Halt and Catch Fire Season Finale: S3 E9 NIM and S3 E10 NeXT
Halt and Catch Fire, Season 3 Is Over (Sadness)
It has been an amazing, and too short, season.
The good news? HACF got renewed for a fourth (and final) season. So, It will be good to see our most loved dysfunctional non-nuclear family do what they do throughout one last season.
It is honestly hard to believe that the show has been renewed three times (when every time it could easily have been cancelled).
Much love to AMC for keeping the show rolling despite (mostly) low ratings (thank you for being committed to quality).
For those who paid attention, the show has been one of the most consistently great and best-written shows on television.
Sadly, as you will find out in a second, I suspect that we have seen the last of #BlueMohawkGuy. I am sad my writing has not generated more love (and maybe fan fiction) for a character that was ever present but who never got one line of dialog.
As usual, if you have not seen S3 E9 Nim or S3 E10 NeXT, stop reading now * Spoiler Alert *
The Many Machinations of Donna Emerson
Okay, NIM opens on our little dysfunctional family in 1990 or four years after the heartbreak and despair of the "You Are Not Safe" episode.
Where has everyone ended up?
* Donna (Kerry Bishe) has just been made a senior partner at Diane Gould's investment firm. As predicted here several weeks ago, she has divorced Gordon (and his beautiful house) and become one of the movers and shakers in the world of venture capital. She is now going by Donna Emerson instead of Clark.
* Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) is now running a hedge fund (or doing some kind of boutique stock market job). If you think about it, given recent events on the show, this is the perfect place for Joe to land in many ways (entirely focussed on evaluating which companies have potential while working alone). However, it seems clear that working alone is a way of protecting the world from him and himself from the world (it is a perfect place for him except that it is totally unhealthy for him emotionally).
* Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) is living in Japan and designing popular sequels to that game that she teased she might design during the last episode (You Are Not Safe) after she was voted out of Mutiny. The company producing the game is Atari. She is still married to Tom Rendon (Mark O'Brian) who works in some executive capacity for Sega.
* Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is running the network backbone that Joe was so excited about. He is still suffering from his degenerative and rare brain disease (at times needing help walking up the stairs), he has partial custody of the kids, has taken up cooking, and is trying out video dating.
* John Bosworth (Toby Huss) is living with Diane (Annabeth Gish) and is now retired. She still works and he now putters around the house and takes her sailing when she has time off. They are living together but not married.
It is probably worth revisiting how we got here.
Donna decided that she was tired of her beautiful house and her beautiful husband and decided it was time to truly make her own life. This sounds like I am being harsh, but I am not, Donna has always been one of my favorite characters on the show.
I was always sad for her being stuck in a service role when she was one of the most capable people on the show.
Ambition costs, especially when the entire framework of your life was built around sacrificing your personal ambitions on the altar of more traditional aspirations of women born in the early 60's (I am 49 now. I think Cameron and I would be about the same age when the show began in the mid-80's and Donna and Gordon would be a bit older).
One of the major themes of this season has been Donna's slow-motion realization that she had been living a lie for most of her life. That while she might act polite and kind and be willing to pretend she liked camping and wanted a traditional family, what she really wanted was to be rich, successful, valued for her genius, and pampered.
Her power-play on Mutiny had very little to do with the future of Mutiny and everything to do with announcing her own ambitions. She no longer wanted to be the den mom looking after Cameron's company. She no longer wanted to be the nice and smart little lady behind her genius husband Gordon Clark.
And she was absolutely not going to let men make decisions for her anymore.
I absolutely empathize with her (as would anyone who watched season 1).
I absolutely see where she was coming from. I am pretty sure I might have made the same decisions it all makes sense within her character arc.
I love that showrunners Cantwell and Rogers allowed her to become a multidimensional character with a complex character arc. Television is ALWAYS better when characters are allowed to move beyond binary depictions (like good/bad).
But it was still brutal.
