I am the product. —Joe MacMillan, Halt and Catch Fire
You are the product. You, feeling something. —Don Draper, Mad Men
The first season of Halt and Catch Fire sets up a romance—the one that involves Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Joe (Lee Pace). Opposites attract, I suppose: In 1983, the latter, a smooth operator with plans to undercut IBM, entices the former, a frustrated engineer with a wife and two children, to create a PC to compete with the tech giant, and over the course of the next decade-plus, the two succeed, spar, fall out, fail and finally repair the damage, bearing key witness to the dawn of the Web. Though their relationship’s platonic, it resembles a marriage, growing and changing, becoming deeper, and more complex, with time; if it originates with an illicit arrangement—the pilot episode, “I/O,” features their first night together, reconstructing hardware in Gordon’s garage—the partnership emerges as a meeting of soul mates, stronger together than they are apart. When Gordon dies, near the end of the series’ fourth and final season, it’s Joe, and not his (now ex-) wife, who takes it the hardest. “I’m not… ready to do that,” he says to his friend and former colleague, Bos (Toby Huss), of fond reminiscences. I wonder if he’ll ever be ready: Some wounds never quite heal.
The second season of Halt and Catch Fire sets up another—the one that involves Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis). Opposites attract here, too: In 1985, the latter, a brash coding wunderkind, relies on the former, an ambitious hardware whiz, to shepherd their company, Mutiny, through a series of logistical challenges, and over the course of the next decade-plus, the two succeed, spar, fall out, fail and finally repair the damage, bearing key witness to each other through the lens of Cam’s latest game. Though their relationship’s platonic, it resembles a marriage, growing and changing, becoming deeper, and more complex, with time; if it originates with Gordon and Joe’s own connection—Donna’s married to Gordon, Cam’s dating Joe—the partnership emerges as a meeting of soul mates, stronger together than they are apart. When Donna betrays Cam, near the end of the series’ superb third season, it recalls the hurt feelings of an acrimonious divorce. “How many times do you need to hear that I can’t do this without you?” Cam asks her under the stars one night. I once wondered if they’d ever know the answer, though their shared grief in “Goodwill” suggests they might: Some wounds do eventually heal, even if they leave us with scars.
You see my point: In a series that’s remade itself so often it still feels like a start-up—energetic, optimistic, inventive, fresh—the enduring connections, the ones that tie together Cardiff and Mutiny and MacMillan Utility, PCs and search engines, Silicon Prairie and Silicon Valley, present and past, then and now, are those formed through work. Joe and Gordon and Donna and Cameron are meant to be in the same sense as long-separated lovers in a wartime melodrama, high-school sweethearts in a sitcom, the romantic leads in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Each pair is made up of two perfect foils, and perfect complements: Joe chases ideas and Gordon tugs on the reins; Cam focuses on the details, while Donna takes the bird’s-eye view. As in any marriage, these roles create friction—the balance of true equals is never perfect, nor could it be—but they’re rooted in profound understanding of the other person’s strengths. Joe and Gordon, Donna and Cameron: Without each other, the work is unsatisfying, full of would-haves, could-haves and might-have-beens.
As Halt and Catch Fire comes to a close, having evolved into one of the medium’s finest dramas, it’s worth relishing this decision to highlight the romance of work, of making and building as a way of being. It’s not so simple as “do what you love”—in fact, it’s the characters’ passions, their commitment to a particular idea of what their work means, that leads to their personal fractures, whether it’s Joe’s wanderlust in the waning days of Cardiff Electric, or Donna’s insistence on Mutiny’s IPO. It’s more that work, done well, is one of life’s highest satisfactions, and that said satisfaction is most enjoyable when shared: “Computers aren’t the thing,” as Joe says in the series’ very first episode. “They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” The same can be said of work, at least when it’s as fulfilling—as challenging, as maddening, as frightening, as all-consuming, as life-changing—as it is in Halt and Catch Fire. Work is the thing that gets us to the thing, and “the thing,” as I’ve written of the series’ current season, is other people.
Perhaps this is why Pilgrim, Cam’s near-impossible game, has captured my attention this season. It’s a clue—subtle, at first, then crystal clear—that the work matters not because it receives glowing reviews, or earns a fortune, or starts a revolution, but because it is, or can be, a common language. Through Pilgrim, though she’s not aware of it until Donna’s finished, Cam reaches out to repair the damage, and Donna reaches back.
“I am the product,” Joe once proclaimed, and though he delivers the line with no uncertain narcissism, his point turns out to be true. The value of the Giant, posing its questions, or of Mutiny Community, with its digital groups, or of Comet and Rover, introducing us to perfect foils and perfect complements at the far reaches of the Web, is this belief, so central to Halt and Catch Fire, that you are the product, to quote Mad Men’s Don Draper—you, feeling something. Neither series ignores the complications of this, that mixing people and profits can be combustible, and yet both, forebear and descendant, acknowledge the romance of advertising, of tech, of television, of work: That we might secret away in it something actually life-changing, and that the connections we make in the process are indeed meant to be.
The series finale of Halt and Catch Fire airs Saturday, Oct. 14 at 9 p.m. on AMC. Read Paste’s episodic reviews here.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.