This essay is part of Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the series finale of the beloved tech industry series Halt and Catch Fire.
Few things in life feel more painful than starting from scratch. Moving. Divorcing. Losing a loved one or a job. Hell, even losing unsaved work is enough to throw a person into turmoil. The uncomfortable push of reinvention is where the early tech industry drama Halt and Catch Fire thrives. The series is in love with newness, and it makes us fall for it, too. Never is its message of constant change as clear-eyed and beautiful as in the show’s series finale, “Ten of Swords.”
Across its four seasons, Halt and Catch Fire thrives on change and challenge nearly as much as its ambitious, tech-minded protagonists do. At the outset, the series is about Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace), a Don Draper knockoff who wants to sell America its technological future. The show quickly pivots into something more original, becoming an ensemble drama with an endearing cast of characters. They include coder couple Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), tech prodigy Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), and industry elder Bos (Toby Huss). Even when it hits creative pay dirt, the show never stops evolving.
By “Ten of Swords,” Joe is no longer the center of narrative attention. He’s now a complicated and mostly loveable figure. Early in the episode, he visits a sham palm reader who tells him his future involves destruction, but also a golden sliver of hope. Just before the credits roll, he reinvents himself not as a salesman, but as a professor. He doesn’t get much screen time in the Halt and Catch Fire finale, but that feels right. He’s not the future of tech, and for the first time in a decade, he doesn’t want to be.
The catalyst for the series’ graceful final bow comes mid-way through the episode when teenager Haley Clark (Susanna Skaggs) loses a computer file. She recently lost her dad, Gordon, in an eleventh-hour surprise that gave the series’ last stretch of episodes a somber air. Her emotions linger just beneath the surface of her eye-rolling exterior. When she finds out she can’t open an important project on her computer, she screams. Donna, her mother, tells Haley to go cool off at the movies while she and Cameron handle it.
Halt and Catch Fire’s story begins in 1983 and ends in 1994. By now, Cameron and Donna have history. Bloody, battle-worn history. They’ve made and ruined companies together. They’ve pushed the industry forward but have pushed each other away in the process. Now, with the simple task of file recovery on their hands, the pair are united in purpose for the first time in years. Cameron is restless after a recent failed business venture, and while they work on the hard drive, she drops a proposal on Donna. Maybe they could work together again, she says, in the heat of the geek moment. There’s a beat of awkward sweetness, then Cameron self-consciously waves away her own idea before Donna has a chance to say no.
This could have been the end for Donna and Cameron. A tentative truce and a fragile friendship would be enough resolution for viewers to sleep at night. But series creators and episode writers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers recognize the creative magic of these two women and give them a sendoff to match. Cameron stays at the house for an event Donna is putting on for women in tech. At the end of the evening, Donna gives a speech. She toasts to “the you that’s never satisfied with what you just did — because you’re obsessed with whatever is next.”
It’s a surprisingly touching moment, one that’s elevated beyond the scope of corporate feminism by Bishé’s gravitas as a performer. “The one constant is this: it’s you, it’s us,” Donna says. Finally, she thanks the people who have impacted her, calling Cameron her “last and best partner.” In many ways, the entire speech is a love letter to Cameron, a delayed response to her impulsive earlier question. Cameron, acting very on-brand, responds by tripping into a nearby swimming pool.
When Halt and Catch Fire ended in 2017, I listed the finale’s penultimate scene among my favorites of the year. In retrospect, one that came before it is even better. On a whim, Cameron and Donna decide to leave the party and sneak into the headquarters of their old company, Mutiny, an energetic start-up that eventually failed. Later, its space was occupied by Joe and Gordon’s business, Comet. That, too, went the way of all things, put out of business by none other than Yahoo!. Halt and Catch Fire may take place in the crux of boom and bust capitalism, but its ideas of growth and decay are wholly organic. This place is imbued with humanity. It’s a graveyard for good ideas.
Cameron and Donna walk through the darkened building as episode director Karyn Kusama beautifully utilizes the empty but emotion-laden space. The women reminisce about the times they shared there. The enthusiasm, but the disillusionment, too. They catch each other up on the status of their former staff members, who have become teachers, parents, and porn site magnates. Then their voices soften. “What would it be if we were to do it all over again?” Donna asks Cameron. “I’m out of ideas,” she answers plainly. But after a moment’s thought, she says they’d call their company Phoenix.
You can see in Cameron’s eyes how much she loves this idea, and her love lights up a neon sign behind her with the imagined company’s logo. Together, the two women daydream about what Phoenix would be like, making up memories about a company that never was. It’s a scene of great heartache, grounded not by an impossible romantic love, but by an impossible creative partnership. When Cameron and Donna talk their way to the inevitable end of the theoretical company, the imaginary sign flickers out. “Hey,” Cameron says, turning to Donna with tears in her voice. “It was a pleasure working with you at Phoenix.” Rarely if ever has a creative partnership been shown onscreen with such tenderness.
The final scene of Halt and Catch Fire — aside from Joe’s epilogue — is a giddy inversion of another memorable series finale. Like The Sopranos’ famous ending, it takes place in a diner. Like that mob series’ final beats, this scene in Halt and Catch Fire is also breathtakingly ambiguous. But instead of a bleak, cut-to-black curtain call, the moment shimmers with infinite positive possibilities.
It’s the day after the party. Cameron and Donna have just finished up breakfast at a diner. Cameron is going on an extended road trip, while Donna is headed back to the corporate grind. The two talk about splitting the bill, and Cameron heads outside to read her road map. After Cameron leaves the building, Donna looks around at the people in the diner — regulars, passers-by, waitresses. A look of inspiration dawns on her. She rushes from the diner, and as she reaches the truck and breathes Cameron’s name, the camera positions her with a streak of intense, colorful clouds at her back. “I have an idea,” she says. We see Mackenzie Davis’ unforgettable wide eyes, and as a slow smile spreads across her face, the camera cuts away.
Change can be shattering, but Halt and Catch Fire knows — better than any piece of art in recent memory — that it can also be thrilling. We don’t get to know what Cameron and Donna will do next, but we know they’re a pair of phoenixes, destined for perpetual rebirth. As with Haley’s school project, the pair never have exactly what they had before. But they might have something even better: a blank page.