I finished my rewatch of (all of) Halt and Catch Fire. I blame Robin for the push. And now, rather than just emailing my three friends who definitely care, I’m writing about it online.
Halt is one of my favourite TV shows. It took me a while to realise this, the first time around: I think I actually knew that for sure around season 3 (of 4). The final season is definitely my favourite final year of a show ever.
And here’s the thing, really, I just wanted to watch season 4 again. But season 4 doesn’t taste so good without the build-up to it. Really, I was signing up to go on a journey: I wanted to ride the rollercoaster again, and I wanted the end of season four to hurt in all the ways it does, to heal in all the ways it does. I wanted to rebuild my relationships with these characters precisely to feel a specific moment of grief in all the right ways.
(That moment landed, just as well as the first time, and everything else – the joy, the kindness, the friendship, the delight of watching reconciliation – landed too).
It’s a funny show. It starts out… quite badly, wanting to tell one particular story, and the moment it starts swerving away from that, it becomes more interesting. That point isn’t the beginning of season 2, incidentally: it’s easy to hate on the messy first season, but rewatching it, it confirmed that it course-corrects fast and hard. Once Donna is brought up in the mix around S1E4 it starts showing hints of what it’ll be, and the last few episodes of season 1 – pretty much once Donna says “I’m coming with you,” and the gang drives to COMDEX, are it taking flight. The rewatch definitely confirmed you cannot pull the “Parks And Rec Manouevre” (“just start with S2”) with this show.
But: it definitely improves, and it is one of the most impressive instances of a show seemingly deciding that it wasn’t working, changing everything up, and that actually working. What worked was, of course, the ensemble. What didn’t work was The Joe MacMillan Show. But Joe is a great character – maddening, obnoxious, and then at key times, not. So his role shifts up, and new characters get the spotlight in S2 – and that shift of focus keeps happening. Throughout the run, the structure of the show and the roles played by the same characters are constantly rejigged: who has power? Who wants it? Who is satisfied? Who is unfulfilled?
It’s easy to comment on how successfully the show reinvented itself. I think, though, that the way that also happens diegetically is perhaps my favourite thing about the show.
More plainly: Halt and Catch Fire is one of my favourite dramatic depictions of change.
Drama is largely about conflict and tension, and how that can be resolved: successfully for all, or with winners and losers. Characters change (or they don’t) in order to get what they want. But Halt does something more interesting: characters also change because life happens, and it changes them. It plays out over about 12 years, and one of my favourite things in the show is how the characters age, how they escape their old loops, how they become more themselves, and where they end up.
I get a little bit teary watching the Joe of the beginning of season 4: broken by so many things that have happened, smaller and subdued. But, quickly, it becomes clear that in some ways, he is happier and healthier. Watching him finally find ways to be happy but not at the expense of others; watching him work out how to be kind (and also watching others finally trust him, having understandably not trusted him for so long); watching his relationship with Haley, is a delight.
There’s a mirror to that in Cameron, too, who – once she escapes the lazy writing of the early episodes – takes off as a character. Cameron drives me absolutely spare for much of the show, and this is why I like the character; she is brilliant and frustrating, and the point of her character is that she cannot be one without the other. She drives me mad, and I love her nonetheless. I like seeing her win, feel for her many vulnerabilities, and hate seeing her hurt. She’s wrong (practically, but not ideologically), I think, about the inevitably terrible IPO, but I never forget Mackenzie Davies’ guttural scream when she’s voted down, and thus out of her own company. I never stopped hating that she had to feel that way.
The common thread for all the four leads is how terrible and unhealthy their relationships can be, and how much work it takes for them to even understand this, before they fix it. They think they can fix it through divorce, or estrangement, or destruction; what it takes is grief, and forgiveness, and acceptance, and time.
I rewatched because I wanted to watch the knot come undone, and then watch the characters tie it back together again. There is an unnameable pleasure in watching Joe work out how to be friends with Gordon, how deep his love for his business partner ultimately runs, after years of working together unhealthily. I love watching Cameron work out that she actually really likes Gordon as a pal when they don’t work together. I love that Cameron learns how to have the solitude and independence she knows she requires but also how not to push friends away. And I love that these are not things they earned through the twists of a few weeks that return them to where they began, but changed; I love that these are all-consuming changes, that take years to land. At the end of S4E10, it feels like so many of them are finally beginning.
And of course: it’s notable that their personal relationships reflect their work. Sat with me as I watched the end, my partner – who hasn’t really seen the show – asked if Comet was going to be another failure. And I said: “sort of, through no fault of its own. And Comet isn’t even the most successful company anybody runs during the series, or the best idea, really – but it is the healthiest, and that feels worth something“. Joe and Gordon make a place that really does work, for them, and everyone inside it, and they both learn that that perhaps beats being first, or best, or richest.
(Incidentally: I really like how the show manages to make its characters look ahead of their time and still fail. They exist in our world, but the reason you’ve never heard of them is they got beaten to the punch. All that drama in S1 trying to build a computer for the masses, a computer with personality, and getting it almost right, is neatly undercut by the moment Joe sees a pre-release Macintosh at COMDEX, and Lee Pace just sells a man seeing the thing he’s been talking about for so long made flesh, made better than he could ever have conceived, and made by somebody else.)
I’d never have put money on Halt being the show that made me feel these ways back in the dark days of a first watch of S1. Some shows are comfort-viewing because they’re about people who ultimately, feel like friends; they are nice to be with, they reassure you, any threat is short-lived. Halt is a deeper comfort, that is not always comfortable: the comfort of family. Family (the ones you have, the ones you choose, it doesn’t matter) are not always perfect, conflict is not always easily resolved, and people dear to you can still be entirely infuriating: but these feelings and conflicts are real because of how deeply they are felt. And that means that a comfort-watch about familial comfort is not always feel-good: by the end, I am watching not just to spend time with these characters I’ve come to love so deeply, but to support them; to hurt with them.
I wanted to feel all those things again, and I wanted to earn those feelings. The time-jump in NIM; the end of Who Needs A Guy; god, all of Goodwill; those moments land more because of everything invested. But most of all, like watching a plant grow, I wanted to watch people change, to be reminded that they can, and to see them learn to love themselves, because by the end, Halt and Catch Fire makes it clear exactly how hard that can be, and exactly how worth the effort to do so it is.