascinated about the prospects of the 21st century. Meanwhile, Diane is just overwhelmed with joy and happiness by the good news.
  • It's fascinating that the show doesn't really do the cliche, coming out story with Haley. Her sexual identity is something that most everyone is aware of at the moment. The show does comment on it. It's great that Cameron and Donna can figure it out on their own without needing to be told like Gordon was. Everyone is perfectly fine with it as well. But Haley doesn't know any of that which is a tad tragic even though it's clear that she'll have better days ahead of her.
  • It's just so heartbreaking to see Haley take a risk on love by asking out her crush at the restaurant and be completely rejected. It's a scene defined entirely by her awkwardness. It doesn't really matter what the other girl says. It's just important that Haley leaves in tears and then represses these feelings down and tries having a boyfriend for awhile who isn't compatible with her at all. And yet, it's uplifting that she has her father's tapes to help her remain calm and focused as well.
  • Joanie doesn't like her mother at all when she is saying goodbye at the airport. It's a nice, moving moment when she hugs Haley and tells her about the driver's license. But it's a moment of contention with Donna because she doesn't want her to go. But the two of them get such a genuine moment of bonding later on when Joanie shares a story about this profound experience she has had that has brought her closer to her father once more.
  • Carol Kane shows up and plays a fortune teller Joe just decides to see as he is trying to figure out his life. That's just so completely random. And yet, it's the precise kind of thing that Joe would find profound meaning in. He can see through her charade pretty easily. She's not really saying anything specific. But he is inspired by what the card depicting his future represents. It lands on his desk at the school alongside pictures of all the other people he love. He may not love them enough to let them into his new life but that love is still very present.
  • What was the more rewarding or surprising callback in this finale? Was it Joe just randomly bumping into Dale Butler from IBM on the street after he unknowingly walks into traffic? Or is it Bos discovering an old product from Cardiff in the box of junk from Diane's ex-husband? I would say the later because it actually has personal significance for the character. It can take Bos and Donna right back to the people they were all those years ago.
  • That's a wrap for Halt and Catch Fire. This was such a strong, beautiful and visceral show. It's a miracle that we got four seasons at all. And yet, I need to thank AMC for standing by this show all these years despite the low ratings. The quality was just so strong. It's a show that will reward rewatching and being discovered throughout the years. I can't wait for people to discover this show and marvel at how great this cast and creative team were.