Unfortunately, we learned that the Donna that had kept the HACF family together across several seasons never really existed. Donna is and was a much more complex character. She is and was the person who could stab her own best friend and partner in the back and the person who wants everything and everybody to be okay.
And that is really where the NIM episode starts.
Donna has just made partner, has everything she always wanted and is no longer married to Gordon (she loves Gordon, but when he cheated on her she quit being willing to make so many sacrifices for the cause of a marriage that stifled her own ambitions).
Everything is perfect, except for one thing.
Donna knows that she really did Cameron wrong. Not only did she do Cameron wrong, she destroyed Cameron's company (by forcing a vote for Cameron's ouster) when it turned out that Cameron was 100% right and she was 100% wrong (Mutiny was not ready for the IPO).
She knows her ambition overrode her best judgment. And more important, she knows she emotionally destroyed her best friend.
She wants to make amends, but an amends on her terms and that benefits her.
So, it turns out that Donna has found an idea, an idea that might be perfect for a coder of Cameron's capabilities. And since Donna has become is a mostly well-meaning, but ambitious, manipulator of people and events she tries to think of the best way to get Cameron interested in her project.
In other words, she calls Joe.
I have said several times that this is a show about a dysfunctional non-nuclear family. And, only a family member would be fully capable of this level of understanding and manipulation. I think it is pretty clear that Donna could care less about Joe but does this because:
* She knows that Cameron really loves Joe and not Tom Rendon and that the only thing that could get Cameron excited about her project would be including Joe.
* She knows that Joe really deeply loves Cameron, even if he cannot express it in any kind of healthy way.
So, even though she knows Cameron is married to another man and lives in Japan, she starts the pieces moving in order to make her amends (hegemonic as it may be) by laying a honey trap using someone she has never even liked (Joe). She calls Joe and asks him to take her proposal to Cameron at the upcoming Comdex Convention.
Joe tells her he has no interest in helping her and hangs up the phone. He doesn't even look at the proposal that she sends over the fax machine immediately after the phone conversation.
Donna assumes her plan has failed. She heads to the bar to talk to the heads of a company she is investing in and runs into Gordon (apparently for the first time socially in a long time). They clearly still have chemistry, although you can sense the deep reservoir of pain between them too.
But Donna's trap still worked, Joe goes to Comdex to see Cameron.
PIxies + Comdex = True Love?
So, Cameron is indeed at the Comdex convention enjoying her celebrity as a successful video game designer (of a game called 'Space Bike').
She looks up from signing autographs and to her surprise standing in front of her is Joe McMillan.
As always, you can see the desire, love, romantic tension and the history between them.
These are two amazing actors who are both capable of communicating a TON of information without dialog. If Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis don't really love each other in the most painful possible way, you would never know it from watching them inhabiting Joe and Cameron.
They sit on the floor on a hotel balcony and talk about life, Japan, and the suicide of Ryan. For some reason, Cameron lies about it. She says that she and Tom were on the way to Japan when they heard the news (not entirely true). But then she really helps Joe see that it was not all his fault and that he really does bring real value to the companies that he works with.
They also play a game called NIM with lighters based in understanding "NIM Sums" (the reason that the episode is called NIM). Why is this important? I suspect because, like the experts in playing the game NIM, all of these people know each other's combinations.
Anyway, after the talk, Joe and Cam end up at the Atari party, get really drunk, and dance together joyously to the Pixies. As you might imagine, they end up sleeping together (Pixies + Comdex = Sex or more specifically, "How does Lemur's skin reflect the sea?).
But before they run off to sleep together, Donna shows up at the party to talk to Cameron about "The Idea."
Cameron tells Donna (after Donna asks if she has forgotten everything) that:
"No. I think about you and me every day. And it makes me furious."
She tells Donna that she doesn't want to fix it and then leaves (to have sex with Joe).
But...the next morning...there she is at Donna's door.
We don't really see much of (any of) the discussion but apparently the discussion went well (they meet up back at the "old" Mutiny offices at the beginning of Episode 10).
