Halt & Catch Fire Review: “Heaven is a Place”

(Episode 2.10)

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<i>Halt & Catch Fire</i> Review: &#8220;Heaven is a Place&#8221;

“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”—Talking Heads, “Heaven”

It’s fitting that the Season Two finale of Halt & Catch Fire takes its namesake from this famed Talking Heads song, as this David Byrne/Jerry Harrison composition about finding beauty and contentment in ennui perfectly embodies the essence of the season’s final installment. Like the song, “Heaven is a Place” marks a period of reflection and reconstruction following the proverbial wrecking ball that was last week’s “Kali” (if we’re really stretching the comparisons here, the song’s placement on Fear of Music also comes as a palate cleanser, after the frenzied momentum of tracks like “Cities” and “Life in Wartime,” so there’s food for thought). Adopting the model most commonly associated with Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, Halt’s penultimate episode signaled the season’s massive game-changer while the actual finale emerges as a means of dealing with the widespread ramifications of the previous hour. As such, “Heaven is a Place” is not the barnburner that “Kali” was. That’s also why “Heaven” is the perfect companion—it may not be “Life During Wartime,” but there’s something to be said for its quiet brilliance.

Then again, maybe the creative team just meant that “heaven is a place on earth” and I’m underestimating the appeal of Belinda Carlisle (given the Talking Heads song soundtracks the hour’s final moments, however, I’m sticking with that train of thought).

Predictably, the episode opens with the world in disarray. As a result of the Sonaris infestation, Westgroup stock prices are down and they’ve lost nearly six million in assets. In order to save face, Jacob Wheeler accepts his role as scapegoat and resigns in disgrace. Interestingly enough, while waiting to sign the final papers in his inevitable divorce, Joe comes upon this info via a magazine along with another periodical proclaiming the “Fall of Steve Jobs.” Such is the vortex Joe now finds himself in—even the idealized model for his entire life has been stripped of his empire.

Meanwhile, Cameron and Donna are working hard to keep their company’s momentum going. Having sacrificed so much, Cameron remains paranoid that their newest network partner will pull the same crap as Westgroup. She’s convinced that as long as they are dependent on another entity for their mainframe, they will never “be in the driver’s seat.” From here, she throws herself headfirst into uncovering an independent means of securing the company’s own mainframe. Later, she stumbles upon the idea of moving the company to California. What would have been a joke several weeks ago, however, becomes a more than viable option by episode’s end, especially given that every character finds themselves in need of a fresh start.

While Cameron looks to the future, Joe is stuck digging for the bottom of his personalized abyss. With his divorce finalized and no company willing to hire him, he has become more of a pariah than ever before. Despondent, he attempts to put on a happy face to say goodbye to Gordon, but even the socially challenged engineer can recognize his pain. As a quasi-penance for his wife’s part in the Sonaris debacle, Gordon provides Joe with an “antidote” for the program called, subtlety be damned, “Tabula Rasa.”

Gordon’s connection with Joe is all the more understandable given that the past few months have also made him feel as though life is collapsing around him. If the episode has anything approaching a major highlight, it’s the long-awaited confrontation scenes between Donna and Gordon. Much like the rest of the episode, these clashes are notable in how relatively muted they feel. Sure, there are raised voices at one point, but it’s nowhere near the histrionics-ridden melodrama one would expect from your standard TV couple argument. Indeed, director Phil Abraham, no doubt reaching into his bowl of Mad Men tricks, communicates much of the discord between the couple in a very visual-based manner. For the first part of the scene, the two are shown to be so disconnected that they never even make direct contact. Rather, many of their exchanges are staged so that the two are calling out to each other from different parts of the room, their bodies framed together only through the prism of a disorientating mirror. Later, after Gordon admits his infidelity and their daughter Joanie runs away upon overhearing their argument, the scene concludes with the two looking over at each from across a long hallway. Their emotional distance has become literal.

As great as this scene works, however, it does lead to the only major bump in an otherwise fantastic episode—specifically, the well-worn trope of the estranged parents being brought together by a missing child. Clichés aside, this direction could have been much more impactful if we had even spent a bit more time with the Clark children this season. Instead, whether because of child labor laws or just lack of real estate, they’ve been quite the evanescent presence this year, appearing sporadically when needed, only to disappear for long stretches at a time.

That being said, this subplot also sets the stage for yet another fantastic Gordon-Donna interaction. Following a frantic search for their daughter, the family finally realizes that she has merely taken up residence in the backdoor clubhouse. The parents sit down with their child and, after she asks if they’re getting a divorce, Donna gives the typical spiel of “we still love each, but we need to talk some things over.” Once their daughter has left the area—leaving Donna and Gordon alone in the clubhouse—the real talk begins. Donna lays out her demands: the family will relocate to California where Gordon will take a job working for Mutiny. Here, the decision to set this pivotal encounter in a child’s clubhouse proves especially affecting, with the environment again reflecting the interior lives of the character. Just as they both feel trapped in their current situation, the clubhouse, given its miniature settings and minimal space, creates a perfect visual metaphor for their shared claustrophobia.

As Donna and Gordon attempt to collect the pieces of their broken relationship, Joe makes a big stride in his own life. Inspired by the Sonaris antidote that Gordon provided him, he makes a pitch for a new sort of service—anti-virus software. Unfortunately, Joe is dismayed to discover that he’ll have to enjoy his latest victory alone since Gordon turns down a partnership offer in favor of Mutiny and salvaging his marriage.

The episode’s coda begins months later, with the Mutiny team prepping for their cross-country move to California. As a last ditch effort to rectify her relationship, Cameron provides Tom with a ticket and offers him the chance to accompany them. Unfortunately, by the time all of Mutiny personnel have boarded the plane (including Bosworth, demonstrating a somewhat undeveloped change-of-heart), Tom is nowhere to be found.

Finally, in what amounts to one last possible tease for a Season Three, Gordon learns that not only has Joe made bank on his anti-virus idea, but he’s already relocated to California and will be waiting for them there. What’s more, after a season of trying to be a compassionate person, it’s no more mister nice guy for Joe MacMillan. Thus, the season ends with the image of Joe overlooking the San Francisco city lights from atop his newly purchased office—the empty space around him reflecting his rediscovered cold, loner status.

And so, for the second year in a row, we wave goodbye to the Halt & Catch Fire world without knowing whether or not we’ll ever get visit it again. It’s the kind of situation that makes you savor every bit of dialogue and every unspoken emotional exchange, as you don’t know if this will truly be the last time you’ll get to spend time with these characters. Ultimately, much like last year’s de facto finale, “Heaven is a Place” works effectively as both a season finale and potential series closer. It ties certain stories up with a nice big bow, while leaving a good deal of doors ever so slightly ajar (apologies for the mixed metaphors there).

As I’ve relayed on multiple occasions, watching Halt & Catch Fire has been a unique experience as a TV reviewer. Over the course of two years, I’ve effectively evolved from being an intrigued viewer, to a reluctant watcher, to a casual fan, before finally evolving into a full-fledged acolyte. Halt’s journey from promising, if flawed newcomer to must-watch TV represents the thing I love most about the TV medium—the ability of shows to continually evolve as they go. Much like inventors and innovators at its center, Halt was always a program hell-bent on reinventing and upgrading to the best of its ability. In doing so, it proved to be one of TV’s most unexpected success stories.

For now, I wish the cast and crew Halt & Catch Fire goodbye and good luck. You done good.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.