It comes to an end with Joe (Lee Pace) back where he started, but Halt and Catch Fire’s graceful finale turns on an evening with Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cam (Mackenzie Davis). The former, now managing partner of Symphonic Ventures—a nod to the computer she and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) once failed to launch—is throwing a party for women in tech when the latter drops in on her way out of town. At first it’s fate, or chance, that keeps Cam around, attempting to recover the data from Haley’s (Susanna Skaggs) warped hard drive, but before long it’s clear that they’re together by choice: During Donna’s toast, Cam edges ever closer, and the crowd begins to disappear, as if the alternating close-ups of the series’ heroines had lifted both to another plane. It is, after four seasons of their forceful performances, after coming together and falling apart, looking back and forging ahead, the sequence for which I’ll remember Davis and Bishé’s remarkable two-step, written with such sincere affection it deserves to be quoted at length. “I hope that by the time my daughters are my age,” Donna says, surveying the faces before her from the top of a crate, “that they don’t have to have gatherings like this anymore, to remind themselves that they’re actually here”:
I’ve been in tech for 18 years. I’ve won and I’ve lost. I am a woman who voted her female partner out of her own company, the company she founded. I am a woman who lost a marriage to, among other things, this line of work. I can’t sleep at night sometimes, worrying if I’m seeing my kids enough, or if I’ve been there enough for them, or if it’s already too late. But I’ve done things. That always comes with a price, but I did them. One of the many things I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, somebody is around the next corner with a better version of it. And if that person is a man, it might not even be better. It just might get more attention. And sometimes, that person is you. The you that’s never satisfied with what you just did, because you’re obsessed with whatever is next. The one constant is this: It’s you. It’s us. The project gets us to the people. Because it’s people that got me where I am. People like Diane Gould. People like my husband and my first partner, Gordon Clark. People like my last and best partner, Cameron Howe. And for all the rest of you, I hope that tonight can be the beginning of something, so that even if we see each other across the corporate battle lines one day, that you will know that I am rooting for you. I can’t help but not. Because I am a partner by trade, and a mother and a sister by design. And I am so proud to be on this journey with you.
The beginning of something: Though they carry Halt and Catch Fire to its poignant conclusion, “Search” and “Ten of Swords” are stories of fresh starts, of steps forward, of the golden horizon that follows the storm, and in this the series reflects its own penchant for reinvention. It runs deeper than the shift from Cardiff Electric—represented here by Bos (Toby Huss) and his radio—to Mutiny—shadowing that strained dinner with Haley and Joe—to Comet and Rover—one chased out of business, the other sold for scrap. It spans more than the space from Dallas/Fort Worth to Silicon Valley, though Bos’ slangy sense of humor survived the journey intact. (“Get a little lightheaded sometimes if I shit real big” is a glorious line of dialogue.) No, the fraught relationship of beginnings and endings is built into the series’ bones, its one constant, and the finale underscores the point with a cascade of references to the past, its tendency to linger on long after we thought it was over. There’s Gordon’s presence, of course, in the commercial for Comet, in that infernal wristwatch, in the recording of his voice. There’s Haley’s old hairstyle, the broken radio, the memories of COMDEX. There’s the “parasite” insult, and “the thing that gets you to the thing.” Even the one flashback crosses time’s wires: “I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but this is the start of something,” Joe promises Gordon, remembering the origins of the miracle after its end.
Recursion is how the series’ software runs: “In order to solve the big problem, it uses the same small problem over and over as the solution to increasingly complex issues.” The term comes from the Latin recurrere, “to run back,” and in offering these memories of what’s come before, Halt and Catch Fire suggests that life is additive, not episodic—that no change, no escape, no reinvention can erase the one constant. It’s you: It’s your wins and your losses, your fears and regrets; it’s the relationship you couldn’t save and the one you still might; it’s the miracle you made, and maybe relinquished; it’s your obligations, your instincts, your heartaches, your hopes; it’s the understanding, built into the series’ bones, that there are no clean breaks, that “feeling weird is how you know you’re still here.” I suppose this is the reason Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ human-sized saga has strengthened each season, the reason the gorgeous, stirring series of episodes that cap off Halt and Catch Fire’s four-year run — “Who Needs a Guy,” “Goodwill,” “Search,” “Ten of Swords” — appear as if lifted to another plane. It is only in summation that we can calculate the series’ weight, because all of it matters, every beginning, every ending, even the middle that runs together, parts of a perfect whole.
Recursion isn’t stasis, though. Note Donna and Cameron’s matching reds after the latter tumbles into the pool, or the role reversal it appears to signal, culminating in Donna’s lovely final line: “I have an idea.” Note the newfound courage that spurs Cam to float the notion of working together, that leads Donna to confess she’s been waiting to be asked all along. Note Joanie’s (Kathryn Newton) acknowledgement that she’s more like her mother than she cares to admit, or Haley’s acceptance of the fact that she’ll have to begin her project anew. Note that Joe, returning to his first words in Halt and Catch Fire (“Let me start by asking a question”), still runs back over the proof of the life he’s lived since: Pigeon Feathers, the Giant, Cam and the Airstream, Gordon and Haley, the tarot card’s storm clouds and its golden horizon, all set to the sounds of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” with its call to “come back home.”
The finale’s most memorable image, then, is the one that reflects the convergence of beginnings and endings, the notion that the one constant—you—is formed from the whole of your experiences, layered atop one another like bands of sediment in a prehistoric canyon, expanding outward like the rings of an ancient tree. Trading sentences as equal partners, Donna and Cam imagine the start of something, and its subsequent conclusion, as the light of the Phoenix logo flickers on, then off: the first week, the Series A, the IPO; the culture, the job cuts, the eventual impasse. But in this recursion there is evolution, wisdom, more hope than heartache; in this memory of something that never existed, they write a new ending to the story they already know. The scene, set in the old Mutiny office—which rose from the ashes to become Comet, and may yet rise from the ashes again—is so quiet, so simple, so delicately drawn and deeply felt, that it demands no description; it is “just being,” as Gordon advises, and that is more than enough. For Joe and Gordon and Donna and Cameron, for Bos and Diane, for Joanie and Haley, for you, for us, all of it matters: Every win, every loss, every fear and regret, every connection made and every one broken, every company formed, every cross-country move, every chance encounter and every choice. It is only in the summation of these that we can calculate our weight, feel the weird heft by which we know we’re still here, and even then what seems an ending may be a beginning, another layer to add, another ring to grow.
“Hey, it was a pleasure working with you at Phoenix,” Cameron says, looking back and forging ahead in the same sublime moment.
“I loved every minute of it,” Donna replies.
And so have we.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.