I Can Barely Taste The Sh*t In Your Spaghetti
Most of episode 9 is juxtaposed between what is happening between Joe and Cameron and a "day in the life" of Gordon who has his daughter Joanie (Kathryn Newton) for the weekend.
It starts at the random bar meeting between Donna and Gordon when Gordon's "date" Michelle (who as we find out later works for Gordon) walks up and is introduced to Donna. The meeting is unsurprisingly chilly.
Later, Gordon is at home and his daughter (who a week ago was tiny and now is in high school) Joanie has apparently hit the "terrible teens." First, she shames him by playing his "video dating" VHS tape loudly so he knows she is watching it.
She asks him to take her to a party at Diane's house, but he knows an adult will not be present, so she loses it on him and goes to her room during this fight, he mentions that he has his date Michelle coming over for dinner.
Joanie takes out her teen angst on both Michelle and Gordon in the most brutal and painful to watch manner. Poor Gordon, Joanie talks about how the Japanese wording on her shirt translates as "Boy Swords" or as she puts it "dicks" (I think the subtext here is that Cameron sent it to her and probably also the Shonen Knife tape she is listening to later).
Once they start to eat the bolognese sauce Joanie suggests she has just become a vegetarian and meat is covered in E Coli.
Later, just to really destroy everything nice that poor Gordon tried to build, Joanie puts Gordon's video dating tape in again....but while a woman is talking about what she wants (it might have even been Michelle).
That is all Michelle can take, she leaves in a huff (and doesn't seem particular thrilled with Gordon as she leaves).
I think this set of long scenes demonstrates the costs of Gordon's infidelity and of Donna's choice to divorce Gordon through Joanie's behavior. In addition, it shows that while Gordon has had some personal growth, he is still sick and clearly lonely.
There is a scene during E10 (NeXt) where Donna comes over and Gordon makes her a dinner which seems fun and lighthearted (bookending the dinner with Michelle). Unfortunately, Donna opens up and suggests almost directly that she might be interested in having sex with him (through barely coded language) and not only does Gordon shoot her down he also suggests that she should start dating one of his colleagues.
Have I mentioned that they all know how to hurt each other?
CERN + NeXT + Google "Oh My"
You could sum up the entirety of E10 NeXT with just the picture above (In a sense, it sums up a great deal of the series by the look on Joe's face).
Let's get the MacGuffin out of the way quickly.
Donna thinks the internet could become integrated (into the internet we know and use so seamlessly today). She thinks Gordon's network backbone combined with the brain and programming power between herself, Gordon, Joe, and Cameron can figure out how to create the future of connectivity.
Eventually, they figure out that what they need is to be the gateway between the internet and people, aka a door, aka a browser (Netscape maybe?).
Joe, on his own initiative, went to Europe and learned all about the new HTML programming language (oh how far we have come) and HTTP protocols.
Basically, "the team" all eventually agree that they should build a door. As Joe says, if you own the preferred door, you can charge people to enter that door.
Most of the important things that happen have virtually nothing to do with that, but it does foreground where they are likely to be at the start of next season (I guess they are basically building the first "good" internet browser - someone who is more tech savvy can correct me on this).
But what really happens, and where will we be at the start of next season with these characters?
* Joe, in a return to the manipulative form he showed throughout the early seasons, takes advantage of his very first opportunity to take Tom aside and let him know exactly what happened between him and Cameron at Comdex.
After Tom tells him he looks so much better, Joe says, "I have been much better since 're-connecting' with Cameron. This message sends Tom into a frenzy (because he has to know that he is nowhere near as cool or magnetic as Joe and because Joe is smarter than Tom).
In a jealous rage, Tom starts searching Cameron's computer (and gets caught but doesn't admit what he has done at first). Later Tom and Joe get into one of the weakest fights you have ever seen but which resulted in Joe falling through the floor and falling to the basement of Mutiny (fracturing his wrist).
In fairness, Tom did precipitate the fight by saying that he was fighting with Joe because he didn't want to see Cameron end up like Ryan.
As Joe planned, by the end of the episode, Cameron, while still technically "with" Tom has chosen to stay at Mutiny working on the new browser idea with Joe (and Gordon) instead of going with Tom to visit his family etc.
I will predict now that Tom and Cameron are over and that while Tom may show up at the beginning of next season, I would not be surprised at all if he is already gone.
One thing that should be noted, this was manufactured by Joe in a return to his machiavellian ways from seasons one and two.
* Cameron spends most of the episode agreeing with Joe and distancing herself from Tom without ever honestly admitting to him what she has done to him (cheated on him with Joe). There is a telling scene where Tom comes clean with Cameron about searching her computer and being less than proud of his behaviors with Joe. Again, Cameron does not tell him.
Worse yet, Cameron gives Tom the "reassuring" long kiss when he says goodbye. As if to say "you have nothing to worry about honey."
Tom is toast.
* Gordon is back where he likes to be, working on building new technology with Joe. He is still estranged from Donna and clearly is not in the best of health but he seems happy with the new arrangements and the new company.
* John Bosworth is retired and seems about as happy as unhappy can be. He manages to seem like both a kept man and a kept man who is haunted by his past. I think this is less a reflection on his relationship with Diane than on his demons back in Texas.
Nobody needs a success on his own terms and a reconciliation with his family more than John Bosworth. If there is one complaint I have about the finale it is that Bos gets so little time when he was a pretty important part of the plot.
* If there was a villain of Season 3 it was Donna Emerson. Last week Donna get exactly what she wanted and saw it all explode in her face. This week, she attempts to put everything right with Cameron (literally bringing the entire gang back together) only to see it all go horribly awry anyway.
See, after all of the drama between Joe and Tom, even though she likely knew from the beginning that she needed Joe to keep Cameron on board, when she misreads Cameron she immediately suggests that Joe doesn't have to be part of the team. She tells Cameron that,"if Joe is a problem for you, he doesn't have to be here, we can get rid of him."
Later in the episode, Cameron responds by telling Donna that:
"I can't work with you"
and followed that statement up with,
"I almost did forget last night when we talked, when it felt good, when I was with my friend again. And then you reminded me how easily you toss people aside when you feel like they're in your way."
Donna tells Cameron that she should take the project for herself then goes right to her car and starts crying (because what Cameron said was 100% true).
The episode ends with Joe, Cameron, and Gordon working together and Donna calling CERN to either get the rights for the program to go down or to screw it up for everyone else. Regardless of which side she is taking, it seems pretty clear that Donna got everything she dreamed of but lost her friends and, in a sense, her family.
I would be lying if I didn't say this feels wrong to me. Donna certainly made some selfish choices and we have learned that she is much more ruthless than I suspect she even knew. But, the truth is that all of these people...all of them...Bos, Donna, Gordon, Cameron, and Joe...really do love each other.
It is my hope, that when all the drama ends, and the curtain is finally about to fall forever at the end of season 4, that all five of them finally learn how to "take care of each other."
RIP Ryan Ray (I feel like I actually knew you).
It is almost anticlimactic to have a two-hour finale after an episode as moving as "You Are Not Safe" was. I would say that despite this, NIM was an incredible episode and NeXt was a better than average episode of HACF.
We were really lucky, as IMHO this entire season was really strong. Congratulations to all of the writers, directors, music curators, and to the amazing cast.
Halt and Catch Fire was the first television show I ever wrote about. Since I wrote that very first post I have written complete season recaps of HBO's Vinyl, HBO's Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, (and I am starting my first season recapping The Flash on The CW).
I have made so many friends in my discussions here, on Twitter, and on Reddit because of writing these posts about HACF. Thank you so much for all the kind words you have sent my way and for all of the great discussions about the show.
I hope you will read my other recaps, check out my music posts and playlists, and come back next year for the final season of Halt and Catch Fire!
Thanks so much for making this so fun for me!